I'm pleased to announce the release of Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, a collection of poetry and stories by Sheree Renée Thomas, as the fiftieth volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series. Sleeping Under the Tree of Life evokes the realm of ancestral knowledge with a deep respect for the natural world, a love of language, and an invitation—for survival, and asks: Who survives without being transformed? Beneath luminous layers of imagery and mythology, science and nature, fantasy and the recounting of history, is the grace and tenderness of a poet's heart, the unwavering gaze of an oracle's vision, and the dreamlike whimsy of a storyteller's mind. Hope, love, and hard truths spring from these pages of a writer whose imagination conjures an unforgettable journey. Readers enter these poems and stories the way some souls enter church, a quiet garden, or a stand of trees—for rest, for the blessing of silence and reverie, for beauty if not redemption.
Last week Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review: "The lyrical gifts of Thomas, editor of the celebrated Dark Matter anthologies, are on full display in this collection of poetry and short fiction. Her poems are imbued with rich, sensual imagery and range over subjects mundane, fantastical, and somewhere in between: the memory of a mother braiding her daughter’s hair in “Rootwork”; an oracle in the form of a homeless woman whose “mismatch clothes/ cover robes that got wings” in “Visitation of the Oracle at McKain Street”; and the mythological Arachne, “Star weaver of tears,” in “Arachne Star” and “Arachne on the Rebound.” She invokes the rhythms of African-American ring shouts and the dense, humid atmosphere of the American South. Her stories include reinventions of mythology, such as Medusa and Arachne ambushing the goddess Athena in revenge in “Arachne & Medusa Jump Athena,” and haunting modern folktales about women with their roots in rivers (in “River, Clap Your Hands”) and swamp trees (in “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells”), with references to recent natural disasters and human-created pollution. Thomas’s skill with poetry and prose is remarkable, and even the shortest poems in this volume contain ideas and images that will linger in the reader’s mind."
The collection has also received a good deal of advance praise:
"Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is a feat of literary conjuration. Poetry, prose combine in a mythic discourse that combines African, Indigenous, and European tropes to explore the power and plaints of woman hood; the thin line between life and death; the power of the Fates; the volatility of nature; a desire for and the achievement of transformation.... The texts here offer a profound understanding of the Black American South—where trees are sources of shade and succor or memorials to humanity's murderous traits. And it is a sly portrait of Memphis, Tennessee, Thomas' hometown. This is a bold book full of taller than tall tales and delicate lyrics-where birth, death, sex, magic and discovery walk the same path and haunt the writer's dreams. Join her on this journey and find out what it is like to sleep under that tree." —Patricia Spears Jones, author of A Lucent Fire: New and Selected, Painkiller, Femme du Monde, and The Weather That Kills
"These are wise women poems, country lush, bound by myth and science. Thomas's exquisite language inhabits constellations, delta crossroads and the deepest forest to explore our collective troubles. Thomas is also a master storyteller weaving a devilish braid of ancestral reclamation; of sirens, goddesses and elders wrapped in new world grit and a modern hoodoo evocative of the pastoralism of Jean Toomer. This powerful collection is a call to 'save us from ruin.'" —Jacqueline Johnson, author of A Woman's Season
"'Out of the mouth of this holler,' Sheree Renée Thomas' Sleeping Under the Tree of Life springs to life—to give us life. Continuing the work she set out with her Dark Matter anthologies and her first collection, Shotgun Lullabies, Thomas, in this pristine, poised narrative of our beginnings, extends and expands the dialogic paradigm of an art form and genre the world is finally catching up to, to go beyond what Michael McDonald and James Ingram sing— 'Yah Mo Be There!'—to take us back to the future of an Africa that said/that says, as the Bantu— 'Nommo Be There!' In Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, Sheree Renée Thomas collages together a narrative of necessity where her full literary powers and prowess are on full display like a Dogon cup from an ancient river where we drink in the magic of winged words necessitating change, each poem and prose piece not lulling us to sleep—but giving us life, and making sure we stay WOKE!" —Tony Medina, author of Broke Baroque and An Onion of Wars
"Sheree R. Thomas is a hoodoo conjure women. Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is a book of story and poem incantations. Thomas calls on the ancestors, the spirits, and our natural Mississippi mud/ blood history to talk to the future. She tasks, thrills, and twists our minds. Her word magic feels so good in my mouth, I have to jump up and speak her blues, jazz, and warrior woman sass out loud! Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is a book to read again and again and again!" —Andrea Hairston, author of Redwood and Wildfire and Will Do Magic for Small Change
"Sheree Renée Thomas gives us a whirlpool of poem and story, a 'wild and strangeful breed' of cosmology that maps each star from Machu Pichu to Congo Square, from Legba to Medusa. Here in these pages is a ringshout around a tree of brown woman hands and riverbent fantasy, all quilted up in 'indigo/and black silt/ twisting the thick strands/ as if starting a slow fire.' The baptism awaits, the water is living, and we all rise with the tide of these epistles from such a wondrous, ancient, future-bound poet." —Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio and Leadbelly
"Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is a collection of tales and poetry reflecting the mythical origins of life inside the dream of 'trees, rivers, stars, blood.' Through Thomas' words every day birth, desire, death becomes a beautiful, dream-like dance full of magic, light and dark. We are shown that things are more than they seem and under the most common skin lies infinite power." —Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of "How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend"
"This collection of vivid, intense and artful speculative poetry and short fiction is a journey through beautiful, treacherous landscapes simultaneously ancient, futuristic and of-the-moment, inhabited by deities, demiurges, and drylongso conjurefolk. These guides, guardians and shape-shifting survivors illuminate Thomas' meditations on the joys and ravages of history and the resilience of love. Sleep beneath this Tree, dream these dreams, and arise changed."—Ama Patterson
'In Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, Sheree Renée Thomas finds the mythic grandeur in human frailty and apocalyptic storms. This is a book of goddesses and magic, of songs mournful and joyful, of restless trees and falling skies, told in a voice like a river's hypnotic rush. You'll welcome the webs these poems and stories weave." —Mike Allen, three-time Rhysling Award winner, Nebula and Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and editor of Clockwork Phoenix
"Sleeping Under The Tree of Life is a powerful invocation by a literary rootwoman working with both hands, a fusion of prose and poetry that brings to mind Toomer's Cane or Jones' Corregidora, works graced with lyrical riffs like little blue bottles glistening in the sun. With this work, Sheree Thomas has attained a new level of artistic maturity, her unique voice, a Wanganegressian fusion of contemporary and the traditional, singing out in a mastery of craft and vision that adorns every page. Her poetry claims the reader long before prose narratives are introduced in a seamless weave working that boundary/fusion of genres where new aesthetics are born. It is everything a work of art should be, a challenging engagement with the human condition that will try your soul with moments of astounding grace. Sleeping Under the Tree of Life represents a new level of craft, vision and achievement for a consummate artist and cultural icon. With this one, Sherée Thomas' place is assured. When great soul meets great work, what you get is a thing of wonder." —Arthur Flowers, author of I See the Promised Land, Mojo Rising, and Another Good Loving Blues
"In Sleeping Under the tree of Life, Sheree Renée Thomas has created a gorgeously mind-altering collection of poetry and story. She riffs off history like a Jazz master, while invoking a poly-rhythmic present shot through with prophesy. With pulsating word alchemy, she spins luminous imagery, astounding characters, and deep-sea insights. I say, this book will put a spell on you—change you, and rearrange you. Read it right now, twice." —Pan Morigan, composer, Wild Blue and Castles of Gold
Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is available now in print and e-book editions through Aqueduct's site, and will soon be available elsewhere.