Three Promising New Voices at the Identity Crossroads
By Rigoberto GonzálezJuly 2, 2016
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Model Disciple by Michael Prior
Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin
The title of Austin’s collection, Trouble the Water, invokes the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a song of the Underground Railroad that references the biblical story of the parting of the sea, a miracle that delivered the Israelites from slavery. Such a poignant context invites the reader to approach the book through a particular lens, especially since the opening poems are “Tidewater Psalm” and “Devotions.” But the homoeroticism embedded in the religious imagery of these same poems makes it clear that Austin means to “trouble the water” in expressions of “passion” and “desire,” and trouble the current era in which the body’s freedoms can be, simultaneously, prisons.
“Breakwater” narrates a complicated story: a war veteran showing a photograph of himself as a youth to his grandson, who is no older than he was at the time the picture was taken. The now aged man clings to the pride of his service to his country, to the adventure of traveling to France, and his grandson acknowledges the beauty and wisdom of his grandfather’s full life. But beyond the frame of this photograph lies the story of the grandfather’s brother “killed a year later by cops who mistook him / for another black man.” The bittersweet family history descends upon the grandson: what will be his legacy? The long life or the life cut short? For the black body, survival too comes with its burdens, a sentiment echoed by the grandfather’s sense of confusion in his advanced years when he says, “most days it’s like hearing Marvin Gaye / being shot, the same news over and over, / and I never know if I’m Marvin or his father.” Identification as a means of orientation is a similar and sometimes disconcerting process achieved through familial bloodlines and racial ties.
Taking blackness to another critical conversation, “Blaxploitation” (owing its name to the controversial film genre of the 1970s) presents a powerhouse of a sestina in which every end word is “black,” thus creating inescapable accountability from its series of indictments about how the media has been complicit in shaping perceptions of black masculinity. Austin also confronts the sexualized politics of interracial homosexual relationships; yet in this poem, the black body is not the dominant aggressor, but the submissive partner:
I need magic. I call a trick. It’s black
and white — he’s red all over. I love my black
boys sore. He can’t grip my hair, black
brillo pad. My body? Let’s get physical. Black-
body principle, I’m light and afterglow. Black-
out. Give me that nigger dick. His bootblack,
I gave all of him a shining. Shocked a black
man took that? I’ve heard his shit before: black
’s an absence, no stimulation for the eye’s black
pupil, but I’m right here, still whole (Black
don’t crack), and he (Once you go black…)
got off just fine.
Queering the conversation further, the six-part poem “Sans Souci” creates a narrative and counter-narrative between three religious-themed paintings and three intimate episodes involving a gay couple, who visit the German palace turned museum where those paintings are housed. “Sans Souci” asks a number of important questions about representations of beauty in art: whose bodies and what kinds of lives are valued, what languages are used to assert (and even influence) what is held sacrosanct in such hallowed spaces as palaces, churches, and museums. The hushed tone of these lyrical poems about the paintings is necessarily disrupted by the explicit and expressive nature of the relationship:
Travel makes one adventurous. To know
and glory in our bodies’ torque and bristle.
We ran from His body in the gallery,
afraid, aching to be sore. There was no halo
in the painting, but there’s a cock ring here.
You teach me what the Old Masters can’t —
Cleverly, Austin pairs the poems side by side. In this gallery of encounters, no one thing competes for prominence in the speaker’s reflections; the private and public converge, as do the sacred and profane.
The male body, it seems, is inextricably beholden to its manhood and masculinity, even in same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, therefore, to have “Torch Song” and “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E” step into the limelight as reminders of a defiantly fierce genderqueerness as expressed by the drag performers in these poems. In the first, Southern Cross, who claims she is “less than woman and more than man,” leans in to say: “Listen, baby: when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing: you singe.” In the second, an homage to the groundbreaking documentary Paris is Burning (about drag culture in 1980s New York City), the speaker advises wisely: “Darling, read your history. Darling, call me sir.” These two divas of the stage, interestingly enough, bear the strongest will to thrive; perhaps because they are, in their own way, breaking down their masculine prisons — though this too is a bittersweet freedom given that gender fluidity is also prone to violence.
Poems like “Magnolia” and “Sweet Boys” underscore the embattled temperament of Trouble the Water. For the gay black body, the gay black speaker who is the main voice of this book, there is no separating racist interactions from homophobic ones. Articulations of danger and desire, passion and pain — interactions with the white world, the straight world — are expressed through the murkiness of prejudice, of the compounded baggage of seemingly mutually exclusive histories.
Austin’s collection is a dense book, which could have been curated with more scrutiny in order to produce a leaner text, but the gravity of its insights and observations remain buoyed by Austin’s confidence in dealing with the charged territories of religion and sex. Overall, it’s a deeply satisfying debut that’s so textured it requires multiple readings.
Michael Prior’s Model Disciple opens with the poem “Half,” its first lines a declaration of a mixed identity tied to major historical conflicts: “I am all that is wrong with the Old World, / and half of what troubles the New.” The poem reveals the speaker’s Japanese ancestry. And despite the fact that he sits in a comfortable Canadian household watching American television, his “current crisis” is negotiating the weight of his cultural legacies. How can he reach that critical point of calling himself Japanese-Canadian?
Despite this start, Prior does not rush to unpack that crisis, in fact the examination of identity unfolds quite slowly, and clues to that reserved process appear in the next two poems: “A Priori” states “I learned my Latin like a model disciple” and “Ventriloquism for Dummies” states “my life, lived like an elaborate glove.” Those lines eventually resonate with the speaker’s struggle with assimilation, while his Japanese heritage (including his Japanese grandfather’s four-year detention in an internment camp) becomes absorbed into a larger Canadian fabric. This conflicted experience is not necessarily an indictment against Canada, but a personal reckoning: is this healing or is this erasure?
Perhaps that question is too painful or too overwhelming to confront head on, which is why a series of poems about sea creatures gives Prior a point of entry into complex states of emotion and existence. Given the context of the speaker’s own existential crisis, the metaphors become even more telling. It’s difficult to resist making connections to the speaker’s inner chaos when he muses on cuttlefish (“I thought of the cuttlefish, struggling to reflect the inane / geometrics of a scientist’s whim. A life spent matching / exteriors, while the interior remained unchanged”), or when a lamprey is described as “a question mark / coyly undressing a chrysanthemum of teeth.” In essence, Prior keeps searching for language to express that sense of a void or a loss without comprehending fully what has been compromised and how he might have been complicit in his own condition. This line of thought continues in “Hermit Crab”:
Regardless of what you’ve been told,
I moved in because I didn’t want
to hear the ocean anymore,
the slosh of water autopsying itself —
a reminder that I would one day
be an unclaimed vacancy.
Eventually, the poems leave the marine world to engage creatures on land: the jackrabbit, the raccoon, and the swan, whose seemingly innocuous presence overshadows its less attractive side: “Even the swans’ necks don’t shape a heart / when they hunt beneath the dark.” These spirit animals attempt to draw out the repressed fury or anger or whatever charged emotions fuel his journey. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to second-guess these interpretations because Prior never quite gets to that moment of undisguised self-reflection or emotion. The closest he gets to a sentimental moment is related in the poem “For Pat Morita,” in which the speaker remembers a younger self feeling a sense of pride and belonging when the Japanese-American actor rises to prominence as Kesuke Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies.
Well into the collection, however, “Waits and Measures” marks a turning point when the speaker looks to the man who was nodding off in front of the television in the opening poem: his grandfather. Indeed, all this time the answer, or the necessary guide, rather, was right under his nose. The poem finally reveals that the grandfather spent four years in Canadian internment camps.
In the United States, there’s a small but important body of literature written by Japanese-American writers about that shameful period during World War II, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 justified the illegal detention on American soil of Japanese immigrants and American citizens with Japanese ancestry. Canada did the same, shutting down Japanese language newspapers, and displacing its Japanese and Japanese-Canadian population after taking possession of all personal and commercial property, the sale of which was used to fund and maintain the camps. American readers who have come across Joy Kogawa’s body of work, particularly the novel Obasan, will not be surprised to discover that Canada, like the United States, also bears this stain on its national reputation. The speaker of Model Disciple, half white, half Japanese, embodies both the warden and the prisoner, which makes reconciling his ancestries a painful process.
The long poem “Tashme” (an acronym derived from the first two letters in the last names of the three politicians who advocated most strongly for internment) narrates the road trip the speaker and his grandfather take to visit the historical site. It’s a compelling journey of healing, particularly for the grandfather, who returns as a tourist while negotiating the memories triggered by his detention: “In the winters, the windows were coated / with ice on both sides and the pot-belly / stove leaked so much smoke that our snot turned black,” he recalls. Then later, when they enter the cramped living quarters, “How could we have fit in here?” That question lingers throughout their visit, amplifying the “we” into the entire ethnic group, the entire Japanese-Canadian culture.
For the speaker, the internment camp becomes a personal injustice against his grandfather, a promising baseball player who was once scouted by the Red Sox in 1950, though the anti-Japanese prejudice was still too strong: “too small and too foreign-looking, he was / an unwanted reminder of the war.” The grandfather, however, had arrived at a place of peace, clinging to his love of the sport and to Neil Diamond. At the souvenir store, his only purchase is a CD of his favorite musician’s greatest hits. It appears that though his grandfather has not forgotten about his internment, he has not allowed that dark period to define him. In fact, it’s evident he sees beyond the camps when he traces his post-internment life to his next place of residence, and then the next one — always another step away from the past.
The 19-page narration of the road trip represents the emotional release for the speaker who never quite names his feelings. And perhaps that’s the lesson here: there is no conclusion, no point of arrival, just another stage of being shaped by the past but not paralyzed by it. At the end of the poem, when the speaker imagines the realtors descending on his family’s old neighborhood “to plant their names into the wilting lawns,” it becomes a recognition that life goes on, whether or not anyone is ready. (The question remains: Is he?)
Model Disciple is an elegantly written book though the reader will be left wondering why there wasn’t more emotional surrender, and why the speaker remained stubbornly closed off in such a personal story, expressing himself mostly through image and metaphor. Though this too adds to the poignancy of the struggle in coming to terms with identity at the crossroads of memory and history. The poetry’s gorgeous language and the striking participation of the grandfather, however, more than compensate for Prior’s restraint, making this book an experience worth having.
The seasoned reader of poetry will be impressed that Thief in the Interior is Phillip B. Williams’s first collection. His control of the line is masterful, and his syntax eschews, for the most part, direct or simple delivery of language, creating a formal and solemn tone that scores the emotional pitches of the book. The journey of the speaker’s awareness of his multiple identities is told in four linear parts, each a stage of understanding of the ways he sees the world he inhabits and how that world sees him. The poem “Bound” offers the initial eye-opening question: “Can I be only one thing at once?”
Those familiar with the poetry of Carl Phillips will recognize the strong influence on Williams’s engagement of image and language: on lightning — “the boy’s first word for pain / is the light’s / new word for home”; on landscape — “Because when I write ‘tree’ I mean fire / of autumn.” But Williams quickly establishes his own turf in his arresting treatment of lynching as part of the black body’s “inheritance.” The series “Inheritance” includes a concrete poem in the shape of a noose with one of the phrases at the dead center reading “Simply feet, strange horizons.” A second piece interweaves two cases of grotesque desecrations committed against murdered black people. The indictment against the history of racism and sexual violence is communicated in a somber voice whose control is both unsettling and devastating, gesturing toward a resigned acceptance of the past:
Our dead, once forced to reject the ground
for rope and air — sky hued erotic there
in the leaves — now forced to the ground, backed
into morning headlines, their minced codas
between weather and traffic, a jarring revision:
white writhing over black, the American aesthetic.
Part I of Thief in the Interior shows a young man coming to terms with racism, not an easy process as evidenced by the poems that close the section: “Prayer” is an appeal for deliverance from the evils of the world (“I want to heal like You do. God, let me walk on water.”) and “Misericorde” offers a more hopeful image — the bee, the pollinator, producer of life, is a sharp contrast to the flies that have been buzzing on the corpses of humans and animals thus far. But “decay’s sudden lift” is only temporary, since Part II unravels the tragic story of Rashawn Brazell.
The long poem “Witness” comprises the entirety of Part II and it considers the case of a young gay black man who was murdered and brutally dismembered. The city’s mild amusement over the incident is reflected in the tabloid headline: “Gay Beau Sought in Body-Chop Slay.” But, for the gay black youth encountering this narrative, a startling new reality emerges about the vulnerabilities of his body:
Some believe only the already-
destroyed are safe. I try to appear broken in order
to appear unbreakable, not worth further breaking.
The details of Brazell’s death are gruesome, and Williams pushes back against the lukewarm response by the authorities and the morbid curiosity of the tabloids by creating an empathetic speaker who feels so connected to Brazell that he develops a kind of brotherly love and expresses it as such to Brazell’s mother in a letter. At one point, he even imagines how one black youth’s fate is interchangeable with another’s: “I called his name but heard my own come back / […] called his name and a train replied.” (That reply alludes to the subway tracks where Brazell’s remains were found.)
It’s important to note that the speaker is not struggling with survivor’s guilt as much as he is continuing to reconcile the way his blackness, and his queerness, might be treated in the world. At one point, Williams includes the testimony of the bag holding Brazell’s body parts and even this inanimate object is afforded more humanity than its contents, though it soon becomes clear it is serving as a surrogate voice for the victim: “There is a pulse in me and I call it nothing. I allow a breeze to slip past each zipper tooth. Please. I cannot speak. I hold it all in.”
If there was any question about the speaker’s sexuality, it is explicitly answered in the poems “A Survey of Masculinity” and in particular “Apotheosis”:
Faggot was a thought
that snuck inside me, was put inside me,
and all the fields inside me turned Greek,
meaning tragic, meaning its beasts
were hybrid and hard to slay:
a faggot in the nigger, a nigger and a faggot
and though both hollered I couldn’t let them go.
The speaker’s complicated if not conflicted relationship to his black queerness is explored further in the poem “Do-Rag,” which also bears an echo of the Rashawn Brazell case:
like me but still invite me to your home
when your homies aren’t near
enough to hear us crash into each other
like hours. Some men have killed
their lovers because they loved them
so much in secret that the secret kept
coming out […]
Love between men and the gay black identity, however, are not all danger and damage, even if for this speaker the journey is not without heartache. Thankfully, Williams offers a glimmer of hope by including the poem “Epithalamium,” which commemorates a same-sex marriage, though this moment of bliss is also hard-won: “We knew weren’t protected. We knew / our rings were party favors, gold to steal / the shine from. We couldn’t protect us.”
Interestingly enough, (and perhaps my single disappointment with Thief in the Interior) little attention is given to the father-son relationship in the collection, which is relegated to the end of the book. “Of Shadows and Mirrors” drops a key moment that might have become an emotional center, the speaker’s most pressing personal struggle: “A ghost floats between my father’s ghost and me. Haunt me if you want, history.” In a previous piece, “He Loved Him Madly,” it’s revealed the father succumbed to drugs, but that he still managed to be a good father, his difficult life commemorated lovingly in this 15-part poem, each titled after a music track. The tracks playlist between Miles Davis and hip-hop and spoken word to create a dialogue between the lives of the father and son and ends on a heartbreaking note: “Dear father. / Dear wish. Dear closest thing to God I know.” It might have been a compelling decision to negotiate the father’s presence — and absence — during the book’s other important moments of deep questioning, awakening and consciousness-building.
Still, Thief in the Interior, impressively introspective and sophisticated, achieves startling high points from its stunning image-making to its devastating emotional collisions with loss, love, and the legacies of the body’s identities.
These three collections mark auspicious beginnings despite the minor missteps that are not uncommon in first books. The difference here is that Austin, Prior, and Williams are taking risks with extraordinary skill and polish, and their intelligence and talent, clearly on display page after page, will continue to mature. It’s exhilarating to imagine what will come next. But here, now we have three outstanding debuts that merit further critical attention and high praise.
Rigoberto González is the author 17 books, most recently the poetry collection Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. The recipient of Guggenheim, NEA and USA Rolón fellowships, a NYFA grant in poetry, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, The Poetry Center Book Award, and the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award, he is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, and professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He is also the recipient of the 2015 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. As of 2016, he serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times.
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