Book Review: BOY WITH THORN by Ricky Laurentiis

9780822963813 Boy with Thorn
Poems by Rickey Laurentiis
Pitt Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“There are eyes, glasses even, but still he can’t see / what the world sees seeing him.”

In Rickey Laurentiis’ stunning debut collection, Boy with Thorn (winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize), readers are presented with an America where the questions are always of perception, discovery, and transformation. In these pages, Laurentiis explores what it means to be black and gay in contemporary America, to be a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and a particular American South; and, in doing so, he plumbs the depths of questions many of us ask of our bodies and minds as we develop a sense of being in the world.

This collection begins with a desire for magic, for transformation in all its multiple guises. In “Conditions for a Black Southern Gothic,” the speaker has a wish “to think stranger stuff,” and then becomes a decapitated, singing head in the middle of a field. In “One Country,” he sheds his body like the shell of a hermit crab, its disparate parts becoming doors to new worlds. “Black Iris” dreams the desire of heteronormativity—“And here runs the message in the blood: / This is it—fuck her fag like you’re supposed to”—as the speaker’s voice shakes like a young calf, “out of fear? / out of duty?… Because a voice outside him makes him.”

It seems to be this making that the speaker would like to escape: from the decapitated head wishing to be separate of its body and, as a mind, to understand, to the body shed and so becoming otherworldly. But even in the shedding of a body named and seen by others on their terms, the speaker seems unable to expunge or transcend their overarching ideas of correctness—the “fuck her fag like you’re supposed to.” This futility arises again in “Mood Indigo” when the speaker asks his beloved, during a storm he hopes will change the world, “They are still trees, right, slamming the roof tiles? / They are trees—the world not yet totally remade?” There is a tension between this inability to change the world (and perhaps the way one is perceived by it) and the speaker’s desire in “Carnal Knowledge” to “for once [be] the thing that looks at” and does some naming of its own.

It is, in fact, through the looking at, candidly and without much figurative language, that the speaker is able to bear, even celebrate, embodiment as a gay black man in a hostile society. This mission is taken up in “Do You Feel Me?”—“I need to find myself, I told myself / To live the limits of this body.” Then, the waters of Katrina envelop the city of New Orleans and “each becomes the revelation / of what the other can do.” The boundaries here are more concrete, dictated not by society and its mores but by the literal capacity of our environments, even our bodies, to survive. In this way, Laurentiis engages the full scope of being (especially being on the margins); to exist both in honor and in spite of, to perceive as a mind but also to act as a physical body, to be marked and to leave a mark of one’s own, to “shut the thorn up in [our] foot,” whatever it is, “and [say] / Walk.”


 

Book Review: WHEN THE MEN GO OFF TO WAR by Victoria Kelly

9781612519043 When the Men Go Off to War
Poems by Victoria Kelly
Naval Institute Press, 2015
Hardcover, $27.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

It’s convenient to think wars are distant worlds across the sea. To think of them as containable and separate, only affecting the lives of soldiers and the towns they occupy. It’s convenient to limit the loss. But here, in Victoria Kelly’s poetry collection, When the Men Go off to War, we are witness to the intrusive, residual displacement women experience as their husbands deploy. For brief moments, we learn about the battles that take form inside the bodies of those left at home.

Kelly divides her collection into three sections: “Departure,” “Absence,” and “Homecoming.” This division sets the stage for the speaker’s life; her own time is marked by the location of her husband. Already we can imagine the emotions, and thus the themes, this separation awakens: anxiety, wistfulness, and haziness. Simultaneously Kelly balances her speaker between hyperawareness and distraction. She writes, “How merciful to be unaware, for a night, / that one is condemned to dance forever somewhere / between this world and the next…”

The poems are narrative and straightforward, tight stanzas as precise as a gun. But inside the frames of the poem, the mind wanders. Often, after staring at the sky, we shift to the past and learn about the speaker’s grandmother, who “had a small life too, her needlepoint and the tidy compartments / of her mind that would be closed off in widowhood, / one by one, like the rooms of a half-used manor.” The presence of family and the consciousness of age are rooted at the core of these daydreams. In the poem, “Reverie on Leave,” the speaker finds a carousel and is transported back into the edges of her memory, imagines,

[parents] looking
nothing like you last saw them, when they were rigid…
Your grandmother
leans into a lawn chair, because there is
no hurry, you are never too old
to be young here.

As complicated as marriage is, Kelly illuminates the true weight of companionship. There are few moments in When the Men Go off to War that feel complete; this is not to say the poems are unfinished, but to say the taste of longing is always present. We can’t put our feet up; we cannot settle or rest. The full-body consumption of an absent partner is made apparent in “Homecoming.” The speaker is at her brother’s wedding. In the parking lot, she talks with a guest,

“Where have you been,” he asked sleepily,
leaning against a lamppost. “Married,” I said, and he
laughed. “Girl,” he said, “married isn’t a place…”

It would be false to say there were not moments of lightness here. But Kelly is skillful; even in the happiness we know it can’t last. We know there will always be another war, another stage of departure, absence, and homecoming. So we appreciate what we are given as readers, as the speaker too appreciates when her worlds collide and rest, if only for a moment. This appreciation is represented perfectly in “Birth,” as her husband holds their daughter. The three sentence poem ends “She is only / six weeks old and there are no other / pleasures: everything is ageless here, everything / is here.”


 

Book Review: EMMETT TILL IN DIFFERENT STATES by Dr. Philip C. Kolin

emmit Emmett Till in Different States
Poems by Dr. Philip C. Kolin
Third World Press, 2015
$18.95

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

A friend asked me the other day if I thought the world was ending. She was drowning in the constant-seeming reports of violence in the news, on college campuses, in the streets of major cities, violence so often targeting minorities and the poor. My first thought was to consider America in the ’60s. After centuries of slavery, the oppression of Night Riders and lynching meant to stifle dissent, the hidden slavery of forced labor in prison systems in the South, change seemed to be coming. People were marching in the streets in protest of this barbarity and making national headlines. But so many Civil Rights leaders were murdered for their troubles—Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers—in addition to Freedom Riders beaten and murdered, church bombings, race riots; countless people of color were attacked, threatened, and silenced. In my own home state of Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School, telling the story that they had to wring their clothes out after they got inside the school because they’d been so soaked in spit from the jeering mob outside. It must’ve seemed like the end of the world then, too. Out of the horrors of the ’60s, which were just an extension of the horrors many African Americans and minorities faced since the beginnings of this country, one crime has stood out as particularly brutal. The murder of Emmett Till made national headlines not because a young black man was murdered in the South. Nor was the fact that Till’s murderers went free a particularly uncommon event. Till may have been forgotten, as countless victims before and after him, were it not for the courage of his mother, who held an open casket service, and the newspapers and magazines that covered the tragedy and expressed the outrage many in the nation felt. Now, this centuries-long culture of subjugation and violence was, at least, being exposed in tones too pervasive to ignore.

On the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. Kolin has released a collection of poems chronicling the events surrounding Till’s death and the reverberations it created. The book begins with excerpts from articles in Southern newspapers of the time, which mostly distort the situation to make Till seem at fault. Similarly, in an interview with Look Magazine, Till’s murderers claimed that the 14-year old was unrepentant and didn’t show them the proper respect, forcing them to kill him, something novelist William Faulkner responds to in his Harper’s essay, “On Fear,” saying,

If the facts as stated in the Look Magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him…. What are we Mississippians afraid of?

In the end, Till has been cast as something not quite human in many ways, first by his murderers, and later by those who consider him a martyr, a symbol more than a 14-year-old teen. Dr. Kolin tries to humanize Till. “Facts about Me” lists basic details one might not think of with Till, such as his bout with polio:

I was born breeched.
They had to tie a red string
around my wrist to pull me out.
Mama said breech babies would have
more danger in their lives.

Kolin focuses on much of the minutia of Till’s life, finding meaning in his wallet, with its pre-packaged photos, his hat, his father’s ring, his spelling ability. These things serve to show that Till had human reactions.

The environment of Money, Mississippi, where Till was murdered, lends much to the feel of the book. The Tallahatchie River, in which Till’s body was found, appears many times, and the culture of the place is explored in several poems. “Mamie Till’s Warning,” imagines what Till’s mother might have told him about Mississippi:

She lectured me about lynching trees
with their bitter fruit hanging

A few feet from the ground—
all the space a black person really needed.

I heard her cry about the night riders
who stole black men and boys away

And drug them home
as pulp-faced ghosts.

I had to learn fast that the rules
of white etiquette in Mississippi

Were written on the inside of
black eyelids.

 

Reading and thinking about what happened to Till is troubling, but one of the most devastating poems in the collection is “Slop Jars,” which tells the story of donations gathered to fund the murderers’ defense.

They put them out all over
Tallahatchie County—from Charleston
to Sumner to Webb to Whitehead—
in stores, gas stations, fire stations,
police stations, schools, hospitals,
banks, restaurants, morgues,
post offices, any public place
unafraid of shame

The callousness reverberates far beyond the page. Without this perspective, it might be easy to dismiss Till’s murder as a singular act, an anomaly. Dr. Kolin makes sure to list businesses from all walks of life, professional and private, to demonstrate that this hatred crossed economic classes. It’s not completely hopeless, though, as Dr. Kolin points out:

They found mostly loose change and talk,
IOU’s, congratulations, even a pair of jokers
from a deck of cards. But not enough.
they never got half of what was promised.
Legal fees were costly and they had a roof
and sheets to put over their heads.

He goes on to describe their ruined finances, as the store owned by Bryant went out of business, not that financial troubles in any way balance the evil done by these men.

Dr. Kolin eventually shifts the narrative from Till to the broader reverberations Till’s murder caused throughout American culture, from Eisenhower’s silence on the murder, to other, similar, murders such as Trayvon Martin’s.

So is the world ending? For Till and Martin and so many others, it has, and for many African Americans and minorities, the fear is that their worlds, their lives, will end, similarly, in violence and oppression. Many people would like to think that the world that allowed—encouraged—these murders to happen is ending, that these most recent vile acts are the death throes of racist hegemony. Maybe they’re right, but it smacks of laurel-resting and wishful thinking. The real lesson to take from Till’s murder, finally, is one of vigilance.


 

Book Review: PROSTHESIS by Ian Hatcher

prosthesis-682x1024 Prosthesis
by Ian Hatcher
Poor Claudia, 2016
$17.50

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In The Question Concerning Technology German philosopher Martin Heidegger explains that technology is a framework through which man can access a higher plane of truth and understanding. However, the creation of this framework inherently conceals truth in its attempt to provide a comprehensible platform. It’s a paradoxical relationship, and Heidegger argues that only an artist or poet will be able to navigate the disorientating relationship between man and machine. Ian Hatcher’s 2016 collection of poetry entitled Prosthesis is perhaps the best answer yet to Heidegger’s Question.

A binary in and of itself, the word prosthesis has two distinct uses. First, a prosthesis is a device, whether external or implanted, that supplements or supplants another part. Second, prosthesis is the attachment of a sound or syllable to the beginning of a word or verse, often seen as a result of translation. Hatcher draws on both definitions of the word, breaking away from any traditional, or perhaps programmed, form of poetry. Studded with computer code and Boolean symbols, Prosthesis verges on falling into the multilingual category and functions itself as a hybrid of man and machine.

The text covers an array of topics relating to the interdependence of humanity and technology—from the breakdown of individuality in this copy and paste culture to the binary quality of our true/false society. Hatcher is smart and mindful with his word choice, delivering sharp lines, like “how i i sees itself seeing itself in time” and “time is only measurable in instants of structural interruption.”

The image of the mirror crops up more than once. In the case of the following passage, Hatcher uses the mirror to reflect on self-image, the battle between self and image, and the inevitable breakdown of one at the expense the other:

folding (another) / into (another) / yourself (another) / with that (another) / self in (another) / breathing (another) / it’s not (another) / me it’s (another) / this that (another) / holds me (another) / mirror (another) / me that (another) / i put (another) / in me (another) / u are (anothe) / nothing (anoth) / u are (anot) / just an (ano) / image (an) / deferred (a) / waking () / to find / this just / ticking / down time / steady / from this / til when / we’re no / longer / ticking / down time / into / fusion / into / numbers / what more / than this / could be / going / on

As in this segment Hatcher often uses the repetition of sound throughout his poetry, perhaps to mimic a mechanical feedback echo or maybe the fading beat of a human heart.

One of Hatcher’s most memorable pieces is an observation on the absurd interdependence of our world. His poem “Attachments” spans over three pages with strange associations:

LONELINESS ATTACHED TO MONSTERS ATTACHED TO ALZHEIMER’S ATTACHED TO ARE U THERE ATTACHED TO THE GREAT CORAL REEF ATTACHED TO ALMOST ATTACHED TO ZZZ ATTACHED TO THIS.FIND(\”*\”) ATTACHED TO WIKIPEDIA ATTACHED TO WIRELESS SIGNALS ATTACHED TO MEMORY

Like most everything else in Prosthesis, these attachments could refer to something intensely human, such as an erratic thought process as synapses fire spastically across the brain, or something intensely machine like a search engine’s browsing history.

With an infinite number of messages to decode within the pages of Prosthesis, New York-based text / sound / code artist Ian Hatcher challenges readers to open their minds to a new era of poetry.