When First Books Are Not First Books

By Randall HortonJuly 2, 2014

Allegiance by Francine J. Harris
Proxy by R. Erica Doyle

SOME LITERARY CRITICS assume that first books of poetry will necessarily display a certain level of immaturity, even if revealing quite a bit of promise, or perhaps even prodigy. There is an expectation that the reader will leave the book thinking, “Well, it’s just a first collection, and I really did enjoy it, but the poet needs to live a little more.” That said, in the small community where I grew up, there was a saying used by older folks, when they saw a small child who did not act like a child: they would say, “That child been here before.” After reading first books by R. Erica Doyle and francine harris, one could conclude that they have “been here before.” Doyle’s Proxy and harris’s allegiance display extraordinary levels of maturity, of understanding the contemporary state of poetry as it relates to aesthetics, and of understanding language itself and language practices. These writers are grounded in form, but are not afraid of postmodern experimental practices. The lenses through which they choose to confront language, sexuality, urban structures, religion, and human interaction articulate a deep understanding of the frameworks and ideologies that pervade their social worlds.

In her seminal essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” poet and theorist Erica Hunt posits that “oppositional frames of reference are the borders critical to survival. Long treatment as an undifferentiated mass of other by the dominant class fosters collective identity and forms of resistance.” In other words, the dominant language fosters an alternative language, one that rejects signs and signifiers that seek to subjugate or erase, and an oppositional poetics, a poetics that revolts against and subverts the dominant narrative. R. Erica Doyle’s Proxy wanders in this oppositional space, between “never” and “if only,” exploring sexuality in an oppositional frame, through a protagonist who teaches the reader ideas of love and desire and who shows human beings guarding against hurt and loss, only to become vulnerable again.

I say “never” because Proxy suggests the failure of love, and “if only” because it also holds open the possibility of love regardless of that failure. Doyle sets up our protagonist’s psychological condition in the prologue, in which a woman deals with sexual desire, lust, acceptance, and the frailties of her human condition. Consider:

After seven years, you’ve regenerated every cell in your body. After seven years, there’s some new constellation in your house of damage. After seven years you’ve fucked enough women to know better. After seven years, the slant of her eyes tilts your beautiful, wavering house, complete with wife and dog, into the chasm, behind the curtain.

Doyle suggests that in mental damage or ruin there comes a neoteric afterglow, a state or condition only imagined through mistakes, and that comfortability is never a set condition. Notice how each line maintains poetic integrity while resisting a culminating narrative. The complexity of line creates an aesthetic beauty that rails against conventional form, a strength of Doyle’s throughout Proxy.

Often poetic verse that investigates sexuality and uses graphic sex as its foundation fails miserably. Rhetorical and/or propagandistic approaches, which work fine in other realms, in poetry are dead on arrival. Doyle questions gender roles through narrative and image, as the reader willing to follow Doyle’s poetic imagination becomes privy to the internal lives and interactions between same-sex lovers. For example, in the “Palimpsest” section Doyle writes:

You hold back enough to keep them curious. Women like that. Wounded enough to be salvageable. Women like that, too. Fixing things. Take in the broken wing you drag like a decoy.

Conservative heterosexuals could read this as a male speaking, which speaks to Doyle’s brilliant shattering of stereotypes. But the speaker’s gender is inconsequential to the question of what women want, and perhaps need, in a relationship. One cannot help but think of some of the great writers before Doyle who have confronted sexuality, most notably Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, and Adrienne Rich. Like these trailblazers confronting and changing normative views on sexuality, Doyle is a poet first, and so language matters, first.

The protagonist of Proxy deals with a lover as a kept secret — something that affects the LGBT community as a whole, and which cuts to the core of the difficulties finding uninhibited love. There is a compilation of joy and hurtfulness within the lines:

What she writes you is genius, but you had to delete it, drag it to the trash, it was secret. Concede defeat. Code deranged angels. Deny her.

And then further along in the section entitled “Proxy”:

Now you play at illusions. Storm clouds rumble over her house. I think we should be friends, for just—. If any of that mattered, you’d have already gnawed off your leg. You are refuge at the dangerous path.

The closeted person affects the uncloseted person since love rarely blossoms without exposure to society, and while the protagonist doesn’t seem fazed by her lovers’ choices, she is. Toni Morrison would call this a form of erasure, of playing in the dark against a dominant narrative that renders one invisible. Even in invisibility, though, we persist in wanting to fulfill sexual desire, to have a companion, to dream about a lifelong partner. These important components of life seep into Doyle’s lines.

Another first collection that displays a high level of maturity is allegiance by francine harris, a native of Detroit, Michigan, whose poetics operate under the assumption that, as Andrew Joron puts it,

No matter how the poem has been constructed, when poiesis has been achieved, the words of the poem leap spontaneously to a new interactive level […] a level representing the self-organization of a cry emanating from nowhere and no one, but pervading all of language.

This level of language engagement is quite evident in harris’s initiation or coming-of-age poems, which seek to evoke a certain kind of remembrance, and which become quite complex, shying away from conventional narrative for the sake of the narrative. While the poem “what you’d find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school” has roots in the list poem, it is expanded in a way that highlights the level of maturity in the writer.

brass knuckles. two
afro picks on opposite side of the school. germs on a hall pass
     from a boy holding his crotch.
rusty rebar dust. pigeon bones. stolen phone numbers.

With the invocation of memory, the poet is able to balance nostalgia and a poetic engagement that creates a new determinant truth.

allegiance is not solely about coming of age. harris’s wit borders on the satirical in this collection, especially in the section “build us a jesus,” which mocks conventional Christianity, beginning with “would like to first thank god”: “as if god wanted to be thanked. like god cared / about thank you.” Like Amiri Baraka’s poem that makes the statement over and over again “We’ll worship Jesus / When Jesus do / Something,” these poems remind us that language, and more specifically, poetry, is a sort of church, and harris playfully plays within this construction to scaffold her own church. Playing in Derrida’s sense: “the complex structure of a weaving, an interlacing which permits the different threads and different lines of meaning — or of force — to go off again in different directions, just as it is always ready to tie itself up with others.” This is the power of allegiance. Poems like “another finger for the wound” underscore a complicated relationship with Jesus while noting the subtleties of race with “jesus, if i was black and you were the dealer, / i wouldn’t believe you. you’d have three cards in a monte,” and consequently, “jesus, if you were white, you’d cut your hair and be a punk.”

What grounds this collection more than anything is its problematic relationship with Detroit, a city undergoing bankruptcy and governmental restructuring. Detroit is like family to this poet, and only family members can talk this way about their own and still love them at the same time. Take for instance the poem “i live in detroit,” which is a ghazal and echoes both the beauty and the ugly in Detroit, expressing the dualism in urban centers and in human relationships:

there are plenty of violets in flophouses. pistils broken open
on forty-ounce mouth lids making honeybees bastards in detroit.

Through end stops and clever enjambment the reader is kept on edge, waiting for the next epiphany.

Like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” a poem of accusations against the United States in a stream-of-consciousness monologue, harris’s “you, old meany,” its mimetic twin, offers a critique of Detroit. One could argue that it is a love poem; the love fueled by the disappointment and the need to remain optimistic. The poem takes its structure from Ginsberg’s, and harris can’t help but signify on Ginsberg with lines like:

detroit, you killed my parents. this is not funny. detroit, i didn’t even mean to
   off like ginsberg. but maybe you’re the reason i cried when he died. he
   he’d never leave. smoking and sweating and stuck with leftover cum in his ass.

And of course, her love/hate relationship with Detroit:

detroit, you reek of factory sulfur. your rust belt is choking my mood. detroit i
     wheeze your diesel, where should i move. detroit, you cradled me with
     smog and cement through all my temper tantrums, who will choke me
     such tender particulate matter.

allegiance, like Proxy, illustrates Hunt’s point that “dominant modes of discourse, the language of ordinary life or of rationality, of moral management, of the science of the state, the hectoring threats of the press and media, use convention and label to bind and organize us.” These writers build upon conventional practices, but both resist the dominant discourse of poetry, what critics sometimes call “official verse culture.” Both Proxy and allegiance reach well beyond the scope of what most publishers produce as first books. These poets have the maturity to veer well past the ordinary, defying convention and keeping poetry alive, always grounded in language as they venture into something new and revelatory.


Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature.

LARB Contributor

Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Randall is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets, and a member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. Randall is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press is the publisher of his latest poetry collection, Pitch Dark Anarchy.


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