Last week, after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I found myself at a loss for words. Then came the police shootings after a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. Then the media fallout, which I could not watch. I turned off the television and stepped away from social media, and turned to Jesmyn Ward for these words from her memoir, Men We Reaped:
But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and
Demond and C.J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my
friends' lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother's life was worth, more than the
nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he's been dead. It is worth more
than I can say. And there's my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say.
Words mean something. Their names mean something: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. Their lives meant something. Let us tell every story. Let us listen to every story that is told.
This month, we have four powerful poems and an interview from Len Lawson, our featured poet. I spoke with Lawson about the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways in which poetry allows us to hear voices that have been silenced. Lawson's poems are filled with voices we need to hear and I hope you will spend some time with his words.
Our wonderful Associate Editor, Davon Loeb, brings poems and an interview from Malcolm Friend. About this work, Davon writes: Malcolm Friend’s poems explore the possibilities of a personal narrative becoming a collective narrative—or how the story of one can become the stories of others. Malcolm’s experiences as a teenager in Seattle are the pivot point from which he turns and faces and says, “your city is / black / as shutdown hallways” and “your city is / white / as fluorescent lights in school hallways.” Malcolm’s commentary is not from a distant perspective, but an individual one, where the conversation is as much about rhetoric as it is about identity. Furthermore, the very structure of these poems reflect the space or lack of space one fills culturally, socially, and within the world.
Mr. Loeb also brings two more poets to our July column:
From an airport interrogation room to long lines in security checkpoints, Anne Champion boldly ignites the conversation of privilege: the privilege of citizenship, nationality, and skin color. Anne’s narrator participates in the crux of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict by questioning her entitlement as a white-skinned American in comparison to non-American people of color. Anne says, “no one here looks like me, their / almond skin, their bodies / that smell so brazenly of body.” These poems do more than offer a social response, but also invite readers into well-written and visceral descriptions so necessary when interpreting groups of people.
Clare Paniccia’s poem, “Breakup in Three Scenes” brings readers skin-close to the body and deep into the cerebral of a woman in the hinges of a breakup. This poem is not melodramatic; rather, it is powerful in its ability to be delicate and tender, like the dove in the proverbial fairy tale. Clare’s writing is dreamy, and yet, well-focused, using words as if using a camera—like zooming in on a finger pressed so gently to the carotid artery. Read, watch, and listen to “Breakup in Three Scenes.”
We have two translations by Bernadette Geyer this month. Surreal and surprising, these poems by Joachim Ringelnatz offer an escape to a world where things aren't what they seem. In one, a deer becomes something quite different when touched, much as we feel when we exit the dream world. These poems are strangely delightful. I can't stop reading them.
"Imagine... / falling into your ordinary life," states Val Dering Rojas. However, these lovely poems are far from ordinary. In one, the speaker wants more than the things of the earth and believes that otherworldly things are deserved as well. This need continues into the next poem where "debt will let you up if you let it happen." We are not tied to the things of this world and these poems implore us to let them go.
In "You Said It," Matthew Bruce Harrison transports us to a patio scene of mosquitoes and a man's toast to what keeps him wary. A candle is "near spent / like us all" and the lawn is "a mangy troll back / passed over." Harrison allows us into the mind of a man who acknowledges an absence beside him and what fills his world.
Diana Smith Bolton takes us to the movies in her poems. In one, the scenery of It's a Wonderful Life merges with memories of the speaker's father ("I see my hand holding this / can of beer") and the family trait of being "too anxious for reflection." Yet fiction allows us to reflect, which brings us closer to our humanity. In the second poem, the speaker implores the woman in the movie to stay away from "Big-Nose," the hero, even though she "is in his pocket like a penny." Bolton's poems show that what we think of as fantasy may very well reveal us.
We end with Howie Faerstein's poem "Jamaica Bay," which contains the unexpected solace of a place we forget until we're somewhere else. It's the places in a new city that remind us of what we once had. The white snow of one place merges with sandy trails of another, and soon we're transported to a memory, the "hold of that oasis."
Thank you for reading our column and spending time with these poets!