A curated literary guide

Week #27 / 3rd – 9th July, 2017

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Sunday Review: In the Language of My Captor

a poetry collection from Shane McCrae

[ Wesleyan University Press / 2017 / 108 pp ]

“You can be free / Or you can live” writes Shane McCrae in his critique of white comfort, and exploration of gated interiors within Black consciousness. Naming is stressed as quintessential in In The Language of My Captor by way of unveiling the terrible intimacy in America’s colonial underpinnings. We carry the emotional implications of the names thrust upon us by white supremacy.

Like they would call a nigger Hambone Jones
Because a white boy spotted him       sucking on a ham bone

Probably thinking about his woman
and he’s hungry and he’s poor

They named you for a thing
your hunger made you do

This work, deeply psychological and historically weighted, demonstrates the way Black people are named and known by their poverty. In the Language of My Captor exiles my last name and feeds my first. Shane helps me imagine a world in which we recognized the criminality built around longing, and the severity of christening.

From the captive’s perspective, pity is jarring. A speaker not unlike Ota Benga subverts tropes about darkness and its proximity to death.

And so at first I thought the white men       / Were ghosts
one spoke my language
And said that he had spoken to my father
I did not fear them

thought they had been
whitened by the sun     / Like bones     wandering
I thought I could / Help them
I thought they didn’t

Know they were dead

Shane’s language dismantles itself by inverting anti-Black connotations. It falls apart and collects itself in breath that feels both highly technical and gut-uttered. When we speak of the possibility of an oppressor position inviting soul deterioration, it is rarely with a serious concern for loss of humanity, and rarely reconciled against enslavement’s high stakes. The question being, did only Black people die social and spiritual deaths during slavery? Trauma doesn’t paint itself neatly within the borders bodies make. Pain is infectious.

In tearing down the bars between master and captor, Shane demonstrates the way whiteness writes itself into a false sense of safety. Power is precarious in ‘Privacy 2’ when language betrays its master.

          / / Perhaps

by privacy he means / This
certainty he has that
The weapons he has made
Will not be used against him

Shane’s work reveals Blackness as an unexpected and subversive voyeur molded by underestimation. By exhibiting what people will do in front of those they have power over, I see the way false trust is born between people who have no intention of relinquishing force and those who know freedom and life cannot exist together in a body.

Visit Wesleyan University Press to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Xandria Phillips

Five Things with Dave Harris

1. The last thing that made you smile.

So I’m listening to the new 2 Chainz album, and on the song ‘4 AM’ 2 Chainz raps “For my birthday I threw me a surprise party.” Which is hilarious and awesome and absurd and made me smile. But then I started thinking about the practicals of how one might throw their own surprise party. For one, the date of our birthdays is inherently predictable, right. But also, one would imagine the act of planning said party would make it impossible to forget. The only way would be to have such foresight that you plan a birthday party so far in advance that, perhaps, you come home from an endlessly long day at work to find all your loved ones gathered in your living room, and you ask um why are you here? and they say um you invited us 17 years ago… and you’re like oh shit it’s my 40th birthday!! So I suppose what I’m saying is I’ve never had a surprise party, but also I would be terrified and overwhelmed by the amount of love it takes for someone else to know you well enough to plan a party and also genuinely surprise you. So I hope to surprise myself.

2. A secret.

I spend HOURS watching battle rap (like probably too many hours). One of my favorite moments was from a younger rapper named Chess vs. a Christian rapper named Th3 Saga, and Chess is like:

We was in the cold, searching for food like the meat section.
Why is it that the man that fucks up the world gets to keep steppin
while the homeless man who shared everything, in the streets naked?
It’s hell on Earth and we accept it.
Saga, why we gotta die to see heaven?

3. The last thing you wrote.

“Hey I’m currently buying glasses can I FaceTime one of y’all to help me pick a frame??”

4. Favourite city.

Philly is my home, and thus I have a complicated relationship with it. I miss it, and yet I haven’t returned. The other day, I ate these pita chips that tasted just like these fried noodles my family used to get from the Asian take-out restaurant on 63rd street and I almost cried from nostalgia. I can’t imagine home without these feelings, all the love and hungers. Everyone doing their best.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

A picture of my mother and my sister. One of my plays that no one has read. A copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. My first pair of red sneakers (I just bought them like a month ago; it was a big moment). Every Prince and Anita Baker album. Mini M&M’s. A candle. A match.

Dave Harris is a poet and playwright from West Philly. He is a Callaloo Poetry Fellow and playwright in residence at New Haven Arts and Humanities Co-Op High School. His plays have been featured at Theater503, Cherry Lane Theater, Great Plains, UMASS Amherst, The 24 Hour Plays: Nationals, and the Yale Repertory Theater. His poetry and essays have been featured at Huffington Post, Up the Staircase Quarterly, BOAAT Press, The Adroit Journal, and Blueshift Journal. His play ‘White History’ was a semi-finalist for The Relentless Award (2016) and a finalist for the O’Neill Playwriting Conference (2017). He graduated from Yale University in 2016 and is a candidate for the MFA in playwriting at UC San Diego.


a poem from Shay Vera-Cruz

like any true

wild thing. heading always
out and always in

I’ve been aware of the work that Bombus Press has published since their inaugural issue, but it’s this particular poem by Shay Vera-Cruz that has me looking forward to their poems in Platypus’s future anthology A Portrait in Blues. The poem seems simple enough: short-ish, two line stanzas with calculated end words, but it’s the partnership between self-reflection and the white space that make declarations such as “I saw the / dark of the night and I / wanted it” piercing and gem-like. It takes hard work and talent to use too-poetic words like “night”, “raw”, and “light” and reinvent them, an art Vera-Cruz is mastering. They give this poem heartbeats and breaths, and it will take more than one read to find all that ‘Hollowing’ gives.

Visit Bombus Press to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

I Am a Gun

a poem from Chloe Bell​

Chloe Bell’s poem ‘I Am a Gun,’ isn’t about a bruise, it’s about reclaiming the body. Bell doesn’t detail the specifics of how the narrator came to be hurt; she leaves it wide enough for it to be any woman, any day, whose body has been marked by violence. But, that violence doesn’t break her, it’s a catalyst, as Bell’s unnamed narrator transmutes the mark into a power to protect, to avenge, and return firepower. Like many women in the world, it’s likely she will encounter again men who want to break and hurt and control, but for this one woman, at least, these violent men will hold no dominion over her—the woman who is a gun, a woman we root for, a woman who has reclaimed what is hers with the righteousness of the wronged and newly powerful. A woman other women, like me, can aim to be.

Visit Vagabond City to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Space Struck

a poem from Paige Lewis

He says, How deep, like he’s reaching into a galaxy.
He says, How full, and looks up to see if I wince.

At the crossroads of fact, fiction, and things unexpected, we have this wonderful poem by Paige Lewis. Inspired by the only known victim of being struck (indirectly) by a meteorite, Ann Hodges, this poem takes root in a single moment in time and expands. The thing about good poetry is that it takes you to unexpected places. No, this is not about the meteorite fragment’s journey, the events before and after dictated like a series of events in a newspaper article; these are fragments that build up to a whole of a person.

He seemed

disappointed, A thinner woman would’ve died. I was
small when I was young. Didn’t take up much space.

It was the unexpected intimacy of knowing a person, the lamentation of things past, the peek into a relationship almost as eavesdropped conversation. The poem treads the fine line between presumption and honesty, reality and the unknown, but finds even keel in the brief and vivid spark of humanity that illuminates much of the latter half of the poem.

Visit Sugar House Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Día de los Muertos

a poem from Roy Guzmán

Because of this recurring feature, I now know that Valentine’s Day and July 4th fall on the same day of the week (except during Leap Years, I guess?). I wasn’t thrilled about having to pick a poem for Valentine’s Day and I’m less thrilled to have July 4th, America’s Day of Independence, as well.

My heart is not in a celebratory place. Each day brings incrementally more dread as my political climate and government continue to fail the vast majority of the people who live with me in my country. July 4th is bombast and bbq, patriotism and patriotism’s poisoned underbelly. Poetry is succor and it’s also a means to plumb deeper into overlapping ever-weeping wounds that make up the body of my country. I wanted to highlight ‘Wreckage,’ the long poem by Danez Smith in [Insert] Boy that is a journey of pain, of death, of family, of being black and poor and queer in America. The poem isn’t available online, but you should get that book if you haven’t already. Do it now.

Instead, I circled back to one of my favorite poets, Roy Guzmán, and his poem ‘Día de los Muertos’ in Winter Tangerine. And before I get to this poem I want to point you to Guzmán’s ‘Restored Mural for Orlando,’ an incredible response to the Pulse shooting. But ok, back to ‘Día de los Muertos.’

This poem isn’t meant to be in conversation with July 4th but if you’re American I ask you to sit with it on this day and see where these images find root for you.

Our parents sorrow gifts like homeless magi

the difference between failure & love is where / you draw the incision

In the boy’s bedroom our hairs parted / like maps looking for their rivers

Every year we raised the dead we thanked them for the floods / thanked them for how missing bodies tend to float / when we plan to find them.

Today is just a day. It’s also a day that is as much a celebration of un-interrogated history as it as anything else. Today, and any other day, find another inch of space for other stories, other histories. Keep going, keep emerging, keep learning and unlearning and learning anew.

Visit Winter Tangerine to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein


a poem from Rita Dove

If you asked me what one of the first poems that made me want to study poetry was, ‘Adolescence-II’ immediately comes to mind because it manages to capture the feeling of fear of one’s body without explicitly giving it away. The sense of anticipation is captured in the pacing, even from the first line—“although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.” We can instantly tell that whatever the speaker is waiting on has already taken them outside of their normal schedule and leads us to wonder what is worth this shift in time and mood. When they say, the baby-breasts are “alert”, it implies a sense of detachment from their body because the baby-breasts aren’t said to be theirs, but described as if they are just there. The speaker hasn’t fully grown into ownership of their body (yet?) and this distance also makes it harder for us to fully inhabit their body too, creating a dual block.

The action picks up in the second stanza: “then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round / as dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.” This leap into the seemingly absurd had me arrested. Clearly their body types (which feel cartoon villain-like) don't match, so would their discussion have any impact on the speaker’s life? It seems yes, because when they whisper “can you feel it yet?”, the speaker feels embarrassed in being unable to answer them in a suitable way. It’s frustrating to feel as if others know more about you than you do yourself. The gaze continually discounts you instead of inviting you into the conversation. There’s no back and forth with the seal men because there can’t be: they value holding this knowledge over the speaker’s head, instead of having a mutual relationship. They are terrifying in their lack of real concern for how their visits affect the speaker’s reality. In this way, we can see that the speaker’s POV is actually pretty limited: ironically, she can only experience, not understand.

When the speaker says, “I clutch at the ragged holes / they leave behind”, I always flinch because we probably all know what it’s like to try to hold onto something that doesn’t want to be held. That sense of being unable to grasp is something that permeates the whole poem. And who can forget an ending like “night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue”? This feeling of having parts of yourself unknown is indigestible, unable to nourish or positively contribute. It may be light in nature, but it’s still a burden. The sense of ritual throughout the poem implies that this cycle will continue until the speaker finally has the knowledge these men have, and it feels cruel of them to repeatedly dangle it, but not hand it over. Sometimes power is just not having to answer to anyone, and I wish it on the speaker every time I come back to this space.

Visit Poetry to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse