(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 dreamsleep.net, 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]

(PHOTO: masterprophetblog.com)

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.

Whatever.

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 alternet.org 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:

(IMAGE: demotivation.com)

One day, she promised,

The world’s going to surrender

Everything to what my shadow

Demands,

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. < http://www.dreammoods.com/dreamdictionary/f2.htm&gt;

[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. < http://www.whats-your-sign.com/cat-animal-symbolism.html&gt;

[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. < http://www.alternet.org/story/149927/7_comedians_who_were_spurred_by_politics_to_change_up_their_acts&gt;

[28] “Chappelle’s Story”, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. February 28, 2011. < http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Chappelles-Story/5&gt;

[29] Ibid.

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