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The Bones Beneath

The Bones Beneath

By Sheila Smith McKoyPublisher: Black Lawrence PressISBN: 978-1-62557-082-6Genre: PoetryPrice: $15.95 (presale ends 12/30/23); 17.95 after presale
Available from: Black Lawrence Press

The Bones Beneath captures what it means to be American, Southern, diasporan, what it means to belong and not to belong, and finding many ways home. It transports readers across place and time, focusing on race and racism, health and healing, Africa and America, and mysticism and incantations. The poems call us to remember the histories we are coaxed to forget and opens pathways to understand our shared humanity. You will not leave this work without being changed and without understanding how and why there is hope for us to be better.

Sheila Smith McKoy earned her BA at North Carolina State University, her MA at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her PhD at Duke University. An award-winning poet, fiction writer, and filmmaker, she is the recipient of the 2020 Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Prize in poetry and co-author of One Window’s Light: A Haiku Collection, a collaboration of five Black poets in celebration of the haiku tradition. She has written, produced, directed or served as executive producer for four documentaries: St Agnes: The Untold Story (2012), Opening Doors: The Lives and Legacies of Dr. Lawrence M. Clark and Dr. Augustus M. Witherspoon (2013), WLLE: A Voice of the Community (Co-Executive Producer, 2015), and Luwero: A Convesation about War, Peace and Gender (2017). She served as editor of Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora for nine years, 2006 – 2015. Smith McKoy has authored or edited several scholarly books, including When Whites Riot: Writing Race and Violence in American and South African Cultures (2001), The Elizabeth Keckley Reader a two-volume series (2016 and 2017), Recovering the African Feminine Divine: Yemenja Rising, and Teaching Literature and Writing in Prisons (forthcoming 2024). A trained mediator, Smith McKoy specializes in restorative justice practices. A native of Raleigh, NC, she lives in San Francisco.


In “The Limbo Contest: Diaspora Temporality and Its Reflection in ‘Praisesong for the Widow’ and ‘Daughters of the Dust,’” Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy writes, “Knowing about the function of time in the ritual space assures cultural survival. These cultural links are strengthened through the writers’ uses of time-based rituals that become fused in Diaspora literature as limbo time,” and in these time traveling poems, rituals in the making, we encounter Black women through history. Black women are standing proud in the background of poems, quiet actions acting as a cause for a greater effect. Black women are placed at the center of the poems. Like traditional African conceits of religion, the women in The Bones Beneath are all-encompassing and Gods.

Tyree Daye

The Bones Beneath is a poetic history lesson on race, gender, and class examined through multiple lenses. Starting with herself, Smith Mckoy expertly draws from her travels to multiple African locations like Kampala, Darfur, Accra and Ghana, but doesn’t forget to tend to her American roots like Oakland and Raleigh. In “Amnesiac,” Smith Mckoy’s words sparkle as she reminds Americans how interconnected we all truly are: “we all carry Africa/some on our skins/others in the burdens of forgetting.” The Bones does ask the big, overarching questions, but also captivates during more intimate moments. Boasting motherly love in “Outdooring,” Smith Mckoy shares: “Between their calls, I turned to my child, this mage who might change the world, just to see his light.” As comfortable using Haibun and Haiku as she is with the blues format—this poet illustrates that the past and the future are inextricably connected/entangled. Smith Mckoy asks us to take a look at ourselves, shadows and all, to understand our collective compositions; she also tells us, much like poetry, the answers can be oh so: “like when the bones beneath the routes of the slave ships still call for Yemaya. Listen—all you have to do is listen.”

celeste doaks

Saturated with history, family, relationships, and an expansive geography, The Bones Beneath is a strikingly appealing volume that wraps joy around painful memories, claims immortality for persons and events presumed to be forgotten, and reminds readers that history is as close as imagination.

Trudier Harris