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  • Necessary ApparitionsHow Contemporary Poets of Color Embrace the Supernatural to Express Radical Vulnerability
  • Aaron Coleman (bio)

Hello sliding chairs. Hello vicious whispering shadows. I'm a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable as something hanging a dozen feet in the air.

Terrance Hayes, "Black Confederate Ghost Story"

Poets of color in the United States in the twenty-first century are increasingly crafting lyric subjectivities that embrace their othered selves as embodiments of the supernatural. The lines above, which conclude Terrance Hayes's poem "Black Confederate Ghost Story" reveal, in their desire to embody the supernatural—and in this case the inexplicable—a burgeoning aesthetic trend. The supernatural inexplicability towards which Hayes aspires imbues the poem's speaker with a ghostly, enigmatic ontology that simultaneously haunts—and lives—even as it suffers—and embodies—a lynching's violence. A similar and foreboding embrace of the supernaturally inexplicable arrives at an earlier moment in the poem: "Do I believe no one among us/ was alive between 1861 and 1865?/ I do and I don't" (36). These poetic responses to racialized violence articulate the strain on positionalities that strive to encompass both desperate pain and agential possibility.

This paper intends to spark discussions toward a deeper understanding of the design and use of the supernatural among contemporary poets of color in the United States. It also contends that the supernatural, as a space of the inexplicable and the contradictory, provides unique and necessary access points into a radical vulnerability that does more than reveal defenselessness or expose shame. Contemporary poets of color are harnessing the supernatural in order to express nuanced emotions that simultaneously contain elements of dejection and despair alongside ruthlessness and rage. This simultaneity is crucial in that it allows for no over-simplified victimhood, but rather a wounded yet powerful voice that can viscerally convey emotional complexity.

Investigating literary criticism that explores the topic of the supernatural in contemporary Anglophone literature often led me toward analyses of fiction rather than poetry, and usually tended not to address the racialized social strictures of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century Anglophone West. One exception to this trend was David Mikics's essay, "Derek Walcott and Alejo Carpentier: Nature, History, and the Caribbean Writer." But most of all, I found the concerns and considerations of Stephen Slemon's 1995 essay "Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse" especially useful. While the misuse and dilution of the [End Page 54] term magical realism in the twenty-two years since these essays were included in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community cannot be denied, certain insights still contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the reasons why a range of poets of color (of different ethnicities, sexualities, and gender identities) engage valences of supernaturality that blur the readers' sense of reality and conventional interpretations of vulnerability and power. One such instance of this new applicability is found in Slemon's notes on the observations of two Canadian writers during a 1985 interview in the magazine The New Quarterly:

As Robert Kroetsch and Linda Kenyon observe, magical realism as a literary practice seems to be closely linked with a perception of "living on the margins." This doesn't mean that magic realism worms its way into all, or even most, literary texts written from marginal cultures, or that it is somehow absent from the literary archives of the imperial center [I find it interesting to note how poets of color in the United States, in the West—or minority poets within any empire—complicate the polarization of center versus margin positionalities], or that the emergence of what seem to be magic realist literary texts at a given moment in a given literary culture can be explained by any single, causal relation that ranges across literary cultures, independent of historically specific accounts of agency or of literary circulation. It does mean, however, that a structure of perception—if only in literary critical registers—dogs the practice of magical realist writing, that is, the perception that magical realism, as a socially symbolic contract, carries a residuum of resistance toward the imperial center and its totalizing systems of generic classification.


This notion of a particular "structure...


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