Tag Archive: history


(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson)

Walking past DC’s Watts Park in Northeast, the people stopped in their tracks when they heard  Mister Señor Love Daddy, from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaking.

The fictitious disc jockey was invoked through a poem by Fresno, Texas-poet Jonathan Moody. Through Derrick Weston Brown’s reading of the poem, Love Daddy held court for three minutes, long enough to lend his voice to an issue of concern not just for the folks on foot, but those driving by, who pulled over to get the 411.

“My people, my people,” he said. “What can I say; say what I can.” And just as baffled as the character and Brown himself were other poets and organizers who took over the park’s Marvin Gaye amphitheater August 6 to do something about the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson) Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander and Melanie Henderson.

“It seems the politics of this city are costing our children their right to a quality education,” Melanie Henderson, an organizer for Saturday’s event and managing editor of the literary journal Tidal Basin Review, said in an interview afterwards.

“It is unimaginable what the effect on a child’s self-esteem might be when walking into a nearly-empty school library,” Henderson said.

The last straw for many was the Jan. 23, Washington Post article on Ballou Senior High’s poorly-stocked library. “The literature section of [school librarian] Melissa Jackson’s library…had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves,” Post Reporter Bill Turque wrote in his article “Librarian at D.C.’s Ballou High Scrambles for Books.”

“In the area marked ‘pure science,’ there were 77 volumes,” he continued. “This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid.”

And that’s just at one school. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore described the public school library system as horrific. “The DC Public School libraries I have seen resemble a library I once saw at Lorton Prison when I taught there in the 1990′s,” he said. “Few books, hardly any good books of any relevance, and the books are ragged, old and insulting.”

“And,” in the words of Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Jericho Brown before the event. Thanks for the books, Jericho!

Henderson and others at this past Saturday’s Summer 2011 Literary Arts in The Park wondered how the historic traditional public schools in the nation’s capital were below the 100 book per student threshold. “Our kids here deserve not just enough, but the best,” Henderson said.

Another point of contention were the current disparities in educational resources between the city’s haves and have-nots. “I have also seen libraries at private schools in the area and these libraries are usually stellar,” Gilmore said.

Among those private schools with stellar libraries is Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama are among the 1,109 students.

In a post on her award-winning website, author and freelance writer Susan Ohanian noted that the school has three libraries. “The Upper Level school library contains over 20,000 volumes,” wrote the former educator and current fellow at both the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Ohanian noted that Sidwell Friends has a separate area for books about the study of China, adding that students also have access to more than 50 magazines and journals. “The library also subscribes to ProQuest for online periodicals in full text,” she wrote. “This service is available both at the school and to students when off-campus.”

Ohanian sent out a charge for the First Family to correct the disparities. “I know there are thousands of schools across the country hurting for the lack of books, libraries, and librarians, but when we see one little light of a school trying to buck the anti-library tide, we must try to help,” she wrote. “And we should urge our First Family to do likewise.”

The poets and organizers at the Saturday event at Watts Park responded to a similar call to action sent out by Tidal Basin Review, Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Abdul Ali shared a poem about his experiences at a creative writing workshop at Howard University.

The event kicked off a series of book drives to take place around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries.

Gilmore, who was on the program to perform but didn’t make it because of a last minute scheduling conflict, did collect books for the drive. Though there in spirit, he called Saturday’s event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

But more needs to be done, Gilmore noted. He suggested the organizers creating a grassroots coalition or a nonprofit to work outside what he calls “the toxic dysfunctional government apparatus.” This coalition or nonprofit would regularly collect and make literature available to DC public school libraries.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) That's me, there!

Saturday’s event was just the initial effort, Gilmore noted, applauding the organizers for “a small, yet, symbolical way” of showing DC youths they’re not alone.

Henderson agreed. “Events like these empower average people to cause change in their own and in the communities of others,” she said. “It puts the power back into the hands of the people, whose love and connection to a place or space will push them to work harder and give more to the positive development and preservation of the culture, or cultures, that have nourished them.”

Henderson hoped residents left inspired to affect change in their own ways. She also hoped the event would spur “wider and stronger community involvement in support of youth.” Like Gilmore, Henderson offered suggestions on how to take the next step.

“This is a problem with a practical solution that everyone can be a part of and feel good about,” Henderson said. “The idea is to take what you know, your own talents and gifts, and your resources and networks and use them to better your community.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Yao Hoke Glover and Randall Horton chopping it up.

During the event, the poets took the stage after posing for a group photo with organizers and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Among them was Abdul Ali, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort. “I liked the idea of sharing poems with a book drive,” Ali said. “It’s a rare opportunity to do literary activism and a reading all in one.”

Poet Yao Hoke Glover agreed with Ali. “Literacy and the promotion of reading is the foundation of a community’s ability to transfer ideas [and] connect with one another,” Glover said. “The concept of books and literature must be cultivated in the children at an early age.”

That the event took place in Ward 7, with construction on the new Woodson High School in the background, made it all the more symbolic for the poet. “I would hope the event is a very concentrated and solid beginning to the strengthening of D.C. Literary Culture, particularly in the African American Community,” said Glover, who closed out the reading with poems about his father.

The highlight of the event was Mister Señor Love Daddy’s appearance on that humid Saturday. “Yes, children, this is the cool-out corner,” the fictitious disc jockey said in a poem written by Jonathan Moody and performed by Derrick Weston Brown, who opened up his set with OPP (Other People’s Poetry) before reading his own.

The character’s words summed up the mood of those gathered that afternoon in the park. He said, “I’ll be giving you all the help you need.”

For those interested in donating books, please contact Melanie Henderson via email at communitybookdrivedc@gmail.com.

At 30, I’m OK Being Unhip

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

While teaching in an after-school program one evening, Epiphany walked up and punched me in the face. It happened in the middle of a writing exercise I gave my students. The enthusiasm of some had them writing right away, while others sighed and laid their heads on the desks.

One of them rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guh!” To which I said, “You’re what?” As the students laughed, unwilling to tell me what it meant out of concern that an outsider will know their coded language, I felt every bit of 30—and some.

I thought of when I once sat where they were, laughing with my friends at the strained expression on our teacher’s face. We used a word she wasn’t familiar with and she asked us what it meant. Instead of an explanation, all she got was us laughing and pointing at her just like my students’ response to my unsuccessful efforts at getting one myself; these middle school kids weren’t talking.

I had to ask a high school student, who’s among the few that come back each year to their alma mater to hang out with their friends at the workshop. When she told me what it meant, I wondered how did this happen? How was it possible for a member of the hip hop generation to be anything but?

I don’t know if that was what Sophocles meant when he said, “A man growing old becomes a child again,” that no matter how old we get life still has a thing or two to teach us. Another thought crossed my mind. When I sat where my students sat, 30 seemed so old it was depressing. At the time, my friends and I asked each other, “Is there anything to do after 30, besides die?”

At the time, our thinking was that you had fun in your teens, settled down in your early 20s, then got ready for old age after 25. If only someone told us then that growing old, as singer and actor Maurice Chevalier once put it, “is the reward of a well-spent youth.”

(PHOTO: puregrowthorganics.com)

If only we knew then that old age wasn’t the “sad and melancholy prospects of decay,” but the “hopes of eternal youth in a better world,” as Chevalier puts it.

Since then, I’ve learned better than to fear what comes after 25, even if it means being as unhip as we once thought our parents were. That day in the after-school workshop wasn’t the first time Epiphany smacked me over the head.

She did it a year earlier, when I was giving a young woman a ride. The woman worked under my fiancée at a nonprofit advocacy group. That day, everyone was in a festive mood after pulling off the first-ever youth-led hearing that addressed the issues of foster teens aging out of the system without proper supports.

I was proud of all the teens who testified that day in the council chamber. They had the ear of DC Council Member Tommy Wells, who chaired the Committee on Human Services, which is responsible for welfare, social, and youth affairs.

The young woman and I were on our way to the restaurant where everyone else was waiting. She sat in the back, nodding to Pharoahe Monch, Cannibal Ox, and a slew of other underappreciated emcees I had playing through my stereo.

I felt good putting a 16-year-old on to some real music. Watching her in the rearview mirror, I smiled at how she seemed to enjoy what she was hearing. I smiled at the thought of being 29 and still hip—that is, until she said, “I think it’s cool when old people listen to hip-hop.” And out of nowhere, came the scratching sound of a record needle across vinyl grooves.

(PHOTO: super.heavy/Flickr)

When I told her 29 is not old, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, OK.” I guess I shouldn’t have taken it personal, considering Betty Friedan’s wisdom. “Aging is not lost youth,” the writer and activist once said, “but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

That day in the after-school workshop was also Epiphany’s way of reiterating her message. The word “Guh,” according to the high school student, is a term used in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area to express when someone or something frustrates you.

So, I made my students “guh.” Even Mr. Hip-hop—with his ability to recall every rhyme from his favorite emcees; who played his music loud inside his car, sometimes with the windows down—couldn’t escape becoming his parents. Or that teacher back in middle school, who frustrated my friends and I because she pushed us to produce our best work.

When I told my students, “I’m sorry for making you all so guh,” they looked at one another before busting a gut. And given what Epiphany’s shown me, I don’t feel so unhip despite their comments. “Nah, Mr. King,” they said, still laughing. “It don’t sound right when you say it.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And you thought mixed martial arts, football and boxing were tough contact sports? Take a stroll on any city sidewalk, and you’re bound to get shoved, kicked and shouldered.

These sidewalk hogs plow through the middle of walkways. Sometimes they travel in a group of two or three and pretend not to notice you, unwilling to give up any space on the concrete; other times, it’s someone staring you down, daring you to brush them or complain once you’ve been knocked from the curb to the grass.

And just because they’ve forced you into a game of sidewalk chicken doesn’t mean you have to be helpless.

Several writers, through their blogs and news articles, added their voices to a discussion ranging from their take on sidewalk hogs, to scientific studies on walkers’ rage, to the deteriorating street etiquette. They also offered advice on how to handle aggressive pedestrians.

Among them is Shuana Marie, whose brush with aggressive pedestrians came while job hunting in Florence, Italy. She noted that the sidewalks there are so narrow people have to turn sideways to allow one another to pass.

“Generally the locals do not notice when they bump you with their shoulder, arm, shopping bags, or my most recent experience of the oversized designer purse,” Shauna wrote on her blog Italian Living. “I’ve been struck and thrown off balance on several occasions…this has required a major adjustment for me, accustomed as I am to the ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, and ‘excuse me’ that I’m familiar with back home [in Calgary, Canada].”

(ARTWORK: Kenneth Kelsoe)

Recounting a story of what happened one morning on a way to her job interview, Shauna was still surprised by the sidewalk hog she encountered. “My formidable opponent is a master of the game and comes in the guise of a petite woman wearing 5″ heels,” she wrote. “Striding down the centre of the busy street’s narrow sidewalk, she refuses to give me an inch to pass.”

Though Shauna “mastered the art of wide-eyed intimidation” in the regular game of chicken, she was no match for the “stiletto-clad drill-sergeant.” “As a mere mortal faced with her well-practiced battle skills, I admit defeat, and withdraw by stepping off the curb.”

Shauna watched the woman’s “umbrella and oversized designer purse flanking her like medieval weaponry,” and took a lesson from that incident. “I need an intimidating purse,” she concluded, “large, preferably in black, and ornamented with grey skulls & multiple metal studs.”

During an online correspondence, Zoe (whose blog article “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile” inspired this post) told me, “Once, a friend of mine and I were walking together down the street and a guy barked at my friend to MOVE!”

This guy, and others like him, would be called “Sidewalk  Ragers,” according to the Wall Street Journal article “Get Out of My Way, You Jerk! : Researchers Study ‘Sidewalk Rage,’ Seeking Insights on Anger’s Origins and Coping Techniques.”

It’s a concept real enough for one scientist to create a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” which looks at how ragers express anger. “At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” researchers told WSJ.

Intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself through aggressive actions that make a situation more than it really is, according to the Mayo Clinic staff. The outbursts or temper tantrums involve ragers attacking others to the point of causing bodily harm and damage of property broken during the incident.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The strange thing about IED is that it’s unpremeditated. According to sources, it’s currently listed among the other impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association that includes standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

After an IED episode, the Mayo Clinic staff said, “people with intermittent explosive disorder may feel remorse, regret or embarrassment.”

John Kalish, a Manhattan television producer, noted that IED’s effects are a sign of the times. ”There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now—forget it,” Kalish said in the New York Times article “Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain.”

Offering clinical terms for Kalish’s and others’ frustrations with aggressive pedestrians, the Sidewalk Etiquette site roughly estimated that the average sidewalk consist of four by four concrete tiles. And given that a person’s shoulders span about two feet, according to the website, there’s no reason pedestrians should brush one another on walkways.

At the top of the rules listed on the site is Stay Right. “There’s nothing worse than the individual who has  a width of ten feet in their path and the bravado to squeeze you for every inch by brushing against your shoulder as they walk by,” according to Sidewalk Etiquette.

Jennifer Worick, a Seattle-based author and lecturer, echoed those sentiments. When people ask if she’d want the superpower of flight or to become invisible, Worick chooses flight because, as she puts it, “I’m already invisible”—at least, that’s how it seems when she’s walking down her block.

(PHOTO: Eagle Tae Kwon Do)

She usually encounters a gang of sidewalk hogs caught up in their conversations. “They don’t acknowledge my existence,” she wrote on her blog Things I Want to Punch in the Face. “They wouldn’t know if I was tricked out in fetish gear or pointing a flamethrower directly at them,” she continued. “Even a fiendish mime would escape their attention.”

As they got closer, it was clear to Worick that she was a forced participant in the game of sidewalk chicken. “I always lose,” she wrote. “At the last minute, I veer out of their way, usually tripping into a tree bed or slamming into a building.”

The staff at the Mayo Clinic urged aggressive pedestrians to seek treatment for their disorder. “Treatment may involve medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses,” according to the staff.

But Worick was ready to take some action of her own to set them straight. “I’m staging a silent protest and I’m asking you to join me,” she wrote. “When you encounter a line of people coming at you, stop. Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you.”

And if that doesn’t work?  “You saw The Karate Kid,” Worick wrote. “Sweep the leg.”

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas) Derrick Weston Brown holds an MFA in creative writing, from American University. He is a graduate of the Cave Canem summer workshop for black poets and the VONA summer workshop.

Snagglepuss is bitter. He airs his frustrations with the Pink Panther on E! True Hollywood Story, after their short-lived love affair:

“When the big money came calling
Ol’ Pinky packed his bags and gave
me some song and dance about how
I’d never have to work again […]” (from “Snagglepuss Spills his Guts on E! True Hollywood Story”).

Then there’s Bonita Applebum. She’s not just a classic hip hop song anymore. In fact, she’s a grown woman “with a mortgage/ and two degrees under her belt” (from “Remembering Bonita Applebum”).

These are just a few of the characters that populate Derrick Weston Brown’s debut poetry collection, Wisdom Teeth. It’s an apt title for a book in which the speaker cuts his teeth on issues ranging from slavery and gentrification to love and hip hop.

I fell in love with DC all over again after reading “Missed Train”, though that poem could be a testament on dating in DC:

I smelled you at the Metro stop
Tasted you on the Yellow
Glimpsed you on the Green
Caught you on the Orange
Loved you on the Red
Lost you on the Blue

Now I need a transfer
or at least exit fare.

The elusive woman in “Missed Train” could be a metaphor for unmet expectations either on a date or in a relationship that takes us “for every dime” after investing our time in other people with no returns.

In Wisdom Teeth, the speaker’s searching for stability in every aspect of his life. It’s a journey that takes him through 110 pages and five sections—Hourglass Flow, The Sweet Home Men Series, The Unscene, Wisdom Teeth and Ajar.

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Busboys and Poets/PM Press)

And if you’re new to the city, the speaker lets you know what to expect in “What It’s Like to Date in D.C. for Those Who Haven’t”: “It’s like having a mouthful of prayers/ when all you looking for is that one/ Amen.”

Reading Wisdom Teeth, I felt like a passenger invited along for the ride, especially with the poem “Building”. The speaker’s details brought me with him into the coffee shop, where I noticed the “syrup of sunlight” like a second glaze on the wooden tabletops.

I heard the “trash talk and chuckles” of black men playing dominoes. I dug the music in “the snap crack/ of dotted flat backs” and the “dry bones/ glossy bones”.

It would have been easy to take that moment as a commentary on brotherhood and bonding, and not realize the game of bones is just a vehicle the speaker uses to drive his point home with the reader. The true commentary’s in the “steady trash talk” after “Fingers drum the table”: “I’m on my third house./ Where you at?! Jati?/ HUD is officially/ in the building!

Watching “the bones…/ like unhinged teeth”, I thought of the deteriorating houses in DC’s rundown neighborhoods. Watching as “Jati resets the fracture/ smiling as houses change ownership”, I thought of so-called neighborhood revitalization projects that displaced former residents.

And Jati’s response to his friend’s trash talking? “Eminent domain Fred!/ You getting gentrified!

I loved the speaker’s clever use of brothers bonding over a game as commentary on the changing demographics in America’s major cities. The speaker’s playful tone in “Building” reminded me how some of us use humor to help swallow those bitter truths.

What also helps those truths go down easy is the fellowship of black men  who “finish/ each other’s sentences” and chase red beans and rice “with/ rum that/ warms the gullet/ makes gut chuckles flow easy” in the poem “Kitchen Gods”.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) l-r: Brandon D. Johnson, Brian Gilmore, Joel Dias-Porter, Patrick Washington, Ernesto Mercer, Alan King, Fred Joiner, Derrick Weston Brown.

The men in this poem could be my dad, uncles and grandfather. These are men who “dust off/ old stories like records that hadn’t seen a turntable/ in some time.” And, contrary to masculine myths and stereotypes, these ordinary men “resuscitate the/ ghost of old lovers/ angry indifferent or otherwise.”

That resuscitation is really these guys assessing their life choices—where they’ve been and where they are now. These are hardworking men who support their families, men who’ve grown as a result of their experiences.

The physical details in “Kitchen Gods” are striking. I could see these guys mapping “[…] out/ a woman’s dimensions”, molding “hips out of thin air/ recreating/ her walk and/ arching calves.” I also saw the men dapping up each other and bumping fist “so hard/ rings skip sparks”.

I could hear the conversations punctuated with “g’dams” and “g’lords”. I even smiled at the memory of being shooed “out of the kitchen/ with gentle hands” when I was too young for the adult talk. Now that I’m old enough, I can appreciate the times I’ve been a part of “a small kitchen crew”.

One reason I love Wisdom Teeth is the poem “Gust”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The sky snarled.

We heard God swallow cumulus,

stratus, and anvil headed nimbus

before the hush.

We ventured outside

Peered up into the calm.

The sky      a frosted snow globe

swirl of stars.

The moon

a glossy clear polished

fingernail sliver

winked.

Odd

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The wind so strong

I could lean into it

arms out and not fall.

I was Pisa.

What did I know

of nature’s way

of teaching lessons?

That there is

an eye of the storm.

Watch me smile.

My back to the rifle

sight of lassoed menace

clueless to the coming stretch

and yawn of ruin.

In “Gust”, the speaker revisits Charlotte, North Carolina, ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I love this poem for other reasons.

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas)

If storms are metaphors for troubling times in our lives, then “Gust” speaks to the current political climate: the US military in Libya, rising militias and hate groups, politicians cutting funds for social programs as a solution to the budget deficit.

The “cumulus,/ stratus, and anvil headed nimbus” were the delusions of politicians and some finance experts who convinced everyone else that the markets were economically sound when history has shown us otherwise. “What did I know/ of nature’s way/ of teaching lessons?” Just replace “history” with “nature” and I’m sure that line says what we all were thinking.

God swallowing those delusions was reality setting in. That an alarming amount of people lost their homes to foreclosures makes Hurricane Hugo a metaphor for the current economic crisis, its “rifle/ sight of lassoed menace”.

That corporate CEOs, whose businesses stayed afloat with bailout money from the federal government, went on with business as usual is the sign of lessons not learned.  “Gust”, in its own way, warns against that kind of ignorance that keeps us “clueless to the coming stretch/ and yawn of ruin.”

Wisdom Teeth is right on time. In this collection, as one writer puts it, “Truth cuts its way beneath the unspoken like new teeth on their way to light.” I couldn’t agree more, grateful for their arrival.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) For many years, Ruth L. Schwartz made her living as a public health educator, trainer and consultant specializing in AIDS and cancer.

In both Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, the speakers tempt God: “tell me why you ever thought/ you could improve on this/ music, this hunger[1]”. They call out the crazy notions floating around in both American history and its politics.

The difference between these two collections is that while Elvis Presley is Alive… is loud with a cast of personalities, Edgewater is quiet. Plants, animals, water and the sun populate Schwartz’s collection, as if she intended on taking us back to the Garden of Eden, before man’s destructive action.

Death’s possibilities hover over Edgewater. In this collection, nature is a teacher whose overall messages teach us that life is too short to wonder “what if”, so just do and have fun in the process.

We learn this in Schwartz’s opening poem, “Fetch”, where the speaker’s on a beach, tossing a stick to her dog. Here’s the physical details about the dog I thought were striking:

This one keeps swimming out into the

icy water for a stick,

he’d do it all day and all night

if you’d throw it that long,

he’d do it till it killed him, then he’d die

dripping and shining, a black waterfall,

the soggy broken stick still clenched

in his doggy teeth […][2]

(PHOTO: HarperCollins)

Here are the psychological details: “…watching him you want to cry/ for all the wanting you’ve forsworn”. While it’s unclear what the speaker’s rejected, or “forsworn”, it might be an opportunity for the reader to fill in the blanks with things he/she have rejected either out of fear or something else. I know people who want love and success but self-sabotage because of their fears of being hurt again or having so much expected of them.

I wanted to know more about the speaker’s situation—what “all the wanting” was about. But both the physical and psychological details intensify what the dog becomes to the speaker. Looking at the stick that’s thrown as the speaker’s affection for her four-legged companion, the dog’s act of retrieving it each time—“all day and all night”—to the point “he’d do it till it killed him” makes him courageous in a way the speaker is not.

While she’s rejected what she wanted (maybe love), the dog continuously goes after what he wants at that moment—the object of affection—despite the danger nearby, the dog possibly being “the soggy broken stick” clenched in the mouth of the icy waves.

A musical moment in this poem is the recurring “he’d do it”: “he’d do it all day and all night/ if you throw it that long,/ he’d do it till it killed him […]” That repetition is not unlike the stick being thrown and the dog retrieving it over and over.

(PHOTO: Carrie_W on flickr)

That “his body surges…as if to say/ Nothing could stop me now—[3]” is a lesson for both the speaker and reader to go after what you want in life.

The sexual charge in “Oh God, Fuck Me” is unbelievable. Here are some physical details: “[…] trees in spring, exposing themselves,/ flashing leaf-buds so firm and swollen/ I want to take them into my mouth.[4]

At first, those images seemed pretty easy, but the surprises came with the “kitchen faucet, dripping/ like a nymphomaniac,/ all night slowly filling and filling,/ then overflowing the bowls in the sink—[5]

If the speaker’s job is to arouse the reader, then it worked with me. While reading Schwartz’s poem, I felt like I was reading an erotic tale with surprises that were just as arousing. Here’s another surprise from Schwartz: “[…] English muffins,/ the spirit of the dough aroused/ by browning, thrilled by buttering.[6]

And this:

(PHOTO: Allison Thorton)

Fuck me with orange juice,

its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,

leaves sweet flecks of foam […]

along the inside of the glass.

Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,

blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.[7]

Damn! The speaker’s tone is both playful and excited. A musical moment in the poem was the recurring “Fuck me”: “Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things,/…Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping/…Fuck me with breakfast.”

That Schwartz’s poem is a conversation the speaker’s having with God mocks the religious notion of the spiritual father as some elderly man repulsed by sex. Some readers might be put off by this poem, but it’s that same absurdity the speaker finds in the notion that God would be repulsed at all by sex, the thing he created.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also raises a question: is it possible for parents to censor what their children watch when sex is all around us, even in the “ordinary things”?

(PHOTO: Sean Bonner)

Each “Fuck me” seemed to work not only as transitions between thoughts, but also intensified the pleasures experienced by these “ordinary things”. I automatically thought of my fiancée craving a slice of chocolate cake or key lime pie.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also turns the idea of sex as something dirty on it head while implying that the act itself is a kind of church: “Fuck me…/ with the downstairs neighbor’s vacuum,/ that great sucking noisy dragon/ making the dirty come clean.” The church is in “the dirty”, or the sinner, becoming “clean”, or in good standing with God.

I could go on with other examples of what Schwartz’s speaker tackles in her 107-page collection, but, in the interest of space, I’ll keep it to the earlier examples and Schwartz’s poem, “Edgewater Park”:

Even now, at the end of the century,

when our survival as a species

seems a matter of dumb luck,

our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness

the way so many dying insects

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

bead the spider’s web—

even now, on the cliffs above the beach,

I see two men who meet for pleasure,

nothing else,

fully clothed, in a cove of bushes,

standing face to face, as if to dance—

but one has both hands on the other’s cock

and is pulling at it, tenderly—

and the body, at least, would name this Love,

and who are we to contradict

the pure animal body?

all around us, in expensive houses,

men and women married many years

touch far less joyfully than this,

with less attention to the hunger of it.

And truly, what do we have left

but moments of this gazing, pulling

at each other, at ourselves,

(PHOTO: Rukhlenko)

the shells ground finer and finer

under our feet,

making a kind of jagged sand,

the insects we call Canadian soldiers

rising from the water in great swarms

to mate and die—

on my window they looked like tadpoles,

hundreds of them flooding toward

the light—

and some of them

made their way in,

the whiteness of the ceiling

became their water,

they massed there as full of joy

as if it were the sea.

By morning they were dead,

their many bodies

light and dry,

littering the tabletops.

And the spiders, lucky spiders,

ate for weeks.[8]

In “Edgewater Park”, the speaker’s examination of the quality and condition of human nature is through her comparison of humans to the “Canadian soldiers”, insects that rise “from the water in great swarms/ to mate and die—”

The speaker’s tone is pity, especially for homophobes, who, in this poem, haven’t evolved beyond the insects that “bead the spider’s web—” I mentioned earlier that life is too short to wonder “what if,” that the overall message is to just do and have fun in the process.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

Well, these two guys seem to get it, having found the “jewels of tenderness” within their bodies. If the spider is death, would you wait for it to weave a web for you to stud? Obviously, the two men wouldn’t.

The few musical moments in “Edgewater Park” didn’t enhance the context or take away from its contents. Here’s one of those moments: “our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness…” Reading those lines aloud, “our bodies studded with” made me think of a jazz drummer setting up his solo. I counted two trochees and one dactyl, which sped up the falling meter before the swing rhythm of “these jewels of tenderness”.

Other musical moments are the “O” sounds in “fully clothed, in a cove of bushes”, and the “S” sounds in “standing face to face, as if to dance—” There’s also the recurring “even now”: “Even now, at the end of the century,/…even now, on the cliffs above the beach”. The repetition seemed to bring the poem back on track from the extended metaphor of “our survival as a species”.

Going back to the two men, their economic status is not known. But the speaker makes one thing clear: that they found happiness instead of the appearance of it only enhances their quality of life more than the married couples “in expensive houses”. That the two men pleasure each other makes their act more courageous than the well-to-do “men and women married many hear” who “touch far less joy fully than this.”

Whether it’s the LGBT or black community, the speakers in Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem are bullhorns for oppressed groups.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Unlike Schwartz’s speaker—whose overall tone were at times playful, excited and melancholy—the tone of Gilmore’s speaker ranges from sarcastic and loving, to angry and pitying.

For anyone who thinks Elvis Presley is the king of Rock n’ Roll, Gilmore’s speaker is here to clear up the history of popular music, remind us of freedoms taken for granted and to scrutinize race relations in America. He starts with the opening poem, “Angry Voices”, which is in four parts. The first three honors Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bo Diddley, all of whom paved the way for a bitter Chuck Berry in the fourth part, titled “Memphis (the stolen)”:

“any wite boy wit’ dat much nerve,

to come in ‘ere wit’ that recorda’ ‘n all,

rite in front of all these spades,

wit’ all this hate,

wit all this energy jus’ ready to explode,

has gotta be a king.”[9]

For the most part, the speaker’s tone is a controlled-anger. In “Elvis”, the sarcasm cuts like a blade in a knife fight. The speaker transforms Elvis Presley and the mass of white imitators into an oversized animal that terrorizes black culture: “[…] i swear i/ saw him in harlem/ everyone bolt your doors!/ […] board up your windows!!/ […] stop […] singing […] !!![10]

The speaker calls out “the hug monster looming over us” and attacks it directly here:

(PHOTO: Daniel A. Norman)

a wailing soul simulating bantu and yoruba wearing

zoot suits and breaking more black sisters’ hearts

than chuck berry could mend with ‘maybelline’ or

‘thirty days.’[11]

A musical moment in Gilmore’s “elvis” is here: “such a mass,/ such a disturbing mass. such a wallowing in the mud/ mass          such a dangerous mass.[12]” I saw the recurring “such a” as exclamations. With each “such a” the mass seemed to grow to something “disturbing” and “wallowing in the mud” until it became “dangerous”. I also enjoyed the “M” sounds close together in “mud/ mass”. (I also appreciated the reference to Muddy Waters, who was another musician from whom “the mass” stole their sound, having wallowed “in the mud”.)

Here’s another musical moment: “the mass couldn’t do it all because mud   is like/ blood;          mud is about emotional outrage![13]” I like the internal rhyme of “mud” and “blood”. And like the earlier example, the recurring “mud” punctuates the seriousness of the matter.

Here are musical moments in Gilmore’s poem, “september is not change”, which focuses on the political casualties in South Africa:

(PHOTO: Robert Ruark)

in september leaves fall

from trees like the dead

children don’t wait until

december to be seen naked[14]

Reading those lines aloud, I enjoyed the “E” sounds in “leaves”, “trees” and “seen”. The stretched sound in “leaves” and “trees” slowed the rhythm to set up the surprise of “like the dead”.

Reading those lines, I thought of the Bisho massacre that happened in 1991, a year before Third World Press published Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive… According to various sources, the Ciskei Defence Force shot at 100,000 protestors, leaving 29 dead in Bisho, the capital of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

In the months leading up to the Bisho massacre, according to those same sources, the African National Congress was found guilty of human rights violations in some of their exile camps, and the violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party left 46 dead. Then you have the Bisho massacre in September, hence the poem’s title, “september is not change”.

Like Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem “Edgewater Park”, Gilmore’s poem is a plea for humanity. The other musical moments in “september is not change” intensifies this plea:

(PHOTO: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)

the september papers read like

august papers

july papers

june papers

headlines of blood and fire

burning ash between my fingers

in september i pray for jesus

i pray for mohammed

i pray for someone

somewhere to make september

not like all the other months[15]

The listing of months, followed by the recurring “papers” helps illustrate the redundancy, or excess, of “headlines of blood and fire”. The recurring “i pray” gives the speaker an urgent tone, with each “i pray” as a plea not only to jesus and mohammed, but to some god who can “make september/ not like all the other months”. The recurring “september is not change” throughout that poem won’t let us forget.

Gilmore’s poem, “We must not be cows”, captures overall uses of both his and Schwartz’s speaker in their examination of the human condition and quality:

(PHOTO: Micro Cinefest)

I’ve always hated wiggly lines:

wiggly lines on my TV set

making the picture impossible to comprehend;

my doctor says—

this can ruin your eyes

this is unhealthy.

Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,

make them swell and start cuttin’,

I am watching news and eating chocolate

forgetting about next week’s check-up.

I ate a steak last night,

there was a little TV set on the

fatback,

(PHOTO: Narayan Vivek)

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks afrika is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

I sleep hard at night              dream of wiggly lines

that wiggle,

I eat jigsaw puzzles while reading Koran,

shatter dishes            scan the Bible,

when I wake I toss my television with the sliced up

(PHOTO: Banksy Graffiti Street Art)

newscaster out the window,

He still talks of country

still makes my tooth ache

still

makes

my sirloin taste

strangely like

hamburger.[16]

Gilmore’s poem is clearly about the media’s distortion of facts. With the physical details in “We must not be cows”, I heard the static from the TV and saw the “wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face.” I also saw the speaker “watching news and eating chocolate” or the “steak last night”.

The psychological details are just as striking: “Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ make them swell and start cuttin’”. That the “wiggly lines irritate” the speaker’s “wisdom teeth” and none of the others was a clever play not only on “wisdom”, but also the idea of rejecting the distorted information. The title adds context to the speaker’s plea for his readers to not be cows grazing the grass they’re fed from manipulative people.

(PHOTO: Digital Burn)

When I think of the “wiggly lines”, I recall what I learned about America in elementary school: our great armies and humanitarian efforts. Many of my teachers, who I’m sure meant well, unwittingly became the newscaster on the TV screen covered by wiggly lines.

A look at American pop culture shows that those wiggly lines also speak to distracting TV ads and consumerism. Like the speaker, I used to “sleep hard at night” dreaming “of wiggly lines”. It wasn’t until college, when I started reading more on my own about America, that I discovered her hypocrisies. That’s when I awoke. Like the speaker, I tossed “my television with the sliced up/ newscaster out the window” and started thinking for myself.

Here’s a musical line: “forgetting next week’s check-up.” The “eh” sounds—“forgetting”, “next” and “check-up”—mixed in with “K” sounds—“next week’s check”—made it pleasurable to read “We must be cows” aloud.

There’s also music in the wiggly lines’ recurrence: “wiggly lines on my TV set/[…] Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ […] wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face […] wiggly lines/ that wiggle”. That repetition successfully recreates the pattern of “wiggly lines” on a TV set. (In this case, the speaker’s message isn’t twisted by the “wiggly lines”.)

(PHOTO: LG Studio)

The barbed wit in “We must not be cows” is in the speaker’s sarcastic tone, which cuts at America’s ethnocentric ways in which it approaches other cultures:

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks africa is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

In both Brian Gilmore’s Elvis is Alive… and Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater, the speakers have undertaken the ambitious task of calling out any absurdities no matter where they pop up. And looking at the 21stcentury, two things are clear: 1) their task is far from over, and 2) the speakers have their work cut out for them.


[1] from Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem, “Talking to God on the Seventh Day”

[2] Ruth L. Schwartz, Edgewater, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 43

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 44

[8] Ibid., p. 5-6

[9] Brian Gilmore, Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, Chicago: Third World Press, 1992, p. 6

[10] Ibid., p. 7

[11] Ibid., p. 10

[12] Ibid., p. 8

[13] Ibid., p. 9

[14] Ibid., p. 15

[15] Ibid., p. 15

[16] Ibid., p. 54

(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

(PHOTO: Telegraph.co.uk)

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.”

(ARTWORK: 8tracks.com)

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: latinopoetryreview.blogspot.com) 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].

(PHOTO: Searchamelia.com)

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”.

(PHOTO: Dcist.com)

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

(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

Stephen Dobyns: The Great (Allusion)ist

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Speakwell.com) Stephen Dobyns is a poet and novelist.

Editor’s note: I’m currently a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) candidate in the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Below is a look at one of my favorite poets, Stephen Dobyns, and his use of voice in his collections Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights.

If Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights are indications of how the speaker is used in Stephen Dobyns‘s poems, then expect each poem to be a lens through which the reader gets a heightened view of American culture and the hypocrisies in its ideals. Though there’s an overlap of themes in both books, any similarities in the use of speaker are few and far between.

In Black Dog, Red Dog (1984), the speaker primarily functions as a watchdog of humanity, barking at various kinds of injustices committed within America’s blue collar communities. And as a result of those injustices, the people in the poems are transformed for better or for worst. Take the poem, “The Gun,” which on the surface could be a poem about sexual harassment and the consequences of parents’ carelessly leaving firearms where their children can find them.

While playing at a friend’s house, the boy is jarred by his friend’s request for him to pull his pants down. When the boy tries to leave, an already unpleasant situation takes a turn for the worst after the boy’s friend says he has something to show him:

He goes to a drawer and when he turns around

you see he is holding a small gun by the barrel.

You feel you are breathing glass. You ask if it is

loaded and he says, Sure it is, and you say: Show me.

He removes the clip, take a bullet from his pocket.

See this, he says, then puts the bullet into the clip,

slides the clip into the butt of the gun with a snap.

The boy sits on the bed and pretends to study the gun.

He has a round fat face and black hair. Take off

your pants, he says. Again you say you have to go home.

He stands up and points the gun at your legs. Slowly,

you unhook your cowboy belt, undo the metal buttons

of your jeans. They slide down past your knees.

Pull down your underwear, he tells you. You tell him

you don’t want to. He points the gun at your head.[1]

What saved the boy’s life is when he pees his pants:

The boy with the gun sees the spreading pool of urine.

You baby, he shouts, you baby, you’re disgusting.

You want to apologize, but the words jumble and

choke in your throat. Get out, the boy  shouts.[2]

(IMAGE: Stock)

Running from the house, the boy is relieved to still be alive. But he’s transformed by the event. Summing up her own near-death experience[3], Virginia Rivers provided some insight into the boy’s transformation. “As each second passed there was more to learn…mysteries and so much more, all pouring into my mind.[4]” Jody A. Long, J.D., a near-death researcher, elaborated on the issue. “One of the near-death experience truths is that each person integrates their near-death experience into their own pre-existing belief system,[5]” Long was quoted.

Watching his neighbors in their routine of living despite what happened upstairs, I’m sure the boy knew his sense of the world no longer exists. “You know you died up there among the comic books/ and football pennants,” according to the poem, “as sure as if the boy had shot your/ face off, shot the very piss out of you.[6]” And as a result, the boy’s forever transformed.

Another example of people transformed by violence is “Under The Green Ceiling.” In the poem, two strangers on a country road have two different desires. The first man, who talks about women, longs for his wife. The second man, who’s surviving at all cost, plans on robbing the first guy:

…he imagines how the knife will slide up

under the ribs, how he’ll drag the body off the road,

then escape over the field to the railway line.

So, while the one man talks about girls,

the other tries to steel himself and feel hatred

for his companion, tries to make him the focus

for all that has gone wrong in his life—

the loss of his job, desertion of his family.[7]

When the guy succeeds in killing the first man, the killer is transformed “…as he awaits the slow unfolding of justice.[8]” According to an anonymous quote, “Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.[9]” The lack of personal growth results in transformation through a system of reduction, according to the poem:

He has no sense of himself as a fragment.

He has no sense of how he and his dead companion

made up one man. Add a third and he’s still

one man; add a fourth, likewise. But by himself,

he’s a fragment of wall, part of a broken pot.[10]

There’s also a message in those lines that we’re not in this world alone, that every person is a fragment of something greater than themselves. It’s our faith in that notion that makes life worthwhile, according to Gordon B. Hinckley[11]. It’s that type of faith that keeps us “going when the challenge seems overwhelming and the course is entirely uncertain.[12]” And without that everyone would be like the killer summed up in the last stanza:

…he’s like the quivering rodent under its

protection of leaves, terrified when the chance

rock crashes through its green ceiling, victim

of a world that is endlessly random and violent.[13]

In the poem, “Dancing In Vacationland,” Dobyns explores class and privilege. The “men in gray work clothes” and “women in baggy print dresses” who occupy the poem come out of their “tar-paper mobile homes” and “plywood shacks” to dance because it’s the sane thing to do when a higher power keeps its foot on their backs. They dance by the “junked cars and tires, broken furniture, hungry geese and chickens, bored hunting dogs.[14]” In the midst of the merriment, these hard-living people become a spectacle to the tourists. There’s, clearly, an assertion of power by both the out-of-towners and city officials:

…And the tourists from New York

stop their cars and the tourists from Massachusetts

take pictures and the tourists from Connecticut

feed candy to the little ones, until at last the realtors

and tour-guide directors and lobster-shack owners,

until at last the alternative-life-style farmers,

gift-shop operators, local chamber of commerce,

town police, state police and sheriff’s department

all band together and a spokesperson apologizes

to the tourists from the south and begs them

to take no more pictures; and they try to make

the people stop dancing, but the people won’t listen

and keep right on dancing—one foot up, one foot down—

so they push them back off Route 1, push them back

to the little roads behind Searsport, push them back

into the tin and tar-paper mobile homes, the plywood

shacks surrounded by junked cars…[15]

There’s a strong allusion to gentrification. Reading those lines, I thought of the neighborhood bus tours through once economically-depressed parts of the city that have been “revitalized” to attract potential residents with big money. And just as city officials pushed the dancing locals back into their plywood shacks and mobile homes, officials in America’s metropoli attempt to gloss over the eyesores with new stadiums and condos, eventually relocating poor folks out of the city.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

In both Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights, the overall mode of engagement is conversational for the most part. The speaker exists in the poem mainly as an observer, which I’ll explain in detail later in this paper. But Dobyns has a way of making the reader feel as if they’re a pedestrian with whom he’s made small talk while on a long subway ride; or the reader could be in a bar somewhere, listening to Dobyns recount his many tales.

The loss of something, captured in “The Gun” from Black Dog, Red Dog, is explored differently in Cemetery Nights. In that collection, there are the losses of loved ones and time. In the title poem “Cemetery Nights,” the dead are in denial: they pretend they’re alive by attempting to read the newspaper, laughing at something on TV, or clinking their knives and forks on porcelain plates. The two who “roll on the ground,/ banging and rubbing their bodies together/ as if in love or frenzy” is proof that desires outlive the body[16].

Unlike Black Dog, Red Dog, the use of speaker in these poems provide a split-screen view of life and death. In this way, as Dick Sharpies once put it, death is nature telling everyone to slow down[17]. This warning is echoed in “Tomatoes”, where the death of a guy’s mom slows him down. When the coroner calls the guy in to identify his mother among the 10 bodies, the guy, unaware of his mother’s plastic surgery just before her death, has a hard time:

With her new face, she has become a stranger.

Maybe it’s this one, maybe it’s that one.

He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?

He presses their hands to his cheek.

Which ones consoled him?

(PHOTO: beverlyajackson.com) Among Dobyns's honors and awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Those lines suggest two things: 1) the guy might not have known his mother very well if he couldn’t distinguish something of her from the other nine bodies, or 2) the mother had an obsessive amount of plastic surgery to where she became a stranger to those who loved her.  That her son was the only person called to identify the body left me with some questions: Was her son the only living family she had left? Or did her “desire to stay pretty” push her other family members away?

It’s clear the speaker’s intention in this poem is not to mourn the loss of a loved one, or to contemplate the social life of the deceased. Instead, it’s to show how death interrupts life with a lesson. For the guy, who ends up cremating the 10 bodies and placing their ashes in a garbage can, it’s a lesson on the power of love. After talking with poet Tim Seibles about Dobyns’s work, he noted it also look at the violence and insanity of life in both the 20th/21st centuries. “That’s a comment on violence against women in our culture,” Seibles said.

Like desire in “Cemetery Nights,” love as memory also outlives the body. Seibles wondered if it’s also a testament to the man’s loneliness and desperation? That’s possible, especially when the guy decides what to do with the ashes of his mom and the nine other surrogates:

In the spring, he drags the garbage can

out to the garden and begins working the teeth,

the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.

Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.

They grow straight from seed, so fast and big

that the young man is amazed. He takes the first

ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,

he sees his mother’s breasts. In their smoothness,

he finds the consoling touch of her hands.[18]

(PHOTO: Matthew Stockman)

Reading both Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights, I found that Dobyns’s use of speaker was at its best in “Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine,” from Black Dog, Red Dog.

On the surface, the poem could be about horseracing and the interesting characters the speaker encounters while at the bar: the “fast fat girls in tight shorts…a boy as thin as a razor…a chain-smoking old man…” and then Leo, whom Dobyns felt was important enough to identify with a name while the others remain nameless[20]. But go beneath the surface, peel back the layers, and racehorses become a metaphor for every “sure thing” in life we place our bets on for better circumstances.

For the people in the bar, the “sure thing” might have been their dreams, jobs, or their own bodies. And when those sure things don’t come through like those folks had hoped, they end up drinking away their pain and disappointments at Barbara’s Lunch (a place that pops up a few times, as a place-marker, in Dobyns’s other poems), and waiting for Big John.

For the speaker, the “sure thing” was his struggling marriage, which he’s sure is headed toward divorce. It’s unknown how much the speaker’s invested into his marriage, just that “…making a bet is like falling in love…” While watching the actual horse races on TV, the speaker’s marriage is a racehorse he’s hoping will outpace the obstacles. An allusion to him holding on to his struggling marriage was what he tells “the girl with the collar” when she’s about to play the jukebox while the race is still going: “Hold up, I tell her, this is a big race and it’s almost over./ She’s indifferent but polite so she waits. What’s your horse?/ she asks. Maybe Bold Ego, I say, unable to see him.[21]” That horse, “Bold Ego,” suggests two things: 1) maybe it’s the thing that contributed to his marriage being where it is, or 2) maybe it’s the speaker’s attempt to hold his head high while facing uncertainty.

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Conversation

Earlier in this paper, I mentioned that the overall modes of engagement in his poems are conversational for the most part. However, there are times when the speaker’s tone is judgmental as a result of the speaker existing in his poems mainly as an observer and the distance he puts between himself and the other characters.

In “Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine,” the speaker’s not examined as thoroughly as the other characters in the poem. For instance, “The light from the door [that] throws their shadows on the wall” doesn’t throw the shadow of the speaker, who’s also in the bar, alongside the others. In that distance is where the tone and observation become judgmental: “I think how defeated their lives are,” according to the poem[22]. Seibles suggested that the speaker also sees his own defeats in their defeats.

Here’s another example in this poem where the tone of speaker is judgmental:

…bar empty except for/…a table of five people from

the chicken plant/ who I bet have been drinking beer

and shots since breakfast

Two of them are fast fat girls in shorts and loose

blouses and one wears a dog collar.[23]

Here’s another one:

…[I] wonder why/…the boy sticks holes in his arms to

to make dumb/ tattoos with the name Jesse and little

stars and crosses,/ how he will die with that sentimental

doodling still/ on his body, having spent his life as a poor

man’s/ advertisement for unrequited love.[24]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

But the tone is redeemed by the hindsight provided. Barbara S. Cole [25] writes about the power of hindsight in her book about the “painful journey” she took to fight alcohol and drug addiction. “Hindsight…is a learning function,” she writes. “Without this ability…We cannot clean up the wreckage of our actions.[26]

What Dobyns attempts in Black Dog, Red Dog is to help a country come to terms with its “wreckage of actions” as a result of racism, classism, and economic disparities. The task in Cemetery Nights is attempted on a micro level. The individuals themselves—whether dead or alive—come to these terms on their own through hindsight, what’s referred to as “a double-edged sword” by Lance B. Kurke[27]. “Too much of it and the past seems inevitable,” Kurke writes in his book on leadership. “With too little hindsight, a panoramic perspective is impossible.[28]” But with Dobyns’s hindsight, I don’t think we can ever have too much.


[1] Stephen Dobyns, “The Gun”, in Velocities, New York City: Viking Penguin Books, 1994, p. 135.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Notable Quotes on Near-Death. January 26, 2011. <http://www.near-death.com/quotes.html#nde&gt;

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 136

[7] Ibid., p. 142

[8] Ibid., p. 143

[10] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 143

[11] Gordon B. Hinckley – a clergyman and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter -Day Saints

[13] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 143

[14] Ibid., p. 140

[15] Ibid., p. 140-141

[16] Ibid., p. 181

[18] Dobyns, op.cite, p. 184-185

[19] Ibid., p. 161-165

[20] Ibid., p. 161

[21] Ibid., p. 163

[22] Ibid., p. 162

[23] Ibid., p. 161

[24] Ibid., p. 162-163

[25] Barbara S. Cole – a licensed psychotherapist, a professional interventionist and certified clinical hypnotherapist with a private practice in the Corona Del Mar/Newport Beach area of Southern California.

[26] Barbara S. Cole, “We Will Not Regret the Past nor Wish to Shut the Door on It,” from The Gifts of Sobriety: When the Promises of Recovery Come True, Center City: Hazelden, 2000, p. 30.

[27] Lance B. Kurke – an associate professor of management at Duquesne University’s John F. Donahue Graduate School of Business, where he chairs the Leadership and Change Management division.

[28] Lance B. Kurke, “A Lack of Vision,” from The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Man Who Created an Empire, New York City: AMACOM, 2004, p. 99.

The Journey for the Unseen Beauty

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Editor’s note: The essay below is in response to the What Book Changed Your Life Contest by Marita Golden. Winners receive an autographed copy of Marita Golden’s newest book THE WORD: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing. Submission deadline: February 5, 2011. Click here for more contest info.

When Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems by Sonia Sanchez came into my life a decade ago, I wasn’t aware of how it would change my life.

I was a spoken word poet then trying to make a name for myself on the open mike scene in DC, doing poems I thought the crowd found entertaining instead of what I felt from my heart.

I used to frequent Bar Nun on U Street (the venue later changed its name to “Pure Lounge“). I still remember those Monday evenings standing in line two hours before the open mike in unsuccessful attempts at trying to get a good spot on the list, which was any slot before midnight.

In retrospect, the perception time provided is priceless.

It’s easier for me now to see the red flag I missed then, when I spent more time writing what I thought were poems than I did reading the works of established masters, such as Sanchez. But, as the Irish poet and novelist James Joyce once put it, isn’t a mistake a portal “of discovery”?

My introduction to Shake Loose My Skin came at a time when my reading list consisted of only two names. The introduction occurred while browsing the shelves at what was then the Landover, Md.-location of the now-defunct Karibu Books. Some poems in the collection are politically-charged while others are sensuous.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And whether writing about a mom pimping her baby daughter to feed her crack habit or an older woman schooling a young sister on love, the range of the poems in that book showed me the possibilities.

The role of Shake Loose My Skin can be summed up in an anonymous quote. “A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others,” so the saying goes.

Since our encounter in the bookstore, that collection continues to light my way as a poet. In those pages, I found poems used as tools of observation and as a way of documenting life’s unseen beauties; these were poems that shined in the heart of the world.

So it was OK for me to write about my family and childhood. It was alright for me to write about Black men longing for loving relationships (in spite of contrary notions in public space). Those poems in that collection also showed me that vulnerability, itself, was an unseen beauty that permeates my work the same way the jazz and blues energies saturate the poems in Shake Loose My Skin.

That same energy hits me now the way it did 11 years ago, when I moved through the book aisles of Karibu, unaware of the beauty I’d find there. Time and distance from those open mike days gives me a perspective on the near-truth of a German writer’s words that echoes in my head now the way it did then. “A soul that sees beauty,” according to Johann von Goethe, “may sometimes walk alone.”

Looking back, I’m grateful for the journey and the companionship of the poems in Shake Loose My Skin that didn’t let me walk alone.

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