CAMERON AWKWARD-RICH’S terrific — and short — second collection highlights a dilemma all poets must notice, but only some confront: how to speak at once for an individual, perhaps the poet himself, and for the categories, the kinds of persons — shy people, Midwesterners, black men, trans men, millennials — to which the poet belongs? On the one hand, Awkward-Rich titles four poems “[Black Feeling].” Not all black poets write about blackness; he does. The same turns out to be true for transmasculine identity, for shyness, for Minneapolis, but above all for blackness: “like anyone, I need help / raising the shroud / from my black shoulders.”
Dispatch (whose title means haste, and finality, and news) is a tough book, a book that rarely says life will get better, for Awkward-Rich or for people like him. It is, perhaps, a book of Afro-pessimism: “I feel very certain that the world is ending,” Awkward-Rich says in an interview, even while he wants to “make it more possible for queer, trans, and poc kids to live into the future.” Even more than his clearer, more discursive debut, Sympathetic Little Monster (2016), Dispatch invites other trans readers — especially transmasculine readers — to find themselves or ourselves in its wiry lines, its hard generalities:
Can a girl ever stand
far enough away
to see her mother
& not the edges
of a shadow bent
into her own?
Don’t ask me
I’m not a girl
though I was
when I first saw her
down the hallway
beyond my door.
This strong book’s weakest moments seem to imitate, rather than build on, earlier black writers: “Everywhere We Look, There We Are,” with its taken-apart and partly erased source text, comes perhaps too close to M. NourBese Philip’s Zong!. The strongest moments, though, involve solidarity — with other black writers and readers, other radical millennials, other trans people, “all those Christmas nights / of family, trying // to decipher their mutant / kin.” That lovely poem, “Love Poem,” which begins “Dear Proofreaders,” dives into the trope of all trans people as mutants or werewolves, sifting through the all-too-needful talk “about gender & interpretation” to get to “the bottom of language” with its “tangled fur, my proper name.” (Rahne Sinclair from the X-Men, with her tangled mutant fur and her lesbian subtext, could be proud.)
Awkward-Rich doesn’t just speak to other mutants; he speaks for them as well. He began as a performance poet, finding an audience in a new generation, placing pride where earlier writers would have installed complaints and diagnoses. His delightful, sarcastic 2014 poem “A Prude’s Manifesto” (“Here is a list of things I like more than having sex: reading. Lying flat on my back staring […] peeling back the skin of a ripe fruit”), which you can watch on YouTube, gets even better when you place it next to Louise Glück’s famous “Mock Orange,” where not wanting sex — not wanting what your partner sees as sex, what your partner defines and demands as sex — is a flaw, a disease, a cause for concern. “Black sorrow and queer/trans sorrow are often consumed,” Awkward-Rich says in a wise interview, “in ways that reinforce these systems rather than disrupt them”; his quotable poems, then and now, try to disrupt those systems instead, speaking for other black and queer and trans and relatively young readers, not just for himself.
And yet, for every moment when it speaks for a class, for others, to others, about others, there are two in Dispatch where Awkward-Rich seeks his own differentiation, recognition, the perhaps impossible goal of feeling truly seen for your whole self. The tersely wrought leadoff poem makes almost comically literal the dangers that come with not being seen: a driver who “didn’t see” him hits him in a crosswalk, and he wakes up in a hospital with tinnitus: “Blessed din // of my solitary making, static song / no one else can hum.” The car accident left him with tinnitus, a hauntingly apt figure for systemic racism, for threats on the news, and for stereotype threat:
there’s a dial
stuck inside, always
bad news / smooth jazz
and I can’t turn it down
Awkward-Rich’s tinnitus gives him constant, unwanted reminders of who he is to other people, what happens to people like him, “ringing // & ringing, faithful / goddamned blood alarm.”
Of course he’s alarmed: it’s alarming to know how dangerous the world can be for anyone, but in particular for black men, for black trans men, for black trans introverts with tinnitus and very good memories who live, in part, in their heads: “Anything / can be made into a cage — // garment, sentence, cage.” That poem and a few others invoke trans precursors (“Lawrence Jackson, arrested in Chicago wearing a dress, 1881”). Awkward-Rich (a Minnesota native, now teaching at UMass Amherst) belongs with them. But he also belongs in bed with his cat: the lightest, happiest poem he has written so far, and one of my favorites, must be “Aubade,” which takes the cat’s point of view: “after all, I’m hairless & ugly & too dumb / to lift my limbs up from the bed & polish each one.” The cat, miraculously, loves him, and licks him, nonetheless.
As in Sympathetic Little Monster and his earlier spoken-word pieces, Awkward-Rich finds a way to sound stark but never bare, a way to make his experience “as simple as it can be but no simpler” (to quote Zukofsky misquoting Einstein). A lot of us might see ourselves or our friends or our loved ones in Awkward-Rich’s terrifyingly apt poem “It’s Important to Know What a ‘Man’ Is.” It’s a poem about the kind of dysphoria that comes when trans people — and traumatized cis people — engage with well-meaning lovers: their satisfaction is your satisfaction, except that your body doesn’t belong to you, and you can never be satisfied. In such a circumstance the search for enthusiastic consent, for “pleasure,” becomes an inadvertent violation, a reminder that you inhabit a body which doesn’t belong to you; instead, you get
who used to fish
me up from sleep,
into a hook I
thrashed around, gasping
for good air
until my love was satisfied.
You have to understand
the difference: it was my pleasure
she wanted, worst of all.
“Worst of all.” Longer lines, more detail, would say less than these curt figures do. The poems stop short, cut themselves off, speak slowly and deliberately, because they know they, like him, will be misunderstood: “most black folk look at you & see a woman. White people look at you & see a reckless boy. Either way, there you are in the room with your body.” The word “boy” does plenty of work — it’s a grave racial insult, and also a way to see transmasculine bodies that have not bulked out or grown facial hair.
Why can’t other people — especially strangers, authority figures, cis people, nonblack people, white people — look at you and see you? How would that even feel? Has it ever happened? Such are the questions this terse, intense book asks, and if that summary makes it seem like Awkward-Rich asks too much, other parts of his book imply that he’s not asking much: his version of Paradise, a volume-ending short-lined cento implies, is just a world where “you don’t die / when you’re supposed to,” and “everyone we love / is still alive.”
Stephanie Burt is a poet, critic, and professor of English at Harvard University. She is co-poetry-editor at The Nation and her collection Advice from the Lights: Poems was released in 2017 by Graywolf Press.