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                           Valley Voices:  Literary Review
                     Mississippi Valley State University
                                            12/2013

A Pocketful of Thought: A Review of James E. Cherry’s Loose Change

                                                      
 by Kimberly Mathes
 

After four published books, James E. Cherry hits his stride with Loose Change.  Cherry’s new book (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013) reveals a poet who’s been at his craft a while, shaping words and lines into thought-provoking poems:

            Loose Change

            They always want the same:
                        cigarettes, loose change, something
                        to eat and even as he called to me a second time,

                        hey! Brother,

            I dropped coins

            into the newspaper rack, found the morning headlines,

            the text, black doors against him.

The title poem reveals exactly the kind of metaphors and juxtapositions that Cherry’s poems use: basic and concrete objects serving to create a larger picture, which asks in our contemporary world what counts?

In a collection of poems about many things, including “The Worst Thing,” a poem about the use of torture against prisoners of war, Cherry’s poems also explore the racial history of the United States alongside the current condition of race in the United States.  They explore the dynamics of long-term marriage, the effects of earthquakes, and, in a series entitled “Meditations in Middle Age,” observe the aftershocks of middle age: “There is no one to carry my name across the earth” (“No. 9” 7).  Cherry’s poems are direct and unflinching, rendering some poems delightful, others sensuousness and self-effacing; while, at other times, his stanzas reveal what is burdensome and seemingly too hard to bear.   Regardless, of their effects, Cherry’s poems will make you listen, and they will make you see.

Loose Change plays on the metaphor of the book’s title, collecting disparate poems with eclectic themes into one place like a pocket of pages.  But a second metaphor also considers what happens – to our country, to our world, to our families and ourselves--when change is loosed and arrives suddenly, as it often does:

            what she has said, her words

            crystalizing in the space between us,
                        shatter into syllables around my feet.
                        “I’m going to have a baby.”    (“Space Between Us” 9-12)

 

As a whole, James E. Cherry’s poems have depth and breadth.  They, in fact, fill a deep pocket in a way that is highly satisfying.  At the same time, individual lines unfold beautifully:  “All along, it was the uniform / that straightened your backbone, bent your ear / toward the hole of slave ships chopping Atlantic waves” (“Hell Fighter” 6-8).  The sheer beauty of the horror, the sound of the chopping waves, the hovering hole of the slave ship above, moves the reader not just with authenticity and a direct voice but also with imagery and sound. 
            The poems in Loose Change explore topics of importance and influence to Cherry, like “Sweet Papa Dip,” written in the voice of Louis Armstrong himself, but the vitality of Cherry’s collection comes in the co-opting of the reader.  It doesn’t matter whether we have the same personal investments and interests as Cherry does, his poems make us care; they make what might be seemingly insignificant, like a handful of loose change, matter.
 



                              James Cherry: Here, Now

                                                            Posted on October 20, 2013 by Ahnna

                                                               (WordPress)

I had the great privilege of hearing James Cherry read at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend and meeting him afterwards. Though we were surrounded by a crowd of ardent book lovers and a medley of city sounds, I was deeply moved by how comfortably he shared the workings and introspections of his mind. As he read of a death in the family, new neighbors, and judgement in his everyday 21st century life– it was as if an old friend was simply unfolding those kinds of incidents that we’re all trying learn from. Cherry and his wife Tammy reside in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is the creator of The Griot Collective of West Tennessee, a non-profit that promotes poetry and the spoken word. He has written four books (Bending the Blues, a poetry chapbook; Honoring the Ancestors, a full collection of poems; Shadow of Light, a novel; and Still A Man and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction), and this week’s poem can be found in his newest book of poems, Loose Change.

 

           Space Between Us

             Death that has brought home my niece,

             her cousin, lost in twisted metal, broken glass

             on an interstate highway.  The house is hushed


 
             with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.

             She hops onto the counter, her shoulders hunched

             inside a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.


 
               I anticipate a change in college majors, a new job

              or even life in another city, but I’m still not hearing

              what she has said, her words


 
               crystalizing in the space between us,

               shatter into syllables around my feet.

              “I’m going to have a baby.”


 
               She is twenty and in her smile remains

              Christmas, bright early, sparkling with surprise,

              summers in Tennessee swelter


 
               satiated on Bar-B-Que and ice cream,

               living room skits performed with baby brother Niles,

               replete with costumes, props and improvisation.


 
                She explains her plans to resume school

                after the baby is born, that it’s a girl,

                that the father is close to my age, mid-forties.

 
               “Is this what you want, Lauren?”

                Her answer echoes down the hall

                to my bedroom long after


 
                 we have said goodnight.

                 I undress the moonlight, measure the pulse

                 of my wife’s breathing and lay beside her,


 
                ponder the shape of shadows on the wall

                and the wants of loved ones that rarely fit

               desires we have designed for them.
                          ____________________________________________________

I can’t help but hear Cherry’s steady, gentle voice every time I read and re-read this poem. His writing voice, much like his physical one, is strong and rich, as he describes this encounter with his niece. I am struck by how vividly I can see the scene Cherry’s described–“The house is hushed/ with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.” Perhaps there’s a grandfather clock ticking like the house’s heartbeat and the linoleum in the kitchen is cool on their feet, but it’s the “space between us,” that’s so tangible to me. Much like Lauren’s “crystallized” words, Cherry has frozen this particular night with all of its conflicting emotions: shock, naive understanding, happiness, confusion, and loving concern. This has quickly become one of my favorite poems as it is straightforward in its form, tone, and language, but quietly leaves the reader mulling over the question of how to respond when one’s desires for someone they love do not align with the actual choices that are made.

 To read more on James Cherry, visit his personal website for a list of books, interviews, reviews, etc. Use the following links for the AALBC’s feature on Cherry and Project HBW’s blog feature on Cherry’s book, Loose Change, which I highly encourage readers to purchase on Amazon.

 


 

                               Provocative Fictions                  
                                                 


                                               by Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
                                                                   Dilliard University
                                                                       May 25, 2011


QUESTION: When you read the title “YOU A BaddDDD SISTAH” in the table of contents for James E. Cherry’s Honoring the Ancestors (Third World Press, 2008), what enables you to know the poem is about Sonia Sanchez?


ANSWER: Cultural literacy and ability to read visual allusions.


Still A Man and Other Stories (Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2011), the title of James Cherry’s most recent collection of fiction, requires use of cultural literacy to discern its kinship with “The Man Who Saw the Flood.” Use of the 1938 lithograph “Negro Worker” by James L. Wells on the cover of Still a Man activates visual literacy and literary memory of “Man of All Work.” What Cherry demands of us is a signal that he writes from a position of situated necessity.

The fifteen stories in Still a Man may be addressed primarily to a generation of readers who need to explore The Black Male Handbook (2008) edited by Kevin Powell, Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (2010) by Thabiti Lewis, Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010), Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) by Reginald Dwayne Betts and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). While the lithograph may speak in a special way to older readers who treasure such films as Home of the Brave and Nothing But A Man and invite them to sample Cherry’s fictions, all readers can profit and learn much from how Cherry uses clean, surgical prose to create masculine fictions that are neither sexist nor homophobic nor overbearingly strident. The stories “Code of Honor,” “Home,” and “Missing Mama” are, for me, transparent instances of Cherry’s skill in dealing with class and gender, desire and yearning, race and homophobia, tolerance and hypocrisy ---all of these being plagues in the twenty-first century American and Western mindscapes.

Like the stories in I Got Somebody in Staunton by William Henry Lewis and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, Cherry’s stories are brutally realistic refusals to mourn what is most deplorable in life in the United States from African American male perspectives. They are, in the words of Keith Clark from Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson (2004), “diverse artistic strategies and multifaceted portraitures” which open “a discursive space for more expansive fictive and critical praxes” (9). The less-is-more aesthetic informing Still a Man compels a reader to ponder extensively.

It has been proposed in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, with reference to Cherry’s first novel Shadow of Light (2008), that he is “one of the newer voices of black detective fiction” (664). Nevertheless, in reading Cherry, one must consider as Stephen Soitos does in The Blues Detective (1996), that vernacular detection defies imprisonment in Western jails of genre. In this regard, Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, and Walter Mosley are exemplary outlaws. Cherry’s vernacular detection comes from a tradition where a simple story pulls a reader into a vortex of thematic complexity. Still a Man is a powerful book that speaks convincingly of intersectionality, of the inter- and intra-ethnic confluences wherein readers dwell.


                            JAMES E CHERRY
 
                 SHADOW OF LIGHT (Serpent's Tail)

                                     by  Peter Guttridge, London Observer



James E. Cherry is a Tennessee-based African-American poet with an
intensity in his verse which carries over into his debut novel Shadow
of Light. This unconventional look at racial tension in a backwater
Southern town is written in fervid, almost hallucinatory prose.

The narrator is the senior black cop in a backwater southern town.
When his grandmother is raped and shot by a gang of white teenagers
his desire for revenge competes with his wish to keep the lid on the
racial violence simmering in the community. Plus his own life is in
chaos: his wife has tired of his infidelities and his black power,
drug-lord nephew is keen to start the riots. Cherry, according to the
publisher's biography, had a mid-twenties "spiritual, mental and
cultural awakening" - for which, I'm guessing, read religion. Your
response to the God stuff in the novel I leave to you. For the rest,
this is an unorthodox but powerful crime novel; Cherry is a compelling
new voice in the genre.

                                          
 



      RACIAL TENSION SPARKS POLICE NIGHTMARE

                                  by Timothy Baghurst, The Arkansas Traveler
                                                                 Senior Staff Writer



                                          “Shadow of Light” by
                            James E. Cherry (Serpent’sTail, $14.95)

 

First-time writer James Cherry creates a melting pot of scenarios set in the backwaters of Tennessee.  In “Shadow of Light,” black detective Walter Robinson is called upon to solvea vile and senseless racial act.This causes the black community to threaten an outbreak of violence, and Robinson must not only catch the criminals quickly, but also quell the rising tensions within the town.  In addition to the racial atrocities, his own grandmother is brutally raped and beaten by a trio of white teenagers. Robinson also suffers from personal woes as his marriage is failing, the hostility he faces daily with his own precinct and his willingness to look the other way from time to time. 

Although this is a rather short book that can be read quickly, despite many subplots, the content is surprisingly profound and provides some thought-provoking dilemmas. Cherry has distinguished himself as a debut writer with a future.

                                              


                
                       FOREWORD MAGAZINE
 

                                                   Review by Todd Mercer
 
Praise for the pantheon of black civil rights leaders and
revolutionary figures from America and abroad fuels James E. Cherry’s
Honoring the Ancestors (Third World Press, 978-0-88378-293-4). Cherry
accurately pinpoints the murder of young Emmitt Till as the outrage
which no one could ignore, and issues a modern wake-up call for people
of conscience. “Lower Ninth Ward” illustrates the way broken promises
have of recirculating: “And it feels / as though I’ve been here
before, suspended / between a prayer and tumultuous sky waiting / to
be rescued by a government of constitutional / amendments,
reconstruction, forty acres, mules.”



 


                
              The Book Page (The L Magazine)

                                        Shadow of Light 
             James E. Cherry • Serpent’s Tail • Available now 
 
                                       By Ernest Barteldes

In Shadow of Light, Tennessee-born author James E. Cherry looks at a
long history of racial violence in the South without simply recounting
the story from the victim’s point of view. Instead, Cherry examines
issues of race and class through the minds of several characters,
including members of a gang of white teenagers who, in an attempt to
burglarize an elderly African-American woman, leave her for dead after
she has been raped and shot. As she lingers in the hospital, it is up
to Walter Robinson, an African-American homicide detective, to find
and arrest the criminals before a wave of racial violence erupts.
 
In this coming-of-age story disguised as a mystery novel, we learn of
Robinson’s past even as he finds himself ankle-deep in personal and
professional turmoil as the manhunt takes over the town. In the
meantime, he begins to question his own life as the rare middle-class
black man in a city that offers few opportunities for people of color.
Detective Robinson, we learn, went to college in the North and often
wonders about the way he was brought up, his lifestyle and his career.
Robinson appraises his own situation this way: “I’ve always worked
twice as hard, made sure I spoke proper English when I had to, and
that has only gotten me so far. When I’m off duty, my fellow officers
pull me over with some bullshit about broken taillights just to search
my vehicle. You know how many times I’ve had guns pulled on me by my
fellow officers while I’m off duty and the next day those
sonofabithches are laughing behind my back? More than I can count.”
 
It’s no easy task to write compelling social commentary that also has
an enjoyable and unpredictable plot, but Cherry more than pulls it off
here. As a character, Detective Robinson transcends stereotypes, and
the novel’s plot is filled with surprises and twists that suggest that
Shadow of Light may be the first in a series. If those potential
sequels are as good as the original, let’s hope that’s the case.


 



                          Shadow of Light


                                EMERGING FROM THE SHADOWS
                                  Race Relations, Southern  Style
Aaron Lee |  08/04/08 |  Books Review for HollywoodJesus.Com

To Kill a Mockingbird. Black Like Me. Black Boy. For decades, these
masterpieces of American literature have explored the progression (or
lack thereof) of race relations in the South.
 
A southerner himself, James E. Cherry has emerged from a mid-twenties
spiritual, mental, and cultural awakening with a story to tell.
Cherry’s narrative, Shadow of Light, explores the backwoods town of
Forrest, Tennessee. The town’s senior black cop, Walter Robinson, and
his squad investigate the brutal attack, robbery, and rape of an
elderly grandmother (known as Big Mama) by three white youngsters.
 
His grandmother.
 
Robinson’s nephew, Cebo, is the ring leader of the town’s gang, who
threatens an attack on one of the town’s white cops if Big Mama’s
attackers are not captured. Anxiety rises across the town; whites shy
away from blacks, while blacks hide out in their homes away from
whites.
 
Cherry’s writing flows for 192 pages of uninterrupted story. This is
one of those of those books that, once opened, begs not to be put
down. Having no chapter breaks enhances this flow.
 
The struggles of drugs, infidelity, racial tensions and poverty tell a
fictional story of a true America. Cherry’s spiritual awakening
presents itself throughout, but most significantly in the closing.
 
Robinson and Joe Hardegree, his white partner on the force, debate
endlessly about God and the church. Robinson is wrestling (while
mostly doubtful) about his feelings toward God. Hardegree has no
qualms about laying it all out in front of Robinson. In their closing
conversation, they cover free will, death, heaven, and salvation, with
Hardegree giving Robinson his perspective on how the world and God
live in relationship.
 
Robinson’s thoughts are laid out bluntly and honestly (language
included), not glossing over any detail of the rough life of a black
cop in a predominantly white, Southern town.
 
Shadow of Light begs to be added to the annals of race relation
literature. It is not an issue to be taken lightly, and Cherry covers
it with an honesty to be admired.

 



                New Madrid:  Journal of Contemporary Literature

                                              Summer 2009 -  Review by Roger Stanley    

                                                     Read the Review  
 

 


 

 


 

                         
                                          
                                                                                    Copyright © 2015 James E. Cherry



                            

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    Akan Symbol
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