Big Thicket Blues by Natalie Giarratano
Sundress Publications, 2017; 89 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


Natalie Giarratano’s Big Thicket Blues is born of place and blues and anger. Righteous anger, that is, because the book confronts what we’ve brought on ourselves, how violence has darkened us and our world.

The title shows a duality or, perhaps more precisely, a cause-effect relationship within the collection. Big Thicket refers to the national preserve near her hometown where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death in 1998 by white supremacists, while the blues comes in the collection’s series of bracketed vignettes based on Lead Belly’s life and music:

[Music thick with mud
and sweat: poultice for souls
at the bottom. Scrounge.
(Wait for the river.)]

Instead of more of it, violence—experienced both personally and through speakers’ intense empathy for Byrd; Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh; the men, women, and children imprisoned in the Czech concentration camp of Terezín—begets music. This is the way Giarratano can counter life’s viciousness and offer the chance to be healed and then cleansed.

And though doubt may creep in periodically, we can’t help but see past these fears and understand how often our desire for a more perfect existence wins out in these poems, like in the seemingly pessimistic concluding sentences of “Thump (on Frenchmen Street)” that, on closer reading, turn emboldened:

            If we all had a way to make some sense of each other through hot
air and metal strings, arrangements of sound, rhythm of a life half-
remembered, oh how this train that pumps its warmth into orbit
around the tireless dark might still have hope in the ungodly things
we do to each other in it.

Finding a voice among violence is Big Thicket Blues’s terrible beauty. It’s a timely book because when life is darkest, we can’t forget how powerful words are. They can tell our beautiful and ugly stories so a life that might otherwise be forgotten can be loved, celebrated, remembered. It should be a reminder of all the good that is being done by so many different people because and in spite of violence. Giarratano refuses to allow silence to overpower narrative; she writes, she shouts, she demands us to be better than our best selves.