BY NOW it’s an industry certainty that Cave Canem, the nation’s leading literary organization whose primary mission is to nurture emerging African-American poets, will have a number of its fellows publish books of poetry within the same year. This speaks to the 17-year-old organization’s long-standing ability to identify and mentor promising writers, and their eventual successes only add to Cave Canem’s renown.
The year 2013 was no exception, and given the distinguished lineage of poets who entered the profession with a close association with Cave Canem — Natasha Trethewey, Major Jackson, and Tracy K. Smith, among others — we can assume a select few of these first-time publications might mark the beginning of illustrious careers. Cave Canem’s lengthy list of recognizable names and prize-winning titles speaks to its sustained high standard of literary merit, and to the valuable service it provides to the readership at large. As its poetry community grows, so too does our understanding of the range, reach, and, yes, diversity of contemporary African-American literature. To illustrate this point, I’ve selected three debut collections by three Cave Canem fellows — Hum by Jamaal May, She Has A Name by Kamilah Aisha Moon, and King Me by Roger Reeves — not to arrive at a consensus about what African-American poetry is, but to examine how three poets assert their individual voices at the same time that they become part of the illustrious community shaping contemporary American poetry.
In Jamaal May’s Hum, its onomatopoetic title refers to the humming of motors (usually in cars) and to the humming of humans. These parallel frequencies (or movements) of sound intersect in a young man growing up in Detroit. As he perceives the particulars of urban life and landscape, he begins to see himself manifested in the city’s physicality. Notice the place, notice his body:
Look for me
in scattered windshield beneath an overpass,
on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns of mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater — look. Even the blade
of a knife holds my quickly fading likeness
while I run out of ways to say I am here.
Juxtaposing the city and the body — metal and glass mixing with flesh — brings forth unsettling imagery that gestures toward the vulnerability that both entities share. More to the point, it makes Detroit as mortal and susceptible to pain or damage as its inhabitants:
Here on the shoulder
of a freeway, rebar exposed
by a semi that crushed a concrete
dividing wall to avoid crushing
a hatchback protrudes from slabs
in a way she imagines bone can.
And later: “Detroit / is a stretch of highway littered / with windshield, / a boy picking the remains / of a window from his hair.” These are more than moments of personification; they are also the speaker’s identification with the Motor City long after its era of prosperity, during the age of its decline. It’s fitting then that in the poem “On Metal,” a mystery malfunction (the right side of a car doesn’t respond) mirrors the speaker’s own health issues: “my left ear’s limited frequency range / [...] the left eye I’m now told is blind.”
But where there’s deterioration, there’s also perseverance, or even persistence: a humming is continually heard on the pages of this book. Interspersed throughout are hums, or songs, to a series of concrete objects (hammer, stone, bolt) that create a solid exterior for a second, more abstract, and softer hum — a series of poems about phobias, such as the fear of snow, the fear of the sea, and the fear of waiting. Sound (like heartbeat, like breath), or even noise, is the immediate proof of the body yet functioning, still alive:
I need more rattle from the cabinet, more
whir from the fan spinning in the laptop
warming my twin sister’s lap —
and when that’s not enough,
I might take off my shirt and press
my shoulders against a refrigerator —
one of those beige monsters
from the 80s you can really feel
working for its hum.
Interestingly enough, only a few of May’s poems touch on the subject of racial identity, most notably “The Sky, Now Black with Birds,” which invokes the horrific murder in 1998 of James Byrd at the hands of white supremacists. Identity in Hum is primarily located within the compromised yet still standing urban infrastructure (“I ask a steel sculpture / ascending from the depths / of museum grass if I am / contextualized by its immensity”), in which desire and anxiety hum side by side.
Because he’s exploring city space, it’s unavoidable that May address street violence, but he eschews the familiar narratives, favoring instead, as has been his strategy throughout, the lyrical use of metaphor and synecdoche:
Yesterday your son pressed his nose to the screen
door to watch a gaggle of baseball caps crowd the sidewalk.
The bones did what bones do.
Streetlights buzzed with their particular sadness.
In a way, Hum is a bittersweet love song to Detroit. As the young speaker grows fortified, finding agency and voice within the great city, he also comes to realize the city’s weakening magnitude:
There are days
I mourn being built
from this. Made
of so much aggregate
and gravestone, so little
diamond and fountain water.
This lament doesn’t end without hope, however: “all say the shelter is sparse, yes, / but there is space here for bones.”
The melancholic hum of May’s tone lends gravity and heart to this debut collection, which might have otherwise been consumed by its conceits. May’s work is skillful and nuanced in its surprising approach to the nature (and nurture) of identity.
Kamilah Aisha Moon has written one of the most moving poetry books I’ve encountered in a while. At the center of She Has A Name is a young woman with autism who, despite her high-functioning capabilities, is still subjected to the sometimes stifling overprotective behavior of her family: “We send for guardian angels — / please — sweep down in case / our love isn’t / enough.”
A family dynamic — not exactly a family drama — unfolds as Moon allows the different members of the household (parents, sister Ish, and Middle Sister) to voice their anxieties, regrets, and feelings of guilt. Oldest sister Ish, who has moved away from home, feels particularly conflicted (“Each visit home frays me, / the price I pay for being able to drive away.”), especially after her parents make clear that as they “depreciate,” the responsibility of looking out for the youngest member of the family will be hers.
Ish’s relationship to her youngest sister reveals a compelling history: as much as she celebrates her sister’s triumphs — like her first vote (“a lone ballot / never counted so much”) and her dance recital — she also admits to the times she privileged her own interests instead. From the poem “Sorry”:
Buried moments when
I’ve forsaken you — for instance —
your graduation-night dinner I skipped
to see a concert.
Such simple honesty brings to light the hushed or taboo conversations about the complex experience of growing up in a home with a family member with special needs. To Moon’s credit, she doesn’t portray Ish and her parents as burdened or martyred, but as ordinary people whose errors in judgment and impulsive thoughts are part of their individual journeys, not that of their charge. In turn, the youngest sister is also treated with dignity because she arrives at her own insights about her condition independently of her family’s perspectives, despite the fact that they’re usually within earshot. It’s only when a family member encroaches on her path that they are all reminded of how fragile this tread-carefully arrangement really is, easily susceptible to missteps. On one occasion, the young woman gets to fly solo:
free to defy
Autism’s gravity and simply be
the passenger in seat 13E.
She was coasting,
a look-ma-no-hands smile
resplendent on her face.
shortened her ride,
as I led her by the hand
to the front of the line,
telling the attendant
to keep watch
that she is different.
“Why did you do that to me?”
The youngest sister, having endured embarrassment at having to climb “that short yellow bus” all this time, feels betrayed by Ish’s inability to “give her the space / to look like herself.”
She Has A Name works with great sensitivity in its invitation to readers to empathize with an experience that’s largely and unnecessarily hidden from public discourse. Polite silence suggests shame and sustains a stigma against expressing, let alone validating, complicated emotions such as those felt by Ish. By the conclusion of the book, there are no prescriptions given or life lessons imparted; the takeaway is the intimate portrait of the family itself, which comes across no less troubled, no more afflicted than any other, despite its unique challenges, a true testament to that family’s efforts to attain its strength: “Often all we have / are banged-up blessings.”
A compassionate writer with a delicate touch, Moon navigates emotive territory with commendable grace.
Roger Reeves’s King Me opens with a solemn promise: “I, Roger Reeves, hereby pledge that I will not come back / to this city, if this city will not come back to me.” The poem proceeds to list the many memories and experiences the speaker will leave behind — not an abandonment but a clearing of the mind as he embarks on a journey through history and its mistreatment of the black (usually male) body, in an attempt to regain perspective on his own place in the world. As he makes an initial sweep across the country, he must first tear off that offensive racial epithet in order to explore the narratives underneath:
Think: nigger is the god
of our brief salvation. Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon.
Nigger in the twilight that is no longer a twilight
but a black creek fumbling along the spine of a boy
who is running through a city that is running out of water.
Even the lions have left for the mountain.
This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken. Auto-tune this if you must.
One of the first stops on this journey is to Money, Mississippi, the site of the heinous murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. Followed soon after by a visit to the 1868 slave massacre at Opelousas, Louisiana, where approximately 200 black people were killed during a frenzied “Negro hunt.” Quite deliberately, Reeves imagines the fallen set against natural landscapes (Emmett Till’s body lies next to that of a dead mare at a shoal and “does not get the luxury / of a lyric — a song that makes our own undoing / or killing sweet”; the bodies at Opelousas are cast off in a field, “the deer, there, / dead in the ravine”), building up to a startling indictment against the nature of racism in the poem “Southern Charm”:
I refuse to explain the head and source
of the South’s distemper? Oh, Hamlet,
North Carolina, and the fallow winds
loosing the topsoils of my lover’s body.
Oh son of the mute sharecropper. Oh bent
guitar and shattered body at the foot of the mockingbird,
what nation, what native land does nature salute?
To avoid being consumed by outrage, the speaker also looks to narratives where he can locate (and inhabit) hope, inner strength, and defiance, like Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who preserve the memories of the disappeared. (“I, too, having lost / faith in silence have placed my faith in silence.”) and the story of Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, a groundbreaking trumpet player and feminist lesbian from the 1940s:
Call me tiny, anything small: an acorn
lodged in the throat of a thrush. Choke. A claw
squeezed from the purple head of a flower. Prick.
A hunk of pork butt plucked from the gums
and placed back onto the tongue. Gag. Then swallow.
Feed me. Call my appetite a kind kingdom.
Call me Queen. King me.
That “kinging” resonates in other poems that speak to how the black male body is simultaneously feared and fetishized, particularly in sports and entertainment where the media controls the popularity and desirability of the public image: “Most young kings return home without their heads.” Reeves also invokes the phenomenon called “John Henryism,” the premature death of educated black men, and the challenges of reconciling homosexuality with socially accepted values and gender roles. The casualties are everywhere, but lest these losses be in vain, the speaker pleads: “teach me / What to do with the dead I carry in my mouth, / Teach me to travel light with their bodies in my belly.”
A sophisticated and breathtaking writer, Reeves takes the reader on a harrowing journey: each poem comes packed with arresting imagery, relentless in its examination of how tragedy and trauma become internalized — cleaning out the wounds to understand the pain:
If none of us will be remembered, then let us keep speaking
with tongues light as screen doors clapping shut
on a child’s finger. For this is love.
May, Moon, and Reeves have written praiseworthy debuts that announce an individuality of voice and vision even as they become part of the larger Cave Canem community of distinguished writers. All three authors recognize (in the acknowledgment pages) the critical role that organization played in their development as artists, but the true responsibility is to the craft itself, to the energy that it takes to write works that will stand on their own, as examples of inspiration, discipline, and talent, as Hum, She Has A Name, and King Me undoubtedly do.
Rigoberto González is the author of 13 books and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He’s on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle and is currently associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.