Critical Mass 9: Breathing Beauty into a Troubled World
of a flourishing writers’ community abounds in the literary entries for
Critical Mass 9, a project of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council
(SRAC) that fosters critical artistic dialogue. The variety and daring
of this year’s submissions
bespeak an arts council and a literary scene open to many genres, styles
and forms. There is a range of poems, science fiction, historical
fiction and memoir that reckons fearlessly with regional history and
writing about the pandemic. Several pieces explore spirituality and magic.
For example, one entry recalls old-time country revivals, and another
introduces a healer who carries a green cat. Cats both real and
fantastical prowl all over these works, and there are several animal
tales in the bunch.
Selecting a Best of Show was no easy task, but in the end, Julie Kane’s terrific sheaf of poems emerged as the winner. Kane’s entry skillfully draws on canonical works, as in the following allusion to T. S. Eliot: “Time to give the cat his insulin shot / I have measured out his life in insulin shots.”
(Yes, another cat.) At the same time, Kane’s verse is clearly in conversation with very recent poetry. In fact, all 10 of the poems in her entry are written in a form called the duplex, popularized by a 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Jericho Brown (himself a Shreveport native, as it turns out). The first thing one notices about Kane’s writing is her delightful wit.
“Cruising the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly,” one of her poems amusingly imagines, “is the new unsafe sex versus curbside pickup.” Kane’s sly speaker frequently avers that she will not be writing pandemic poems, thank you, even as poem after poem returns to the topic of … you guessed it: the pandemic.
This little game of apophasis is part of the fun, but don’t let the levity fool you. Just when Kane has you thinking the Covidian quotidian might not be so bad after all, she flips the humor over to reveal its sinister side:
“Remember when we used to take breathing for granted? / I hope to keep breathing ‘til funerals can happen.” This blend of humor, grief and terror brings out the blues-like resonances of the duplex form. I can’t help thinking Brown would be delighted to see a form of his making handled so beautifully by another northwest Louisiana poet.
Other outstanding entries were Kayvion Lewis’s story, “Godly Inc.”; Tiana Kennell’s story, “The Missing Ingredient”; and Kathryn Usher’s memoir, “When My Cyber Harasser Moved Next Door.” Lewis’ piece imagines the future as a spiritual wasteland in which people of means can make themselves believe in customized versions of God by having chips implanted in their brains. Kennell’s story, marked by a sure-handed prose style, is about a magical cookbook with scarily powerful recipes.
Of all the entries, Usher’s essay features the most compelling narrative material, including a haunted house, Tarzan performances and a pro rasslin’ subplot that adds an element of carnivalesque absurdism. There are several other works in the show worth mentioning, but in the interest of brevity, let’s just say the local literary scene has the upper hand on Covid and keeps on breathing beauty into a moment that needs it desperately.
Greg Brownderville is the creator of the go-show titled “Fire Bones” (www.firebones.org) and the author of three books of poetry: “A Horse with Holes in It,” “Gust” and “Deep Down in the Delta.” An associate professor of English at SMU, he directs the creative writing program and edits Southwest Review.