King’s Day has just passed, and for me, growing up in the shadow of New Orleans, that has always meant one thing: the start of Mardi Gras season. Even though the city is heavily Catholic, ours was a nonreligious home, so I had no real understanding of the ceremony actually associated with the date. I only knew our traditions—the Christmas tree came down and the King Cake came home from Randazzo’s bakery. The new issue of The Southern Review, which is also the first of our eightieth anniversary year, celebrates New Orleans, and Mardi Gras, in photographs by Oscar Creech. The cover captures the gorgeous motion of a second line parading through the city’s oak-lined streets of Uptown, and the eight-page portfolio inside highlights a range of local events from Super Sunday to Fat Tuesday. I know the world usually thinks of Mardi Gras in New Orleans as a bunch of drunk people flashing their body parts for beads in the packed French Quarter, and while it is that, it’s also so much more. What is beyond this clichéd view is what Creech gives us in his images—some sweet, some hilarious, and some heart-wrenching.
That same range of emotions is what the pages of the new issue offer. Michael Knight’s story, “Our Lady of the Roses,” is set in Mobile, Alabama, where readers are told Mardi Gras got its start, not in New Orleans. In it, a young woman who teaches art at a Catholic school has her own struggles: to engage her students, to meet the teaching requirements of the nun who runs the school, to develop her independence from everyone. It’s a beautifully written story, and I won’t spoil the ending, but it closes the issue by sending the reader out on an image of contemplation and possibility. We also have an excerpt from Louisiana-born writer M. O. Walsh’s new book, My Sunshine Away. The excerpt focuses on the complicated relationship of a teenage boy with his father after his parents have divorced. The two take a fishing trip to south Louisiana, where the father’s much-too-young girlfriend shows up, as well. In a seemingly more celebratory vein is Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story, “Night at the Fiestas,” a coming-of-age story about a young girl in the 1960s going to the Fiestas in Santa Fe. What starts out for her as a trip of independence and fun quickly shifts its tone, before she even gets off the bus, which her father is driving. But even so near, her father cannot protect her from the danger and meanness that the world contains.
There are many other stories and essays and poems, of course, that I love in this issue. There’s a translation of Abdourahman Waberi’s “Rosary for Timbuktu” by Nancy Naomi Carlson, which is a tribute to the recently destroyed treasures of Timbuktu. Kevin Prufer, who has mastered the art of making a reader weep (he also does so much more than this), offers “The Future,” about a little boy with his father who is piloting a Cessna Skyhawk when the father suddenly dies. “Hello? the boy said into the radio,” reads the poem, echoing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” to me. All we can do as observers is wait for the inevitable, tragic end to unfold. Like “Space Oddity,” Prufer’s poem is simultaneously lovely and sad.
But I don’t want to end here on a note of sadness. Even if it is crazy cold outside today, it is Mardi Gras season, a time of fun, indulgence, and acting outside of yourself before you have to get ashes smeared on your forehead and give up something for six weeks (of course, I only participate in the first half of this clause), so I’ll close with mention of “The God of Stupidity,” by Jack Powers, an author who is new to our pages. In Powers’s poem, the speaker looks back on his impetuous youth and riding drunk on the roof of his friend Buzzy’s car on a dare. Buzzy tries his hardest to throw Jack from the car by turning on the windshield wipers and swerving through the woods. Jack eventually loses his grip and is launched into the cold, wet night—again, the image of flight before the coming fall and crash. The poem ends: “And I realize if there is a god of stupidity/he’s not a vengeful god. He is trying to save us, but there is just/too much stupidity in the world to save every one, every time.” Perfect words to roll around in your head when you’re out in the crowds for Mardi Gras, which is where I will be with my daughter, teaching her to love the traditions of her city, too.