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Review: The In-Betweens

by Steven Burns

    Davon Loeb’s The In-Betweens (Everytime Press) is a collection of lyrical essays that ventures from cul-de-sac construction sites and whitewashed suburbia, to cramped one bedroom apartments in North Jersey, to abandoned bike trails in the Pine Barrens, to rural Alabama. While this collection certainly takes readers to many places, it is also about the body of a boy in motion, one who undergoes multiple, contradictory and heartbreaking, transformations. But there is beauty too — it arrives when the room is quiet and we carefully lean in to listen.

    Born to a Black mother and a White father, Loeb occupies a complicated racial and social middle-ground, which reveals itself in his childhood. Loeb lays the foundation for his debut collection in his family’s past: Coy, Alabama. This is where his Great Great Grandfather survived slavery and a segregated south. As a child, Loeb often traveled to Coy to visit his Grandmother, Nana. Nana lived in a “Creole cottage” built “from the ground up” by her own father with “callus and hammer — with muscle and brawn — and as she said — with God in his belly, pushing his body, strengthening his heart.

     From the outset, Loeb uses his familial home as an entryway to talk about family, race, and class. Throughout the book, Nana, and other women, function as Loeb’s emotional and intellectual anchors; they often provide the historical context and insight Loeb is searching for as a young man whose story is split between two fractured families. His Grandfather and other male figures, on the other hand, actively shape his family history while complicating, sometimes to a fault, how Loeb perceives and constructs his own sense of masculinity.

  • in betweens

While Loeb’s book does work to unpack the tired adage of what it means to “be a man,” what it truly seeks to answer is, “What does it mean to be a man in a racially ambiguous body?” and, furthermore, “How does a man properly navigate and employ his power?” The In-Betweens illustrates how one boy struggles to define himself within a sphere of male influencers who, even after a lifetime of trials and learning, are still trying to do the same.

    Loeb’s lyrical essays vary in length, style, and perspective. His versatility as a poet and storyteller shine brightest when those elements combine. In “Alabama Fire Ants” a young Loeb finds himself stuck in bed with his brother and cousins, a “twin-sized space of four twisted boiling bodies.” Aside from the sweltering heat of his Nana’s house, Loeb has also been burned by the constant glare of his bedmates. They have made him an outcast because of his lighter skin:

    “I was the white boy in a family of Black boys and Black girls, of Black men and Black women, and years of being Black in the stoic world made my skin some kind of leprosy. White boy can’t jump. White boy can’t play. White boy go back inside.

    How Loeb’s Blackness is perceived and constructed complicates his relationships with everyone in his life. Most importantly: his family (in particular when trying to connect with his White father), friends, and coworkers (the final poem in the book about a fellow Black educator is crushing).

    Loeb’s brother and cousin pin him as the outcast and take to torturing him as much as possible. “I was Black like none of them,” writes Loeb in “But I Am Not Toby.” This otherness erupts later in “Alabama Fire Ants” during a tense game of man in the middle when Loeb finally catches the ball. He, unfortunately, stumbles onto a fire ants’ nest.

    “I thought the first squad of ants were just freckles sprouting about my skin,” he writes.

    As the ants begin their assault, Loeb’s skin transforms.

    “And in that moment, when all the ants began to scatter like little clumps of rock, my leg was like theirs. It was dark, it moved like soil, it was earth; my skin was this hot changing flesh like some kind of birth or death…the pain, for that instant, was worth it.”

    Loeb’s fall into the fire ants’ nest and the way it darkens and consumes his flesh, functions as the impetus for his racial reawakening. He stands on the edge of a newfound danger and a newfound beauty as his body (finally) captivates his peers. He is simultaneously being consumed by the same Alabama earth where Nana’s house sat, “covered by hundreds of trees—thick, swollen, sturdy trees—trees that never warped under the hulking Alabama sun…”   

    Several of the book’s most prominent themes launch at this pivotal moment; namely, how a single person can move in-between identities, and even time itself, simply by existing within a space. Often, the body becomes collateral. Loeb hammers this point home in his devastating essay, “Bath Time.” While brief, the essay encapsulates the agony and power of bodily sacrifice.

    “Sometimes when the hot water was cut off, my big sister boiled large pots of water in the kitchen,” writes Loeb. “Like a family of baby ducks” he and his brother entered the bath tub. And then his sister poured the water:

    “The hot water splashed everywhere—and my sister pushed me, and dropped the pot—and it emptied, and the water was red—and her body screamed only in the way our bodies could react to something of shock—just guttural and uncontrollable—like the loss of language—and when she tried to un-peel the pink corduroy pants, the thick cotton was layered with skin.”

    Loeb concludes, “And sometimes I think that the only real thing we can ever offer each other are our bodies.”    

    The In-Betweens does have flashes of joy and celebration though. It is bittersweet when Loeb’s White father reveals that he once made a sculpture of Loeb’s mother and then, “[A]fter things didn’t work out with me and your mother, I threw it out. I threw it in the Hudson.” It is sincere admiration and pure love when Loeb writes of his Black father “because he’s a verb — an action, a doer, a giver—irrefutably. Take his shirt, his pants, his boots, his time—take his life; he’d give it all—and then again. It is his duty, he said so when he married my mother.” And, finally, there is boyish wonder, fear, and excitement in “Summer Thunderstorms” when, after “five Mississippis…lightning struck.” Peering out of the window, “it made me feel small and fragile—homes, cars, street signs, us—it could all go in moments. And there was nothing I would have loved more than to see everything tear apart.”

    Herein lies the strongest, and most challenging, aspect of The In-Betweens: We are often left to devise our own conclusions. Loeb invites us into every aspect of his life — good and bad, gorgeous and ugly — and lays the raw, sharp pieces bare. “While our bones grew rings and our skin became bark—the fear in our bellies felt magnificent.”      

  • Davon Loeb Headshot

Davon Loeb is the author the memoir The In-Betweens. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden, and he is the assistant poetry editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been featured in Split Lip Magazine, Harpoon Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is an English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. His work can be found here: http://www.davonloeb.com/ 

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