The New Testament by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon, 2014)
Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (Four Way, 2015)
Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (University of Pittsburgh, 2015)
THE YOUTUBE VIDEO starts abruptly. Two Saint Louis symphony-goers stand at their seats, singing “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all” to the tune of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” People in plush red chairs waiting for Brahms’s German Requiem look a little confused. The camera pans shakily to another side of the concert hall where an African American man with dreadlocks tied in a ponytail and a button-down shirt rises to join the song. The white woman with glasses and a short bob next to him does, too. There’s a low hum of disapproval as more and more people sing and two white banners unfurl from the balcony: Racism Lives Here, one says, with an arrow pointing to the Saint Louis Arch. The other reads, Requiem for Mike Brown 1996–2014.
Some in the crowd applaud in sympathy, not minding this interruption to their night of fine art, but one woman in a fancy black dress and pearl bracelets has a look of horror on her face. A man off camera mutters, “He was a thug,” just before we see the conductor with his hands in his pockets, looking out at the next banner swaying from the balcony: Rise Up and Join the Movement. At the conclusion of their song, the flash mob walks out of the auditorium chanting, “Black Lives Matter.” Symphony players clap onstage, their performance delayed by this requiem.
This “disruption” in October 2014 is one of many that have targeted art, commerce, and sports to protest the deaths of African Americans in encounters with the police and prison systems. The banner’s phrase Racism Lives Here has me thinking lately about the literary community as well: an AWP committee member called out for tweeting out the novel Gone with the Wind line by line with a stereotypical image of a “Mammy” as her profile picture; the editor of a prominent independent press defending AWP against charges it excludes the disabled and minorities in a blog post that seemed to re-inscribe racist ideas; and a white poet who submitted his work under an Asian name as a “strategy for ‘placing’ poems.” As a white woman, I’ve been able to ignore the question of whether racism lives here, too—until events like these.
But writers of color have been confronting our country’s racist past and its contemporary manifestations all along. Claudia Rankine’s remarkable poetry collection Citizen, for example, winner of last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award, acts as an indictment of micro-aggressions, small actions that convey prejudice. The Split This Rock festival stands out as a “national network of socially engaged poets.” Groups like Cave Canem, Kundiman, and CantoMundo cultivate young writers who might see literature, as Kundiman puts it, “not only as a vehicle for cultural expression but also as an instrument for political dialogue and self-empowerment.” Three recent collections—The New Testament by Jericho Brown, Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis—all published since the death of Michael Brown but composed before 2014, stand out as voices to listen to in this climate. None is an explicit act of social protest, but each reminds us that art, at its best, confronts the ugliest parts of society and demands justice. These writers navigate issues of identity raised by contemporary racial relations and the influence of the past—and are notable for how they bring the divine into the conversation. When we are confronted with injustice, these collections say, it’s challenging to believe in a just God, a God with a plan, a God who is more than metaphor.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths takes God to task in her fourth collection, Lighting the Shadow. She shows us violence at its cruelest:
where three women cared for a baby
while they were raped, […]
the one who shot his mother
four times in the head & went out
the front door to school
where little children listened
in sunlight for the bell (“The Year in Pictures”)
As readers, we can recall the stories: Cleveland, Newtown, Aurora, and so on. Griffiths often includes places and dates with her poems, but when she writes about tragedies, it doesn’t feel like exploitation. Instead, it feels compassionate. One speaker wants to re-embody those hurt and lost: “Can I hold them tightly / on my page, wrap their ribs / with bowels of paper?” she asks. The poems memorialize both family (her grandmother and great-grandmother) and names we know from the news: “Trayvon Martin, Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, James Byrd Jr., Sean Bell, Ousmane Zongo, and too many others to include in this small book,” as the endnotes explain. In “Elegy” the speaker anoints the bodies of dead boys:
But let God beg pardon to them & their mothers
& I don’t know if the body is a pendulum of where love cannot go
when the tongue is swollen with the milk of black boys. […]
I won’t leave them,
huddled like bulls inside the stall of a word. I am the shriek,
the suture, the petal
shook loose from their silence.
The image of bulls inside a stall is particularly evocative: we can see strong bodies butting up against their constraints. In a poem of longer stanzas, the admonition to God stands out strikingly, a one-line stanza. The speaker does what the dead boys cannot: shriek for justice, from God and from “the jury / & the judge of the people.”
The highlight of Lighting the Shadow is a long poem, “‘a word of rescue from the great eyes,’” that pulls in, like a centrifuge, lines from Muriel Rukeyser, Lucille Clifton, the Gospel of Matthew, films, and more. Early in the poem, the speaker is knocked over by a man in Grand Central Station:
the fall drew my blood out of me, out of the book,
& my lip burst though I said nothing
when my knees scraped the rail-hard ground, &
my head cracked
against the newsprint bin & sludge
& the man saying
nothing his open hand
could say better
This man is in a hurry, callous. Perhaps he is casually violent toward women. At least he is unrepentant about the incident. Here is micro-aggression made physical. However, he is not the point: in the lines that follow, Griffiths shifts the encounter, focusing on the speaker’s strength:
come & touch me, I said. come & try
to get inside of here. the mythology turned
away, cat-eyed, the spotted trees
prostrate in the storm. even the animals have left
here. the silence roams & the news
rustles the genesis of history’s black hole.
We can imagine the headlines that echo our racist history, a black hole that sucks us in even now. But the woman who is knocked over is not just a victim; she taunts those who would assume they know what is “inside of here,” who would see her as a type. These lines elevate the moment from mere anecdote to battle cry.
Such personal strength is necessary if God is absent or unjust, Griffiths implies. Later in the poem, she says that she found “where they hid— / the gods on the north side of the mountain / & demanded the return of my sins to myself— // I’ll carry all this & something better one day, I said.” Gods are plural here, beings that hide, but the speaker still approaches them. She asserts her right to carry her own sins rather than have them held by judging gods. However, when she looks at her hands, she sees God:
I lifted my own hands I lifted my own hands I lifted
my own hands how
in the god
how like & of god
& likeness of the
& what god &
For Griffiths, ampersands act almost as ideograms, pulling different things together to create a chain. The moment feels incantatory, like the raising of hands in song, but the music breaks down in the speaker’s uncertainty: What god?
Elsewhere in the book, God is linked to Justice at rest—the two figures “Eat chicken & drink wine. Play / tonk & bullshit. War. Their burning scales / & blindfolds pushed back” (“Recurrence”). The speaker of that poem is incredulous at God’s inattentiveness, and the poem “I Select My Jury before Justice Appears” indicts God for not being transparent:
You made things up. How you felt. Who you were.
Beyond the cities & the caves, you sent me to look
for your body. You hid yourself, disguised your taste,
your voice. In our mouths you planted longing & hunger.
We walk around repeating your hands.
Once again, God is in our hands, the ones that knock someone over without looking, that hold chicken and wine, that carry books. We are made of God and our actions repeat him. This move is powerful, and the collection could have been trimmed to emphasize it—it’s nearly 120 pages, and some of the poems toward the end might have fit better in a future book. In a tighter collection, poems like “Elegy” and “‘a word of rescue from the great eyes’” would have had even more weight.
While Griffiths focuses on God’s lack of attention to justice, Boy with Thorn, Rickey Laurentiis’s debut and winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Prize, looks at the flaws in the creator’s work. Boy with Thorn features a knock-out long poem, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” which echoes the language, section by section, of Wallace Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” In short, numbered stanzas, Laurentiis’s speaker looks at gruesome pictures of lynchings: “Whatever I’ve found in their absence I’ve found / Repeated in me,” he says. “These photos, these worked / Effigies moving like echoes, the mothers of thought.” The past isn’t past here, à la Faulkner. It’s a black man hanging on a tree, still in our heads.
Laurentiis acknowledges that, like him, those who watched the lynchings as entertainment wanted to gaze at an image:
Is this why they come to circle the hanging feet?
To look, to know they’re looking, to be
In communion as they look, search, sway erotic.
Oh watch the freak contortions bleed to one.
So I flock to these photos of the paraded dead
Like a fly to rotting: each with that inky smear that moors
the photo, though I know it is a man, was a man,
Strung up, ornament, meant to rally, as in Lord,
I done walked and done looked and seen too much.
The act of looking puts the black speaker in the same position as the nineteenth- and twentieth-century spectators. For both audiences, the one who looks enters into communion with those who have died, those Christ-like lynched figures. The gaze is erotic, and as sickening as a fly buzzing around a corpse. Where does that gaze come from, Laurentiis asks? Who made people who desire such cruel pleasures?
Found looking at chemical and dye, I was
My mind debating a photo. Could it kill?
Is one thought when you watch the dying
“Which is deadly: the master or his work?”
The word “master” reminds us of slavery—the institution that lynchings tried, in part, to restore—but it also calls up God as maker. I hear Blake’s question: “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” In fact, God in these poems is often a creator: “If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of the imagination,” the book’s first poem (“Conditions for a Southern Gothic”) says. A later poem, “Lord and Chariot,” implies that the failure is how cruel humans can be:
Why ask me who I am. Who really knows
the place of my future? I’m his, or I’m not—
I’m black, or black was made me. The light
turns the cane a wanted color. I walk its interior.
There are only grasses here, only sadness.
I pick one. I tear it. I think to be free is to be cruel.
The speaker here is a slave talking about his master, but later ambiguities in the poem make that reading more complex. The master is a lover/rapist, godlike in his control. The poem indicts those who are “free” because of their cruelty—a word that also calls up how we can choose to hurt others because we were given free will.
Elsewhere, Boy with Thorn considers how the target of cruelty deals with pain. According to the notes, the title poem “meditates on an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture depicting an adolescent boy withdrawing a thorn from the sole of his foot.” Laurentiis calls the statue an analogue for another boy who was supposed to shut away his pain, the pickaninny, “a black juvenile figure that, at least as argued by Robin Bernstein, was ‘always resistant, if not immune to pain.’ Are we sure?” I think of studies showing that white doctors and nurses assume that African Americans feel less pain. I think of the misleading images of black juveniles on television and in movies: hardened, tough. Laurentiis wants readers to question that.
In this crafted, polished book, he shows how symbols can shift and be made new, for good or ill. The cross becomes a symbol of hate when set on fire. A speaker trying to leave a flooded house during Hurricane Katrina notes that “in the story, / water simply obeys” when someone walks on it. In this vein, tobacco becomes Eucharistic (“Carnal Knowledge”), and sex between men is a sacred act. “You moved in me, like prayer,” one poem reads (“King of Shade, King of Scorpions”). “Little Song,” one of the collection’s stand-outs, is a twelve-line poem in which each line ends with a word from a phrase of Robert Duncan’s (“if he be Truth / I would dwell in the bravery of him”). The poem’s indents and spacing create undulations on the page:
Given what I am, if
not cannibal for, animal for: he
who let go a door in me, be-
cracked my sternum to a hundred flashing moths, oh handsome, oh—Truth
be told: I hungered this, needled it out, I
stretched for this….
The erotic violence in the poem has the feel of Donne’s Holy Sonnets (“Batter my heart”), while the varying line lengths, use of space, and exclamation (“oh handsome, oh”) remind me of Hopkins. The poem’s opening line, though, could stand at the heart of the whole collection: “Given what I am.”
I am what I am, the speakers of these poems say. I was made this way.
If God is unjust for Griffiths and a flawed maker for Laurentiis, for Jericho Brown in The New Testament, his prize-winning second collection, God and the Bible are useful metaphors. Like Laurentiis, Brown links sex and the sacred. In “Romans 12:1,” one of many poems that reinvigorate verses from the New Testament, he gives his take on Paul’s exhortation to offer the body as sacrifice:
A certain obsession overtook
My body, or I should say,
I let a man touch me until I bled,
Until my blood met his hunger
The speaker notes that he is rejected by his “people,”
Are wont to hate women,
As women are taught to hate
Themselves, they hate a woman
They smell in me, every muscle
Of her body clenched
In fits beneath men
Heavy as heaven—my body,
Dear dying sacrifice, desirous
As I will be, black as I am.
Sex is heaven here, the body holy sacrifice, concepts that work against views of homosexuality as evil or sinful. Excerpts don’t do justice to the beautiful syntactic line that runs through the poem, which ends by linking the self not only to a sacrificial body but to death, desire, and blackness.
Death is not only la petite mort; Brown has disclosed in recent interviews that he has HIV, and many poems allude to an illness. “My doctor tells me I’ll live // Longer than most since I see him / More than most,” says the speaker of “To Be Seen.”
Of course, he cannot be trusted
Nor can any man
Who promises you life for looking his way. […]
Chosen. I only have a point like anyone
Paid to bring bad news: a preacher, a soldier,
The doctor. We talk about God
Because we want to speak
In metaphors. My doctor clings to the metaphor
Of war. […]
I am dying while
He makes a battle of my body—anything to be seen
When all he really means is to grab me by the chin
And, like God the Father, say through clenched teeth,
Look at me when I’m talking to you.
Your healing is not in my hands, though
I touch as if to make you whole.
The speaker resists belief in God, whom he says is simply a metaphor. A few lines later, though, he makes such a metaphor, turning his doctor into God the Father, an authoritative figure who wants to heal and make whole. The line of thought develops methodically, forming a complex sentence irreducible to paraphrase. As I write, I find myself including long excerpts and wanting to let them stand on their own. Brown tends to complicate an easy figure, to go against what we expect. This poem, for example, does not express a simple lack of belief; Brown complicates his own skepticism by making his metaphorical God compassionate, desiring our wholeness.
A similar deepening of meaning happens in “The Interrogation,” which demonstrates the fraught relationship people of color have with law enforcement. Brown manages to link both sex and the sacred to the police in section VI, “Multiple Choice”:
Metal makes for a chemical reaction.
Now that my wrists are cuffed, I am
Not like a citizen. What touches me
Claims contamination. What
A shame. A sham. When the police come
They come in steel boots. Precious
Metal. They want me kicked,
So kick me they do. I cannot say
They love me. But don’t they seek me out
As a lover would, each with both hands
Bringing me to my knees, under God,
This speaker, like many of the shifting personae of the poem, encounters the steel-booted police as agents of a state that wants to hurt him. The metaphor turns them into lovers, wearing precious metal. While this section doesn’t explicitly forgive the police, it does make them more complex than jackbooted thugs. I’m reminded of Brown’s TED talk at Emory University, “The Art of Words,” in which he recites a poem asking blessing upon “the back of my daddy’s hand” as it slaps him. Such a request doesn’t excuse the abuse but calls for grace—even on a person we may not think deserves it.
The invocation of God in “The Interrogation” is not mere ironic borrowing from the Pledge of Allegiance. God and scripture haunt this collection, written by a man who says he can name all of the books of the Bible in order. In that TED talk, Brown says, “Poems are mirrors of the life of the believer. Poems mirror the process of prayer.” The final lines of the book, in “Nativity,” do more than mirror prayer:
Oh, and I
Pray. Lord, let even me
And what the saints say is sin within
My blood, which certainly shall see
Death—see to it I mean—
Let that sting
Last and be transfigured.
The plea here is for healing, but also for redemption. What makes this speaker human—his sin, the inevitability of his death—is what makes it possible for God to transform him. “I was Mary once,” the poem begins, and like Mary the speaker carries within himself the possibility of grace, an idea echoed in the lines, “I think of every gift people get / They don’t use.”
The focus on suffering takes a personal turn in poems that describe the death of a “brother” (revealed in interviews to be a cousin raised by Brown’s parents). In allusions throughout the book, Brown constructs one narrative of his brother’s passing; later, he uses a found poem to tell a different story. “Found: Messiah” features a blog post whose tone echoes that of the Saint Louis symphony-goer who called Michael Brown a thug:
This story would have been nicer
With some innocent people involved,
But one less goblin is one
Less goblin is one less.
Unlike the generous-spirited voice of “The Interrogation,” the voice here doesn’t see the dead man as anything more than a goblin—good riddance. However, Brown’s poems again and again treat those who hate with compassion. One of my personal favorites, “The Rest We Deserve,” describes a single father, neighbor to the speaker, struggling to take care of a baby and glaring at the speaker for his male guests. “I want / To hurt him, and I want to help,” the poem says. This book has social protest at its core. It holds prejudice, homophobia, and structural racism to account, but the protest comes from a generous heart. The New Testament well deserves the prizes it has won.
There’s a danger in grouping these books together: I don’t want to imply that what matters most is the poets’ African American identity. The epigraph to Brown’s “Reality Show,” a quote from Amy Sickels’s biography of Gwendolyn Brooks, criticizes such an approach: “An editor…wrote back that she liked the ‘Negro’ poems best…requested that Gwendolyn [Brooks] approach Knopf again when she had more of these.” I seek not to point out just the “Negro poems” but something deeper: that Griffiths, Laurentiis, and Brown each reach toward the question of divinity as part of their meditations. In some cases, that seeking ends in further questions, while other speakers are able to see God in themselves or others. Whether God is unjust, a flawed maker, or a useful metaphor, he is part of the conversation about justice. In fact, the church’s relationship to civil rights is checkered. Though belief in God buoyed up some slaves who sang about Moses leading people to freedom, and though both Catholics and Protestants walked in Selma, slave owners and segregationists used religion to justify their beliefs. I wonder how many preachers in white churches or synagogues have mentioned Ferguson or Black Lives Matter from their pulpits in the past year.
As questioners, as humans with divinity inside them, these poets come to the pulpit to speak for those who have suffered injustices due to racial prejudice. Griffiths shrieks for the dead boys, Laurentiis shows us horrific images of lynchings, and Brown speaks in the voice of a man in handcuffs. All three poets have contributed videos to the Black Poets Speak Out Tumblr page. Before reading a poem, each poet begins with the same declaration: “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” The poems in these books are heralds for what later became a movement.