The morning after police officers shot and killed a man in her Philadelphia neighborhood, Anna Badkhen traveled to the ocean to think about birds. According to the Greeks, she tells us in BRIGHT UNBEARABLE REALITY: Essays (187 pp., New York Review Books, paperback, $17.95), “birds tell us what is to come.”
Badkhen has spent her career documenting inequities around the world, including as a foreign correspondent who covered the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq for The San Francisco Chronicle. In her acrobatic seventh collection, longlisted for the National Book Award, she lasers her attention on the global turmoil that has expelled one in seven people from their homelands. From the Sahara to the Texas-Mexico border, with flashbacks to her native Soviet Union, Badkhen vaults in and out of events ranging from prehistoric times to the pandemic. Throughout, her references leap deftly from geology to the sculptor Roni Horn to etymology to the poet Anne Carson.
What grounds us in this daring work is Badkhen’s incandescent poetics, an augury all its own. Describing the fossilized rib cage of a hominid fossil, she notes its “thoracic vertebrae like tiny sparrows petrified in flight.” Lamenting the U.S. government’s moral failure in snatching migrant children from the arms of their parents and, in many cases, never reuniting them, she writes, “It is no wonder children vanish: It is easy to misplace someone whose future we have deemed wingless.”
Time and again, Badkhen remembers the colleague who told her that writers should help their readers “be less afraid.” Wondering if Euripides and Sophocles ever felt fear during the Peloponnesian War, she decides that their writing helps her “better articulate the sorrow, not so that I can see a path ahead but so that I can have the strength to take it.”
However daunting her terrain, Badkhen finds mercy in the “benediction” of being alive. The Afghan policeman who slings his Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder before gently covering her with a blanket. The driver who, gazing at a glittering horizon, shouts, “In the art gallery of God there is more to see.” The birds that, amid the thunderstorm, turn to face the darkening waters.
Early in Peter Orner’s STILL NO WORD FROM YOU: Notes in the Margin (302 pp., Catapult, $26), we learn that his grandfather worked in the civil defense in Fall River, Mass., during World War II, a responsibility that sent him prowling the neighborhoods late at night. If he detected even a sliver of light beneath a curtain, he would accuse the violator of “aiding and abetting the Luftwaffe by providing an opportunity, a target, a beacon.” Eighty years later, Orner continues in this hunt in a metaphorical sense — only instead of extinguishing lights, he sets every switch ablaze.
The darkest house on the block belongs to Orner’s father, a “little tomato-faced volcano in a three-piece suit” who, when Orner’s mother calls from a pay phone after getting stranded on the highway during a blizzard, asks: “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” He also writes Orner and his brother out of his will. No torch needed here; the hurt permeates the pages.
Orner is a highly lauded author whose writing, in both fiction and nonfiction, is an act of wizardry. In each of these micro-essays, he reduces the meat of his own life down to the bone, then stirs in fatty excerpts from hundreds of stories, novels and poems by writers ranging from Woolf to Rhys, Babel to Kafka. The resulting brew sometimes scalds, sometimes soothes, but always proves that literature can be a kind of sustenance. Orner buys even the books he knows he’ll never read, simply to feel their spines in his hand. He is “unmoved” when his father dies, “but when Don Quixote died, I wept.”
When trouble erupts in his own young family, he flees to a public library to read Bernadette Mayer’s book-length poem “Midwinter Day” in one sitting, “in the distant hope that it might help me become a better person.” He doesn’t really believe a book can do this, no. But “everything else I’ve tried has failed.” Even in the gloom, his notions illuminate.
Joshua Whitehead opens MAKING LOVE WITH THE LAND (218 pp., University of Minnesota, $24.95) with a warning: “Don’t expect too much from me, for I am slowly dying, and you have paid to witness this.”
The traumas this Two-Spirit, Indigenous (Ojibwe-nêhiyaw) writer has experienced are devastating: sexual assault, mental illness, abandonment, young family members struggling with suicidal ideation. But this isn’t a book about suffering or even survival. What Whitehead seeks is sovereignty — of land, body, mind and story.
His journey there is astonishing. While this award-winning author of the novel “Jonny Appleseed” and the poetry collection “Full-Metal Indigiqueer” makes his nonfiction debut with this essay collection, in truth he defies every genre. His thrillingly cerebral passages delve as deeply into academic theory as they do into ancestral visions, legends and dreams. Even his manifestoes are delivered with virtuoso aplomb, “spilling like a cup of water held in weaved basketry.”
If Whitehead demands a lot of the reader — asking us to decipher whole passages composed in Cree syllabics, for instance — it is because white settlers have already extracted so much from our First Nations. He recalls the journalist who once demanded the intimate details of Whitehead’s grandmother’s murder before scampering off with his pad and pen, leaving the author in the throes of an anxiety attack in downtown Toronto. Publishing is punishing, especially for writers of color. Yet Whitehead writes on, with fervor.
Although “I inherit a death-drive whose pedal has been soldered down since 1492,” Whitehead ultimately finds not just liberation but joy in these pages. When he lies in the grass, Whitman-like, “staring up at the Manitoban sky,” we bliss out, too. And when he takes the hand of his then-partner on the dance floor at his sister’s wedding, “two prairie queers celebrating the generosity of an accepting land and a blanket of a family” to Elton John’s “Your Song,” we cry.