"A Voice to Be Reckoned With"
"And I did not know her name..."
—The Rolling Stones, "All Down the Line"
Fierce, beautiful, urgent, necessary. Dangerous stuff. This is what I was thinking to myself as I read the poems in the manuscript Slow Dance With Trip Wire, a blind submission for the Poetry Society of America's Chapbook Prize, which I judged in the spring of 2010. Who was this poet? I knew she (and I assumed this voice was female) had to be young, clearly someone who read deeply and widely and workshopped. Given the subject matter of the first poem in her manuscript, I knew she identified herself as African American.
Here is the first statement in the poet's manuscript, the first lines she wishes us, as readers, to encounter and consider. From the poem "History":
Our stone wall was built by slaves and my bones,
Are paid for.
"My bones are paid for." Good God, I thought. What a gutsy statement to toss in a reader's face. I could tell she had fully considered the manuscript's title. Beautiful music for your ears, but—watch your step! This landscape is rocky, uneven, spiky—you could trip and fall. You might trigger a landslide, an explosion if you dare to follow. The mystery of this manuscript kept pulling me back. Whose voice was this?
As co-founder of the Cave Canem workshop (now foundation) and having spent the last 15 years helping to run it with Toi Derricotte, I believe I can safely make this statement: African American poetry and poetics is transforming once again before our eyes. Some of these new voices have already arrived on the scene: Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Lyrae Van Clief, and Camille T. Dungy, among others. Some—Tara Betts, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Marcus Jackson, Dante Micheaux—again, among others—have or will soon have first books that will honor yet befuddle assumptions about what African American poetry and poets are supposed to be "about."
Why didn't I know this voice, I wondered, or this speaker, who appears always to be standing, bruised but unbowed, in the aftermath. Almost all the poems in Slow Dance With Trip Wire seem to occur in an ever-present, ever-widening past tense. The private and public, the light and dark, and the spirit and "normal" worlds co-mingle freely, sometimes stanza by stanza, at times almost line by line. An example occurs in the poem "How to Unwrap," which seems to be set in a comfortable, contemporary kitchen.
And this is what it is about me. This and the
Talking to me since morning.
All through the orange-scented sunrise
Pleasant enough, talking teacups aside. But hold on: two short stanzas down, in seeps the cold.
The sour song of our mortality rang
Last night to say: It's 4 a.m. in the otherworld...
The effect this poem had on me as a reader was that it felt almost noir—those brief, breezy moments in the film when the doomed lovers share a moment in the light. This is to remind us of what could have been, if not for
Weren't you always breaking
Into a brittle sage to tell yourself you will receive
From an unlikely source?
Weren't we always holding out our hands and
waiting for it,
Swaying in the enormous room, weeping
Under lurid neon for the lack thereof?...
...The truth is:
The teacups never said a word, sugar.
The toast was burnt before the smell of black.
Another poem in a similar vein, "Symptoms of Island":
Sometimes in the morning your hand
Finds the dip in my side. For the moment
We'll call it happiness. This does not
Account for weeks spent cursing
The apple trees, their sticky bloom.
The man on the bus gaping
At my slack lip knew. Plump dumb
Stone in my mouth. I'm sure of it.
That afternoon you were a brisk,
Starched thing. We slipped out
The back way, screen door banging
Cruel on my slim-boned grim. Today,
Like most days, my mind arrives
An island, tongue-numb, child wishes
Ivied onto me. God takes away,
It's said. Call it what you will.
She was right, I thought, to use the poem "History" as the first poem in the collection. The concept of history, of time, informs every surface of every poem in her collection. Here, in "Symptoms of Island," it refuses to sit still, even though the lines and stanzas are tight. Notice how it thrashes about, compresses and expands from a "morning" to a "moment" to "weeks" to an "afternoon"—to a "today" that feels "like most days." This looks like a poem but reads like a maze. Even though this poem starts with a comfort, a human touch, memory triggers the restlessness here: from the almost mocking apple tree blossoms to the stranger on the bus who can read the blues on a lip to the swak of that screen door, the grim soundtrack on the speaker's thin bones. Finally, there's almost heartbreaking distance (figurative and literal) between the green, lush child wishes, still ivied on the speaker, and the unblinking adult collapse of them: "God takes away / It's said. Call it what you will." I was quickly becoming enamored of this poet's control of line and music: "Plump dumb / Stone in my mouth"; "brisk / Starched thing"; "screen door banging / Cruel on my slim-boned grim"; "my mind arrives / An island, tongue-numb, child wishes // Ivied onto me."
The poems are often furious but never stuck or frozen in their emotion—nor are they cold and detached. How the poet was able to achieve and maintain this without a of drop of irony—the easy way out of talking about anything deeply emotional in a poem these days—for an entire manuscript of poems—short as it was—began to fascinate me.
Sometimes, when one first encounters a new poetic voice, especially in manuscript, one feels—and feels rewarded by—the level of comfort a poet constructs in the poems. In a sense, you give a little internal sigh of relief as the pages add up and you realize you are in the steady hands of a writer who understands and respects the tradition and craft—even if the poet messes with it. But aren't the voices we truly care about more than the sum of craft? Don't we fully surrender ourselves to those poets who can prove to us, poem by poem, that this way is the only way for them? Don't we leave those books shaken, refreshed, perhaps even a bit envious sometimes?
What an unsettled yet fantastical world this writer builds, word by word, line by line, I felt as I kept returning to the manuscript; the overall tone of these poems was somber, yet they read like liberation. What an amazing combination of eye, ear, breath, and nerve. Her music, her lyric sense of timing, her poetic translation of her truth and experience transported me as a reader (for want of a better term) somewhere else: you want to look, you can't look, you can't turn away. Somehow, I felt, she had found it, that this is the language of the world and history we inhabit and that it contains, somehow, the world's secret music. From "Papier-Mache and Other Human Resources":
Before I learned to speak I was a bird
Throat gaping, split on the first go...
From "Failed Human Experiment":
un-poison me and tell me
It is a poetry designed to puncture veneers. From "After The Fire, I Ask Myself ":
Love note penned
On the back of my hand:
Little girls prefer
Put their hands up.
To wrestle with history. From "Genealogy":
I was born in a forest.
I don't know my name.
I was born on a mountain but changed
To traffic with ghosts. From "Symptoms of Aftermath":
Tonight, I dream the dead and how they want
Me. They scale the walls. They tear a skylight
To the sky. I, requiring life, start a fire
And burn them all up...
Nobody else writes like this, I finally had to concede to myself. This voice is news. Or perhaps, more to the point, I felt something new had arrived. Though there were many worthy possibilities among the chapbook manuscripts I read, Slow Dance With Trip Wire was the only one that gave me the thrill (and chills) of reading a poet in the process of creating herself. I've had this tingly feeling before: reading Terrance Hayes's "Ode of the Shoe Salesman" in the first Cave Canem summer anthology; poring over the proofs of Major Jackson's first collection, Leaving Saturn; the precision of image and lyric in any book by Linda Bierds; the brilliant syntactical and tonal shifts in the work of Matthea Harvey, Harryette Mullen, or my recent colleague at Notre Dame, Joyelle McSweeney. Yet whoever this was, she wasn't any of them; her syntactical sense isn't wholly experimental, but it isn't easy street either. She has not arrived at or settled upon some unsatisfied "middle ground"; this is invention. It is a voice to be reckoned with—so close to dream (and nightmare), so near to the music we hear when a secret slips into the air, so scalding, yet tender.
If, like me, you feel yourself holding your breath slightly as you read these poems, then you understand the effect the poetry of Camille Rankine had and continues to have on me.