Speech, a reflective and well-timed new work by Jill Magi, is quite possibly the delicate walkthrough of life that so many of us secretly wish we had.  The speaker serves as a flawlessly observant guide on a linguistic journey, giving us both foresight and hindsight as we wander along a path that is at once familiar and mysterious. Magi urges readers to analyze critically every word we see and hear, and not take any fragment of language for granted.

The book paints a landscape of diversity from the beginning, starting our walk in one location used for a variety of conventions of different purposes. One single place can transform into its own opposite depending on who controls it and what is placed there, what is removed, what is left. As our eyes stroll along the pages, we are encouraged to measure degrees of accessibility in every interaction: who is able to understand the words in the way they are presented, and who truly cares.

Sometimes we need translation from others to improve our chances of a favorable outcome in the face of encounters that we cannot process on our own. However, this leaves us open to manipulation, the riskiness of misrepresentation. Speech is how we express ourselves and form trust; Magi’s wavering journey illustrates how true agreement and disagreement are impossible without clear understanding. Her path may seem straight and narrow, words direct, but still it sheds light on the gray areas that we often cannot boldly navigate. It is difficult to weigh intention versus result, compare and contrast what people say in public versus in private.

Words are all we have to tie us to our history. We can frame the past differently depending on how we remember, record, and convey it. What do our news outlets choose to report? When violence is concentrated, does that mean that it was limited in scale or that it was purposefully focused in target? How we perceive the information presented to us, whether we blindly accept it or suspiciously question it, is equally as important as the presentation itself. The roots of social justice lie in challenging interpretations. Magi confidently walks us through.

Where we belong depends on the meaning of the word home, what our papers say. The fluidity of borders is ever flowing, based on political discourse, so that at any given time there are right/wrong and good/bad places to be and to be from. Peace and war can be swapped in a second. Who draws the borders, and what exists between the lines? Language can force us into boxes, inside which we do not really fit but have difficulty talking our way out of.

The prefix “dis-“ is repeatedly left hanging throughout the book, leaving the reader’s imagination to speculate and fill in the blank: disappointment, disinherit, discontent, the infinite words that could be placed behind those three letters. It is amazing how meaning can be drastically changed with one alphabet alteration, each letter a piece that can connect to create entirely different puzzles. In one book-length poem, Magi circulates several stories.

Magi touches on various forms of speech – written and spoken word, songs, quotes, silence, the same things said in new ways. Inflections can be dependent on political viewpoint, subtext, meaning and meaninglessness often assigned based on whose mouth or pen births the words. Magi deftly explains how race, class, sex and sexuality are ranked in our world’s radical system, at once tough and fragile. Her words invite us to reach up to the glass ceiling, knock on it, and consider carefully what doors open for us.

Keep up with Magi’s ground-breaking culture work by checking out her blog

(Nightboat Books, Poetry, 2019)

BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.