Monthly Archives: March 2011

Dispelling the Myth of Masculinity: Ross Gay and Paul Martínez Pompa

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ross Gay is a Cave Canem fellow and a recipient of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. In addition to being a book artist, a basketball coach and an editor with chapbook press Q Avenue, Ross teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Drew University.

The speakers in Ross Gay’s Against Which and Paul Martínez Pompa’s My Kill Adore Him are not afraid to step into taboo territory. They’re not afraid to question or dare anyone: “What-chu gonna do now?[1]

Whether choking out a drunk[2] or stepping to sucker mcs[3], they don’t back out of situations in which they find themselves. But the speakers are neither meat heads nor neighborhood bad asses holding down their blocks.

There’s tenderness in how they engage the environment around them that dispels the myth of masculinity hovering over young boys trying to understand what it means to be a man in the world. After reading both collections, another thing becomes clear: the speakers aren’t wimps, but guys liberated in knowing they don’t have to live up to the myth.

The overall tone in Against Which shifts from joyful and sarcastic, to sad and angry, to humorous and sincere. I heard that sincerity in Gay’s opening poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” where the speaker, who’s driving, is distracted by a scene on the street. I was brought into the poem by these physical details:

you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic

for gawking at the clutch between the two men

on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,

which would not stop, each man’s face

so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men

not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through

that first porous layer of the body into the heat beneath.[4]

(IMAGE: CavanKerry Press)

Right there, the speaker not only sets up the scene, but gets into the taboo issue of public displays of affection between men without being judgmental. In a homophobic society, where the country is divided on the issue of gay rights, the men in the poem don’t have to be lovers. The act of them embracing each other publicly is enough to set off alarms in the most conservative of individuals.

In Gay’s poem, the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity. These aren’t small men, according to the speaker, but men “not…to be fucked with.” These are men with “burly fingers.”

When I think about what it means to be a man—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—I’m thankful my dad showed me I didn’t have to live up to that myth. I remember when he came home from rough days at work as a master electrician—days that sometimes had him in the cold, hammering a metal spike into the earth to ground the new panel box service he installed in customer’s house—and embrace my mom in front of my brother, sister and me as if he couldn’t wait to get back to the tender things in his world.

My dad wasn’t bothered by what people thought about his public displays of affection he expressed to his sons, kissing us on our cheeks and hugging us when he dropped us off at school. If the kids taunted us for that show of affection, Dad would tell us they were misguided. My brother and I grew up, knowing it was OK to be tender in public. Even now, standing at 6-foot-2, I hug my best guy friends publicly if we’re out and they drop some news of family affairs or something else that’s got them down.

There’s something liberating about not buying into the myth. The speaker sees that same liberation in the two men hugging on a busy street, “their burly fingers squeezing the air from angels/ on the backs of their denim jackets.”

That moment between the two men is intensified by these psychological details:

[…]I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine

in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked

at their ceaseless cleave go deeper,

[…] so that Broad Street from Fairmount

to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind

pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men,

sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,

yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth like sun-colored spittle,

the steel vehicle now a lost memory […][5]

(PHOTO: Unknown)

There are musical moments in Gay’s other poems, “Unclean. Make Me” and “Alzheimer’s.” In “Unclean. Make me,” the speaker rejects the notion of some religions that consider women on their cycles to be unclean. Here are some musical lines: “Lay tongue/ to the lathe, the blessed lather[6].” Saying those lines aloud, and feeling my tongue tap out the rhythm, made me think of xylophones. In that sense, Gay is Roy Ayers working those lines, where the “L” sounds are high notes mixed in with the alliteration of “T” sounds—“tongue/to the”—or low notes.

Gay’s poem is also musical here: “Song like marble spun/ into silk[7].” There are two trochaic feet in “Song like marble,” and I imagined someone pounding on a large marching drum. “Spun/ into silk,” which moves fast, made me think of drumsticks rapidly rapping a snare drum.

The musical moments intensified the playful tone of the speaker in “Unclean. Make me,” allowing him to delicately flip the notion of what it means to be unclean.

“Alzheimer’s” was a poem that hit close to home because my grandmother suffered from it before she died. I remember my grandmother asking who I was, and shaking her head with a lost look when I tried to explain. In that poem, the speaker’s grandmother’s memories are “cherry blossoms” loosened by the “breeze,” or disease[8].

There’s a musical moment when the speaker describes how the “petals” are whisked away: “flipping through her open arms[9].” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with the last foot missing an unaccented syllable. Reading those lines, I got a fluttering feeling, that feeling of something being blown beyond reach. For the speaker’s grandmother, it’s whatever memories she has left of her family.

As I stated earlier, there are moments in both Against Which and My Kill Adore Him, where the speakers are brave without being obnoxious. The best example of that is Gay’s poem, “Broken Mania”:

(PHOTO: PowerLlama on flckr)

This is not a joke

when I wrap my hand tight

around the drunk man’s throat,

the drunk who heaves his girlfriend

around the Chevy, while she begs

no and please and the pub’s other drunk men

won’t be bothered because the Flyers play

the Red Wings in game 2 for the cup.

This, Drunk Man, is not a joke, and when

I left my pal’s house for some hot tea

at 7-11 I did not know that we would meet,

but meet we did, intimates we have become, I would say,

what with that gurgling noise slurping

about in your throat. And your girlfriend clutches my

arm, wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom

she roots, but she knows her duty, where

she sleeps. This is not a joke,

Drunk Man. If the time and place

were right, you would have been dead, your tongue

yanked out and nailed to your forehead, but the time


was not right, bouncers tore me from you,

and I was wearing bear slippers, big, furry,

with soft claws. Maybe

I was too self-conscious to finish the job.

Maybe it was my friend at my side,

just released from a funny farm for a psychotic

episode, whispering and quaking. That’s enough,

that’s enough. You did not

know this about me, or my friend, did not

know the previous day his hand dug

hard into my shoulder from the car’s back

seat as we approached another hospital, pleading

Please don’t let them

do this to me. Don’t do

this to me. That he hasn’t

slept in five days and is wired, told me

things I can’t repeat for fear of my tongue

turning black rot and infecting my brain,

that it has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,

or humanity, this Drunk Man, is about me,

(IMAGE: Deviant Art)

about me shrinking your universe

around your throat like a noose, showing you that

to you, at this second, I am God,

and until my friend’s mania is broke

my arm melts rocks and is a machine

for murder[10].

The physical details that had me in the 7-11 parking lot, watching the speaker choke out a drunk man who tosses “his girlfriend/ around the Chevy.” I could hear the loud TV from a nearby bar, where the other drunk men are too caught up in the Flyers and “Red Wings game 2 for the cup” to notice the woman yelling “no and please,” and what happened when the speaker came to her rescue.

The speaker’s use of person shifts, regarding the drunken man. I was already in the scene, somewhere amidst the onlookers. But when the speaker shifted from third to second person, that switch was a zoom button that brought me closer to the incident. I could see the drunk’s girlfriend grabbing the speaker’s arm, “wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom/ she roots, but knows her duty, where/ she sleeps.”


There are two tones in “Broken Mania”—anger for the drunk and sincerity for the drunk’s girlfriend. The speaker is sincere without being judgmental of the woman. The speaker’s anger is intensified by these psychological details: “[…] If the time and place/ were right, you would have been dead, your tongue/ yanked out and nailed to your forehead […]”

There are musical moments in the midst of the violence. Take the repetition of “This is not a joke”: “This is not a joke/ when I wrap my hand tight/ around the drunk man’s throat/ […] This, Drunk Man, is not a joke […]/This is not a joke,/ Drunk Man. If the time and place/ were right, you would be dead […]”

The repetition intensified the seriousness of the situation. The first “This is not a joke” does not address Drunk Man, but the reader. The second and third time the speaker addresses Drunk Man directly. I felt the tension build with each “This is not a joke.”

The repetition also worked as the speaker’s way of drumming the message in all men, not just Drunk Man. It’s a message that says: Beating women is neither funny nor entertaining. To the women beaters, it’s a message for them to stop doing it and seek counseling. To the men, in general, it’s a message that says: if you see a domestic dispute, don’t ignore it.

Like the poem “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” “Broken Mania” also deals with redefining manhood and dispelling the myth of masculinity. In redefining manhood, the message is clear: beating women does not make you a man. The speaker’s act of choking the drunken man says indirectly that only weak men hit women.

(PHOTO: Alex Slitz/Daily News/AP)

In “Broken Mania” the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity by making note of what he’s wearing. In another time, and a different circumstance, “wearing bear slippers, big, furry/ with soft claws” would not be considered manly. But given the situation, where the speaker has another man fighting for his life, I doubt anyone would make fun of the speaker’s slippers to his face.

The turn in Gay’s poem is when the speaker’s friend—“just released from a funny farm for a psychotic/ episode”—is introduced (I enjoyed the alliteration of that line—“from a funny farm for”). After that, it became clear that the situation in the parking lot was not the point of the poem; while the subject is an important one, it sets up the reader for another issue: mental illness.

Like the woman in that 7-11’s parking lot, the speaker’s friend is also victimized. But, unlike the drunken man, the illness is not someone the speaker’s able to shove around and tell him to knock it off; the speaker’s helpless when his friend says, “Please don’t let them/ do this to me. Don’t do/ this to me.” So out of frustration, he takes out his displaced anger on any physical target available at the time, which also reveals the speaker. “It has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,/ or humanity, this, Drunk Man, is about me […]”

So what was first thought to be an act of sincerity was, instead, the speaker using force—“shrinking your universe/ around your throat like a noose”—to make up for his feeling of helplessness. I’m left wondering had the speaker’s friend not been mentally ill, would he still have stuck up for the abused woman?

An overlapping theme in both Gay’s and Martínez Pompa’s collections is manhood. Take Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Film Strip,” that opens his My Kill Adore Him. The guys are in a sex education class, “isolated from the girls/ to learn our bodies.” Here are the physical details that brought me into that classroom:

(PHOTO: Paul Martínez Pompa lives in Chicago and teaches composition, poetry and creative writing at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois.

[…] Our desk harder

than our hairless asses. They shudder

beneath us when Mr. Griffey fingers

the 16mm reel […]

[…] We swell

Into concentration as grainy scenes

flicker past our heads. The projector’s

clatter surrounds us like criminals:

narrated cross-section of the testicles[11].

There’s a sexual energy woven through Martínez Pompa’s poem:  the students’ “hairless asses” that “shudder beneath” them “when Mr. Griffey fingers/ the 16mm reel,” and how they “swell into concentration”. I remember being both scared and excited while learning about my body and the physical changes that would occur as part of my development.

I love the music of “clatter surrounds us like criminals,” a dactylic trimeter, with three perfect feet. Saying that line aloud made me think of the break down in a song, when the beats seem to cascade in a falling rhythm.

Thinking of what that line means—“clatter surrounds us like criminals”—the falling rhythms intensified the speaker’s suspicious tone, as if the class were ambushed by what they saw the way criminals ambush their victims. That the “grainy scenes” flickering past the speaker’s head were likened to criminals shows how intrusive those scenes were, especially those that triggered a memory of another unpleasant moment:

The animated penis a cruel reminder

of our fathers. Strange men we’ve seen

through cracked doors. Their nude

bodies a revelation, a portrait of manhood

larger than anything we could imagine[12].


I stated earlier what it means to be a man in the world—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—and, like my dad, the speaker in Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Clamor,” doesn’t buy into that myth.

In “Clamor,” the speaker’s on a bus when he notices the lovers, and is overwhelmed with longing. Here are the psychological details that brought me inside the speaker’s head: “remember when we were young./ bold enough to love that hard. trust was our eyes. closed./ our mouths undoing each other’s. bodies.”

That “the bus fills and empties like an aluminum lung[13]” gives a sense of what’s happening during the ride besides the couple, and how frequent the stops were since—like a lung takes in air as fast as it pushes it back out—the bus gets packed almost as fast as it empties.

That line is musical with the repetition of “L” sounds—“[…] like an aluminum lung”. Saying that line aloud gave me that feeling of xylophones that I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make Me”. That fluid movement in Martínez Pompa’s poem made me feel like a passenger on that bus, working my way through an aisle of folks staring, with the speaker, at the couple and “how. she breathes him. how he is / draped in the orchestra of her. fingers.”

The title, “Clamor,” is defined as 1) “any loud and continued noise,” or 2) “a vehement”—intense—“expression of desire or dissatisfaction.” The word appears twice in Martínez Pompa’s poem, each one with a different meaning and level of intensity. There’s the first definition in “the clamor of. gears. bodies.” and “words” that intensified the sound on the bus. I felt the seat vibrating from the loud engine that drowned out the words of the couple, who were “untouched/ by this. city of broken lovers”.


The second definition of clamor—as an intense “expression of dissatisfaction”—is in “youth & desire fleeing/ their seats” at the sight of the lovers. This intensified the passengers’ dissatisfaction of the couple’s public display of affection.

That the other passengers, including the speaker, are residents in the “city of broken lovers” made me wonder three things: 1) if the passengers have been burned by love enough to where the “L” word’s almost as taboo as the public display of affection expressed in Ross Gay’s poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street”; 2) if the lovers existence broke the rules of that “city”; and 3) if, in that “city,” the lovers were tourists passing through, or were they trespassing.

The Martínez Pompa poem that captures the themes of the collection as a whole—manhood, love, and tensions between ethnicities—while displaying the tenderness with which both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him approach the world is “Pulling Tongue”:

(PHOTO: Stock)

Lissette opens me with her fingers.

I struggle to breathe

with  her tongue in my mouth.

Suddenly we are stars

in a Mexi-Rican romance film

that unravels on her aunt’s stoop.

Backlit by the flickering streetlamp

an audience of boys forms

and I feel the pressure to comply.

Catcalls & uneasy laughter,

I kiss harder. My finger stutters

Over her knee, her thigh—

You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls

as she slaps my arm,

the crash of the metal storm

door behind her. The boys

swell into a mob set to detonate

the entire block. I rise

& brace myself for their eyes,

their bodies that wet the night.[14]

(PHOTO: thedigicult)

The musical moment happens in the last line of the first stanza and the beginning of the second stanza. The repetition of “S” sounds—“Suddenly we are stars/ in a Mexi”—and “R” sounds—“Rican romance film”—conjured up the image of maracas; I could hear the beads shaken to the rhythm of those lines.

That they “are stars/ in a Mexi-Rican romance” is a clue to the reader that it’s a Mexican boy and Puerto Rican girl kissing. That act, which attracts “an audience of boys,” seemed innocent at first. I remember how my first kiss in a daycare attracted so much attention from my peers despite the girl and I both being African American.

The physical details pulled me in right away. I was in that “audience of boys,” watching it all go down on Lissette’s “aunt’s stoop.” I saw the speaker and Lissette lit “by the flickering streetlamp.”

But, in “Pulling Tongue,” the act’s innocence is lost when Lissette breaks away from the speaker and says, “You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls,” an allusion to the myth of masculinity.

I know how hard it is to bounce back from a fall like that.

That his attempts to “kiss harder” and his finger that “stutters over her knee, her thigh” weren’t enough made the fall that much harder.

And to add insult to injury, Lissette “slaps” the speaker’s arm afterwards, as if almost to show she’s more of a man than the boy. An allusion to that fall is in this physical detail: “I rise/ & brace myself for their eyes.”

But another look at that scene made me wonder something different: what if Lissette liked the kiss, but had to pretend otherwise because of her friends and the expectations of loyalty to her people. In that context, it was impossible to read “Pulling Tongue” and not think of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story, both stories of  lovers caught between the drama of their feuding families.

The speaker’s age is not mention, which made me also wonder what if Lissette was too young to know what she liked.

(IMAGE: University of Notre Dame Press)

Another musical moment in “Pulling Tongue” is in “Backlit by the flickering streetlamp.” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with one dactyl over “flickering” in the third foot. The trochees in that line conjured up the same sound of the large marching drum I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make me.” The dactyl in “flickering,” which speeds up the rhythm of that line, also conjured up the sound of sticks rapping a snare drum.

The trochees also made me think of the large drums in kung fu movie scores that let the audience know a conflict is about to happen.

It has that same effect in Martínez Pompa’s poem, where the speaker’s tone shifted from joyful to sad, allowing tension to build in the third stanza before the conflict in the fourth.

The speaker’s fall in “Pulling Tongue” is an example of the consequences that face both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him for baring themselves in a world of hard edges.

Like Gay’s, Martínez Pompa’s speaker falls, but is not broken as a result of it. That the speaker in “Pulling Tongues” is able to “rise & brace” himself “for their eyes” is a manly act despite the apparent weakness. In fact, that act is what makes the speaker the braver than the “audience of boys” and the “mob set to detonate/ the entire block.”

[1] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “The Performer”

[2] from Ross Gaye’s poem, “Broken Mania”

[3] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Sucker MCs”

[4] Ross Gaye, Against Which, Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2006, p. 5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 10

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 11

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 12-13

[11] Paul Martínez Pompa, My Kill Adore Her, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009, p. 3

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 17

[14] Ibid., p. 5


Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Essay, Review


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The Haunting: Dorianne Laux and Cornelius Eady

(PHOTO: John Campbell) Dorianne Laux's fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon, is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

After reading Dorianne Laux’s Smoke and Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, some things have been affirmed for me: that the dead do haunt the living, and in various forms.

In these two collections, what haunts is the ghost of “a girl in a cotton slip” who sits “beneath the staircase/ built from hair and bone[1]”; it’s the ghost in the face of a 14-year-old nephew who strikingly resembles a dead brother[2]. It’s also the fictitious black man invented by Susan Smith and Charles Stuart[3].

The speaker in Smoke contemplates death and the loss of friends and lovers. In the poem, “Abschied Symphony,” a lover, or an ex-lover whom the speaker’s remained friends with, is dying in the hospital. Almost immediately, the speaker’s physical details of “maneuvering through/ the dimly lit tunnels, under low ceilings,/ following yellow arrows stenciled at intervals/ on gray cement walls[4]” brought me into the underground garage at the hospital.

These psychological details brought me inside the speaker’s head:

[…] I think of him,

moving slowly through the last

hard days of his life […]

[…] I can’t stop crying.

When I arrive at the tollgate I have to make

myself stop thinking as I dig in my pockets

for the last of my coins, turn to the attendant,

indifferent in his blue smock …

and say, Thank you, like an idiot.[5]

The details are so familiar to me. I lost an uncle to medical malpractice (he went in for a check-up, was diagnosed with colon cancer, hospital meds put him in a coma, where he died two days later). I also lost an aunt to cancer two years ago. In both cases, I remember the presence of death feeling as real as the people in the hospital room.

In the case of my aunt, whom I was very close to, I could relate to how the speaker saw things that were once blurred into her background, things the speaker might have glanced at without a thought now reminding her of the deceased:

Everything is hideously symbolic:

the Chevron truck, its underbelly

spattered with road grit and the sweat

of last night’s rain, the Dumpter

behind the flower shop, sprung lid

pressed down on dead wedding bouquets—

even the smell of something simple, coffee

drifting from the open door of a café,

and my eyes glaze over, ache in their sockets.[6]

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

The image of the Dumpster’s “sprung lid/ pressed down on dead wedding bouquets—” suggests that maybe the speaker and her dying lover were engaged, or had planned to be. But the illness, like the “sprung lid,” crushed those hopes: the “dead wedding bouquets” in the Dumpster.

But back to the “hideously symbolic,” I often thought about my deceased aunt. One Christmas, since she often called family back in Trinidad and Tobago, I bought her several calling cards. After her death, I couldn’t pass a gas station that might’ve sold those cards without my eyes glazing over to the point of aching in their sockets. They also glazed over at the smell of hot combs and burnt hair, which reminded me of the hair salon that my aunt ran from the back of her home until her illness.

And like the speaker, there were times I wanted to go “numb with forgetfulness” and not imagine my aunt, once plump and upbeat, thin and fragile in her hospital bed just as the speaker didn’t want to imagine the guy “drawn thin and pale, unable to swallow.”

Here’s the irrefutable evidence of intimacy between the speaker and the dying friend :

[…] the tumors

ripening beneath his skin, flesh

I have kissed, stroked with my fingertips,

pressed my belly and breasts against, some nights

so hard I thought I could enter him […][7]

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Love Is Dead

The depth of how the speaker wanted to “enter him, open/ his back at the spine like a door or a curtain[8]” is intensified by the image of “a small fish” that slips “between his ribs,/ nudge the coral of his brain with my lips,/ brushing over the blue coils of his bowels/ with the fluted silk of my tail.[9]” Those details, which brought me inside the dying man, also intensified the speaker’s level of love for this person. This love is so intensified it makes me wonder two things: 1) the speaker and the guy were still involved when he became sick, or 2) for whatever reason they weren’t together anymore, the speaker was still in-love with him.

The speaker’s willingness to become as small as a fish inside this person shows how larger than life this person once was, or still is to her despite his illness. That the speaker would brush “over the coils of his bowels” says how far she’s willing to go to bring back, not just her love but what they had. It’s also a sign that the speaker’s still bargaining with death, which is the third stage of grief. At this point of the poem, the speaker’s tone has gone from angry to sad.

When the speaker says, “Death is not romantic,[10]” it’s clear that the tone is depression, which is the fourth stage of grief. The speaker’s numb, though the tones of anger and sadness remain. She’s moving toward acceptance, but not there yet. The fact that her lover’s dying becomes “stark and one-dimensional, a black note/ on an empty staff.”

Back in the car with the speaker, we get additional psychological details that help the experience become real for the reader:

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

[…] I hate this music

that floods the cramped insides

of my car, my head, slowing the world down

with its lurid majesty […][11]

In “How It Will Happen, When,” the speaker enters the final stage of grief: acceptance. In that poem, the speaker has been “crying,/ curled up on the couch, the floor, at the foot of the bed […][13]”:

Someday, years from now […]

You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word

you don’t recognize, a simple word like cup or gate or wisp

and you’ll ponder it like a child discovering language.

Cup, you’ll say it over and over until it begins to make sense,

and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead

He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.[14]

I’m brought into the poem with these physical details: “[…] there they are: his socks, his shirt, your/ underwear, and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile/ next to the bathroom door.[15]” Without the speaker saying it, I got the sense that I was in the bedroom. The “loose pile/ next to the bathroom door” could be symbolic of two things: 1) the future plans between the speaker and her lover that will not be accomplished, or 2) the mess of things death has made and what the speaker’s left to sort through for some kind of understanding.

The poem that best capture’s Death’s indifference, its effects, and the speaker’s loss and reaction as a result of it is the title poem, “Smoke”:

Who would want to give it up, the coal

a cat’s eye in the dark room, no one there

but you and your smoke, the window

cracked to street sounds, the distant cries

of living things. Alone, you are almost

safe, smoke slipping out between the sill

and the glass, sucked into the night

you don’t dare enter, its eyes drunk

and swimming with stars. Somewhere

a Dumpster is ratcheted open by the claws

of a black machine. All down the block

something inside you opens and shuts.

Sinister screech, pneumatic wheeze,

trash slams into the chute: leftovers, empties.

You don’t flip on the TV or the radio, they

might muffle the sound of car engines

backfiring, and in the silence between,

streetlights twitching from green to red, scoff

of footsteps, the rasp of breath, your own,

growing lighter and lighter as you inhale.

There’s no music for this scarf of smoke

wrapped around your shoulders, its fingers

crawling the pale stem of your neck,

no song light enough, liquid enough,

that climbs high enough before it thins

and disappears. Death’s shovel scrapes

the sidewalk, critches across the man-made

cracks, slides on grease into rain-filled gutters,

digs its beveled nose among the raved leaves.

You can hear him weaving his way

down the street, sloshed on the last breath

he swirled past his teeth before swallowing:

breath of the cat kicked to the curb, a woman’s

sharp gasp, lung-filled wail of the shaken child.

You can’t put it out, can’t stamp out the light

and let the night enter you, let it burrow through

your infinite passages. So you listen and listen

and smoke and give thanks, suck deep

with the grace of the living, blowing halos

and nooses and zeros and rings, the blue chains

linking around your head. Then you pull it in

again, the vein-colored smoke,

and blow it up toward a ceiling you can’t see

where it lingers like a sweetness you can never hold,

like the ghost the night will become.[16]

(IMAGE: Michael Godard)

The mystical meaning of smoke, according to, is that it’s a sign of disappointments to come. In that context, it’s apt that “Smoke” opens the collection, and that the poems that follow serve as examples of those disappointments the speaker will have to overcome.

The physical details brought me into the room with the speaker. I could feel the draft coming from “the window/ cracked to street sounds, the distant cries/ of living things.” I saw “smoke slipping out between the sill/ and the glass, sucked into the night” the way I imagined our last breaths will be sucked out of us and into death’s mouth. “The coal” as “a cat’s eye in the dark room” intensified the darkness of that room so that I could see the speaker hidden in the dark except for her lit cigarette.

That Death swirls the breaths “past his teeth before swallowing,” as if he were enjoying a cognac after dinner, and his indifference of the lives taken only made him seem more menacing. I could hear the high-pitched clawing sounds of “Death’s shovel” as it “scrapes/ the sidewalk, critches across the man-made/ cracks.” That barely bearable sound of the city is eerie within the context of this poem.

The speaker seems to be both frightened and comforted by death. She’s frightened of the night she won’t enter because of “its eyes drunk/ and swimming with stars.” The speaker’s description of night almost makes it seem reckless and random in its actions, as if to be caught in it is to gamble her life. The speaker seems jumpy at the sounds of the Dumpster “ratcheted open by the claws/ of a black machine,” or trash slammed “into the chute.” These physical details show paranoia without saying it:

You don’t flip on the TV or the radio, they

might muffle the sound of car engines

backfiring […/] scoff

of footsteps, the rasp of breath, your own,

growing lighter and lighter as you inhale.[17]


Those details imply that the TV and radio are distractions, and that the speaker is determined not to be caught off guard when Death comes. Here, the tone is anxiety, as the speaker listens for what she thinks are a warning of Death’s coming: “car engines/ backfiring,” “scoff/ of footsteps,” the rasp of her own breath “growing lighter and lighter,” or even the sound of “Death’s shovel” scraping “the sidewalk […/] its beveled nose among the ravaged leaves.[18]

Going back to the night, or darkness, the speaker will not let enter her or “burrow through,” there’s an irony in the light she won’t stamp out (her cigarette) out of fear of the night. The thing that will eventually kill her has, at that moment, become what she thinks will protect her from the darkness. The light may also be a false sense of her life, that everything’s OK, the speaker’s fear of facing the darkness, or the reality of what’s going on.

Where the speaker finds comfort is in “the scarf of smoke/ wrapped around” her shoulders. For some reason that physical detail of the smoke and the coal as “a cat’s eye in the dark room” made me see the smoke as a feline resting by its owner’s head on a cushion.

In world mythology, cats are symbolic as guardians of the otherworld (or underworld). For instance, in Ancient Rome, the cat’s considered to be “a guardian of homes and a symbol of domestic goodness,” according to a website on cat symbolism. The cat was honored in Muslim lore for protecting Mohammad from a snake attack. The site goes onto explain, “Here it is believed the ‘M’ marking on the forehead of many tabby cats is the mark of the prophet.[19]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The image of the cat, evoked by the details in “Smoke,” had me seeing a cat paw, instead of fingers, tapping “the pale stem” of the speaker’s neck.

The speaker also found comfort here: “[…] So you listen and listen/ and smoke and give thanks, suck deep/ with the grace of the living […][20]” I could see and smell those fuming “halos/ and nooses and zeros and rings, the blue chains linking around” the speaker’s head. “There’s no music,” according to the speaker, for the comfort of smoke, another irony since the smoke is “the ghost the night”—the thing that frightened the speaker—“will become.”

In both Smoke and Brutal Imagination, sadness and anger are the dominant tones. Cornelius Eady’s fictitious black man is just as haunting as Laux’s ghosts. In both books, these poems hit close enough to home to make the hairs on my neck stand up and try to run.

But Brutal Imagination deals with another kind of death, one that involved being born again. When a person is baptized, their former self is washed away and a new self is lifted out of the water. My former self believed everything I learned about America from text books that often omitted the contributions of people of color and lifted white people on a pedestal of false legacies. Those books had a narrow focus on the truth, if any at all.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems (Putnam, April 2008).

Cornelius Eady’s collection reaffirmed what my new self knew, after my baptism with several previous important books that awakened my consciousness. My new self does not believe racism ended in those text books, or that America was ever on its way to becoming post-race. The speaker is an imaginary black man, created by Susan Smith as an alibi after she murdered her two sons, who were asleep in the backseat when Smith let the car roll into the lake. The fictitious black man reappears as an alibi for Charles Stuart, who killed his wife and then shot himself in the arm as a cover-up.

This imaginary character provides social commentary on contradictions in America’s actions and the phrases of her Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness,” the sovereign rights of all Americans. The speaker in Brutal Imagination shows us that’s not the case, that racism still exist, and that people of color will continue to be scapegoats.

In these poems, the speaker takes shots at America’s justice system, where a white person’s word trumps that of everyone else’s. Unlike Smoke, the tone in this collection is heavily sarcastic, which sharpens the blows so they cut to the meat. You’ll see that in “How I Got Born”:

So now a mother needs me clothed

In hand-me-downs

And a knit cap.


We arrive, bereaved

On a stranger’s step,

Baby, they weep,

Poor Child.[22]

You see it again in “Sightings”:

A few nights ago

A man swears he saw me pump gas

With the children

At a convenience store

[…] I left money in his hand.[23]

The title, “Sightings,” alludes to the UFO sightings that started in the late 19th century. Within that context, the speaker makes the point that a black man with two white kids would stick out anywhere like an alien on earth. That no one has any specifics description of the person makes the people in this poem seem as bizarre as UFO proponents, claiming to see flying disc:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Police Sketch

Mr. _____ now knows he heard

The tires of the car

Everyone is looking for

Crunch the gravel

As I pulled up,

In the wee, wee hours

At the motel where

He works the night desk.[24]

In that same context, the speaker transforms a South Carolina community into Roswell, with the intense controversy surrounding the Susan Smith incident, and the fictitious black man that landed there out of nowhere. Without saying it directly, the speaker discredits the night desk worker:

I signed or didn’t sign the register.

I took or didn’t take the key from his hand.

He looked or forgot to look

As I pulled off to park in front

Of one of the rooms at the back.[25]

After throwing those jabs, the speaker’s hook comes in the irony and image as haunting as the ghosts in Smoke: “Did I say I was traveling with kids?/ Who slept that night/ In the untouched beds?” Bam! There it is.

The situation is so ludicrous that Uncle Ben, Jemima’s Do-Rag, and Stepin Fetchit have to chime in. Of those poems in the second section, “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper” was the most powerful poem for its historical context and its allusions to the present day:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Lincoln Perry's typical film persona and stage name have long been controversial, and seen as synonymous with negative stereotypes of African-Americans. However, a newer interpretation of his film persona contends Perry was ultimately subversive of the status quo.

Not the dead actor,

Historically speaking, but the ghost

Of the scripts, the bumbling fake

Of an acrobat, the low-pitched anger

Someone mistook for stupid.

This so-called bruiser rattling the streets,

Heavy with children, I’d like to

Tell him what a thankless job

It is to go along to get along.

All the nuances can and will

Be rubbed smooth and by the time

It’s over,

By the time you’re dead and the people

You thought you were doing this

On behalf of are long forgotten,

There’s only an image left that they

Name you after, toothy, slow,

Worthy of a quick kick in the pants.

I used to have bones, I’d tell him.

It was a story that

Rubbed out my human walk.[26]

(Sketch: Courtesy) Composite

The speaker seems to admire the fictitious black man for stirring up white folks. Here, the tone is bitter with the speaker’s knowledge that it doesn’t pay “to go along to get along.” I felt like I was in the dressing room, after a shoot, watching Stepin Fetchit frown at his reflection in the mirror. When he wipes away the make-up, he transforms back to Lincoln Perry. I felt his frustration for being misunderstood: the “low-pitched anger/ Someone mistook for stupid.”

It’s impossible to read those lines and not think of Dave Chappelle, who walked away from his successful Chappelle’s Show in 2005 for fear of being misunderstood. Chappelle’s comedy is described in a recent article on as being “centered around skewering racist stereotypes with a subversive, sophisticated, line-threading light.[27]

What did it, according to various reports, was the filming of “the black pixie” skit, when a white member of the crew “laughed just a little too hard” at Chappelle who was dressed as a Jim Crow minstrel that tried to trick the main character to play into the stereotypes. “I know the difference [between] people laughing with me and people laughing at me,[28]” Chappelle told Oprah during his appearance on her show in February 2006. “It was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with.[29]

Chappelle’s concerns and those of other comedians engaged in progressivism politics echoed that of the speaker’s in “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper,” who says:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Sketch of Stepin Fetchit

All the nuances can and will

Be rubbed smooth and by the time

It’s over,

By the time you’re dead and the people

You thought you were doing this

On behalf of are long forgotten,

There’s only an image left that they

Name you after, toothy, slow,

Worthy of a quick kick in the pants.[30]

While the speaker in the “Brutal Imagination” section of the book points his finger at white bigots and the white power unjust structure, the speaker in “The Running Man Poems” doesn’t let his own people off the hook. According to the speaker, some black folks are just as much to blame for the destruction of other black folks.

Running Man is every smart black child in the hood without opportunities or a way out of his/her circumstance. He/she is the black child too smart for his/her own good; the one everyone chides for “acting or talking white,” for thinking he/she is too good for his/her own people. Running Man gets it from everyone, even his parents. “I don’t want to hear my father and mother/ Call me a fool, call me worse than a fool[1].” His father even sexually abuses him with a toothbrush: “This will shut my mind, they hope…[2]

In “Failure”, Running Man is every child burdened by the imposing dreams of their parents:


One day, she promised,

The world’s going to surrender

Everything to what my shadow


But I didn’t feel the hunger

That keeps his talons sharp.

I thought about the dark cloud

That dropped

Upon that poor sparrow’s breast.

Then I felt her hand fall lightly

On my shoulder[3].

As a result of this, Running Man doesn’t let anybody get close. He, instead, retreats into a false image for protection, while transferring his hurt onto others.

In both the “Brutal Imagination” section and “The Running Man Poems”, black men are victimized. While Susan Smith’s and Charles Stuart’s accounts make black men the target of a witch hunt, Running Man is ridiculed by the very people he expected to be his community.

(PHOTO: Steven M. Cummings) "Ghost"

Back to “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper,” Perry goes through a process that’s the reverse of what happens to the imagined black man. While the fictitious man becomes real with Susan Smith’s retelling of her alibi, Stepin Fetchit’s been reduced to a caricature.

I thought of how mainstream media emasculates black men, or how they take our heroes whom were once feared because of their ideas and reduce  them  to souvenirs.

I also thought of how athlete’s like Lebron James Kobe Bryant play into the caricaturization of black men. Their actions on the court confirm the myth that black men possess super-human athletic abilities and gifts, while their off-court affairs confirm the myth for some whites that black men have insatiable and uncontrollable appetites for sex, or that we’re quick to anger and slow to reason.

And African Americans are just as guilty for believing in the hype. Standing at 6-foot-2, I’ve been both the imagined black man and Running Man. As the imagined brotha, I embody white people’s myths of black masculinity. I’ve seen white women pick up the pace at the sight of me, or—if they’re in front of me—look over their shoulders every second, as if I were a rapist who fooled the parole board to let me out on good behavior.

As Eady’s imagined persona, I’ve also had people assume I possess athletic abilities despite the contrary (“You mean you’re not playing football?,” one guy told me. Another said, “I bet if you played basketball, you’d make one mean wing man”).

(PHOTO: Zulapi)

When I tell folks, especially black folks, that I’m not interested in sports, I become Running Man. All of a sudden, something’s wrong with me. I was Running Man in high school when I made the Spanish Honor Society, and every time I raised my hand in class.

To be clear, not every athlete plays into that caricature. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson were politically active and used their celebrity status to speak out against America’s injustices to its own citizens and people abroad. But with athletes like Lebron James and Kobie Bryant turning their blind eyes to the conflicts here and overseas, they reinforce another stereotype of black men: big children that just want to play and not face up to their responsibilities.

In both sections of Brutal Imagination, both Eady’s imagined black man and Running Man show that everyone’s responsible and no one’s off the hook.

[1] Cornelius Eady, “Sex”, from Brutal Imagination, New York City: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001, p. 88

[2] Ibid., p. 89

[3] Ibid., p. 74

[1] from Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Death Comes To Me Again, A Girl”

[2] from Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ray At 14”

[3] from Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination

[4] Dorianne Laux, Smoke, Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd, 2000, p. 21

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 21-22

[8] Ibid., p. 22

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 22

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dream Moods. February 28, 2011. <;

[13] Laux, op.cite, p. 28

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 13-14

[17] Ibid., p. 13

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Cat Animal Symbolism: Symbolic Meaning of Cats”, on What’s Your Sign? Discover The World of Signs and Symbolic Meanings. February 28, 2011. <;

[20] Laux, op.cite, p. 14

[21] Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination, New York City: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001, p. 5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 8

[24] Ibid., p. 9

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 32

[27] Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “7 Bad Ass Comedians — Including Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, George Carlin — Who Refused to Sell Out”, on AlterNet. February 28, 2011. <;

[28] “Chappelle’s Story”, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. February 28, 2011. <;

[29] Ibid.

[30] Eady, op.cite, p. 32

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Posted by on March 3, 2011 in Essay, Review


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