A special online feature of The Southeast Review: December 2014
It is impossible to know what will endure of the conversations about race, power, and justice that surfaced after the events in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and across the country. For many Americans, these events forced a long overdue reckoning: heated in-person debates and citywide marches, urgent newspaper editorials and blog postings, and in the best circumstances for social media, news feeds touched by sudden eloquence and grace.
At The Southeast Review we felt, as we know others do, that poetry must play a role in that reckoning. Poetry that is immediate, but also reflective. Poetry that demonstrates the pressure of the present day as well as a deep understanding of history. We too heard Danez Smith’s insistence that we “explode the canon with what we must make sure is remembered in this nation.”
As editors, we did not want to wait to read and publish these poems next month, in three months, in nine months. The Southeast Review invited poets to participate in a special week-long call for submissions that ended on December 10th. We are grateful to all those who trusted us with work that was, as a body, admirably raw. That took many risks. And refused to be satisfied with what we hear more and more now: “There are no words.”
On social media everyone can be a speaker of truth and a messenger of facts for the moment. Afterwards, it can be too easy to fall silent and move on to other things. Poetry offers a different kind of documentation, a map that points us towards the acknowledgement of discomfiting truths and also, behind them, the potential for change.
The following selections are a sample of contemporary voices aimed in that direction.
— The Editors
Dexter L. Booth
And they await,
across the Changes and the spiraling dead,
our Black revival, our Black vinegar,
our hands, and our hot blood — Gwendolyn Brooks
Told we are cursed, we sing hymns and
lift our tongues to the moon. Hoping they
hear us, we dance across this barque, await
the weightlessness of unruly being. Across
the universe we fly—in an oil drum or the
casing of a bullet—we outline the changes
we have made in history with chalk and
the shape is our bodies laid across the
doorstep of their god. Our future, spiraling,
free fall planet that it is, we will find it dead
if we cannot heave this slag. Believe me, our
fables don’t end like this. We know the Black
because we come from it. The trope: revival
after three days in the dark. Records bay. Our
ancestors whir; strange fruit that grew black
on the rope’s stemmed branches; pour vinegar
on any wound: you’ll find relief. This is not our
science. Yesterday I drew a universe on my hands
and feet with the tip of a nail. I have chartered and
mapped this body so that it is safe to dream. Our
breath will form new constellations as we sing. Hot
and dense are our voices, hot and dense our blood.
Tameka Cage Conley
People Die in Their Fifties, or Vanity
That long thing that happens as the face
ages? What is that? The chin so near
its cousin, the neck? Loose cheeks
not wrinkled but less kind?
Can staring make the long thing
stop, the way staring at a man
tells him something about want,
your name on his lips.
I am alone, as my son sleeps, and a train
hums its way into this room of bed, treadmill,
computer, and light. If anyone had said
you will be near forty when your first child
is born, I would have said, you lyin,
Southern tongued, code switched.
I thought PhD, husband, baby, all
in my twenties.
A friend’s beautiful little girl is now a beautiful grown
woman with an equally beautiful son
and though you ask, where has the time gone,
you are really saying, I never want to die. Oh,
to be goddess or angel or something
that knows millennia and miracles, how
best to forgive.
But everything turns to bone and ash and seasons
make our mouths remember sadness and sex and joys
and every person who has ever said our names.
Winter comes, and winter happens
to the body and to America, which is a dying
place if you are Black, alone, walking,
your face too young, so young
that a cop decides, right there, on the street
where you are walking, and he is
walking, he decides your face is too round, got
too much baby in it, and he thinks to freeze you
that way, to keep your face from the long-ness
that stuns me, what I want gone in mine,
and shoots you and your baby
face, and you will never know what life is like
standing in front of a mirror trying to remember
Matt W. Miller
The boy, age six, wearing a fur collar
bomber jacket, in a photo sent to the news,
grins with his licorice twist lips
under his caterpillar brows and a dark
chocolate shock that needs to grow in more.
I cannot wipe this photo from my mind,
cannot stop looking it up online, terrified
it might be gone, terrified that it still
remains. This boy, at only six, knows
how to cock his head back to smile,
inviting other people inside that smile.
Maybe in this he mimics dad, maybe mom.
I look up his birthday. He’s barely six
in the photo. He flutters fairy wing lashes
just like the lashes of my son, almost four.
The boy wears a jacket mom maybe bought
for first days of fall, probably at TJ Maxx,
maybe the Gap. Weeks after his death
his mom will dream she dropped a baby
from a mountain. She talks about this
in an interview. And she recalls her boy,
just six, wandering downstairs one night,
for one more hug, his pajama top off so
I can, he said, feel your heartbeat better.
My daughter is seven when she sees
the shot of the boy in a bomber jacket, who,
a month past six, will be shot eleven times
at close range, that smile torn away
with his jaw, his left hand too mangled
to hold an angel stone in his casket.
She, his mother, knows her son, only six,
is owed a reckoning so will ask that it,
the casket, be left open
Robin Beth Schaer
“White Matter” was constructed using only language from Michael Brown’s autopsy, the transcript of Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony, and the statement released by the protestors.
To begin, mistaken. The child answers
unarmed, hands up. In the margins,
the man sees a demon. The eye
is unremarkable; its weight in salt
is testimony. Yet, how small a weapon
the iris that dilates normal light.
The day is clothed in pockets. Inside
a shallow trap of noise, the child
runs as the man fires. People
watch from cars, surfaces are glass,
contusions stipple with soot. Where
is the pledge to police the heart?
Without grief, the gun is artifact;
exit wounds are conversations the bullet
denies. Anything shot into will stop.
His voice could lean against a tune
like a shoulder against a closed door;
it almost cried, pressing so hard,
breaking over the accordion line.
He played with a white fiddler he’d met
sharecropping—house dances first,
but soon they’d go by horse and buggy
around the county; half the night
at white fais-do-dos, and then
he’d travel home to play until
dawn for his own at “colored” dances.
After pleasing the white folks
(with hours of two steps and waltzes),
he’d turn to blues, African songs,
the old French tunes and hollers,
songs of his own, oh sweet Jouline.
All afternoon the white folks arrived
by wagon or horse or in dusty cars,
for the big Saturday dances; come evening
the band would start. At his voice, a pause
in the usual to and fro to stare:
Tite Negre, they called him, so frail,
yet his voice belonged in that music, the music
belonged to him, that “boy” at the mike,
who couldn’t use their toilets, who couldn’t
even step from the stage on break,
who relied on the band to walk him out
though the crowds applauded him so.
3. Summer 1942
At the Eunice outdoor fair, he only
asked from the stage for a towel to wipe
his sweat. And the owner’s daughter offered—
meaning respect—her handkerchief.
They tied him to the back of a Ford car
and dragged him by his musician’s hands
and sheared off much of his skin
and cut him loose for his friends to revive.
Or they ran him down with a Model T
for friends to find in a ditch, head
crushed, larynx cracked, but alive.
Who knows the story now? He waited
six weeks, seven to leave
his body, “damaged,” spent the last
in Pineville asylum, music stopped,
eyes open to silence, in silence.
And now only his voice remains
as it cries through the needle scratch.
Across decades, that voice has entered
our voices: our style, our common despair.
Mes souffrances sont ‘pres m’en aller.
Tu te rappelles, m’en aller, m’en tout seul.
My torments are ready to leave me.
You remember I go all alone.
Thank you to our contributors:
Dexter L. Booth is the author of Scratching the Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2013), which won the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was selected by Major Jackson. His poems appear in Blackbird, the New Delta Review, Ostrich Review, Grist, Willow Springs, Virginia Quarterly, and other publications. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California.
Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a poet, playwright, and fiction writer. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the August Wilson Center. She is published in Callaloo, Huizache, African American Review, Fledgling Rag, Driftless Review, and elsewhere. She is completing a debut poetry collection and first novel.
Matt W. Miller is the author of Club Icarus (University of North Texas Press), selected by Major Jackson as the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize winner, and Cameo Diner: Poems (Loom). He has published work previously in Slate, Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Southwest Review, Florida Review, Third Coast, and Poetry Daily, among other journals. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, Miller teaches and coaches at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Robin Beth Schaer is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Saltonstall Foundation, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her first book, Shipbreaking, received the Robert Dana Prize and will be published in the fall of 2015 by Anhinga Press. Schear’s work has appeared in Tin House, Bomb, Paris Review, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square, and Guernica, among others. She teaches writing at Cooper Union and The New School in New York City, and worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot full-rigged ship lost during Hurricane Sandy.
Sandy Solomon, who teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Vanderbilt University, is the author of Pears, Lake, Sun, which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Award from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Threepenny Review. She worked in Washington, DC for many years for nonprofit organizations advocating for minority rights, urban neighborhoods, and the poor.