Summer Reading: Poetry as Antidote to Apathy

by Kathryn Smith

I am tired of violence. I am tired of lies and hateful rhetoric. I am tired, but it’s not time to go to sleep. It is time to wake up. These three poetry collections are the antithesis of lazy summer reading. These books shun complacency. These are books to stay awake by.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies, by Jamaal May, Alice James Books, 2016.

“It’s funny, she says,
how many people are shocked by this shooting
and the next and next and the next.

She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny
as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil.”

The first time I read these lines, which open Jamaal May’s poem “The Gun Joke,” it was the day of, or maybe the day after, an act of newsmaking gun violence. It’s funny, in the way May’s poem says “It’s funny,” that I don’t remember now which shooting it was. I think I might have been Philando Castile, a black man in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was shot in his car by police while his girlfriend and young child sat by and watched, helpless to stop what was happening. But I don’t remember for certain. They blur together, these acts, and this is part of the terrible joke of May’s poem, from his second collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies. May’s poems are as lyrical as they are wrenching, and they will open your eyes to a world that is both terrible and beautiful.

olioOlio, by Tyehimba Jess, Wave Books 2016.

Tyehimba Jess’s latest poetry collection was on my reading list even before it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. I wanted to read it because of two words I remembered from a friend’s recommendation: conjoined twins.

Among the many personas Jess adopts in Olio, he speaks from the points of view of Millie and Christine McKoy, known as Millie-Christine, conjoined twins born into slavery in 1851. Like much of Olio, these poems are sonnets, but get this: Like the twins, the sonnets are conjoined. Each poem contains two voices, some lines individual, some lines shared, so that each of these sonnets can be read three ways: Millie’s version, Christine’s version, and the combined version.

Jess employs these voices and the voices of other freed slaves and musicians to create his Olio, which he defines in an introductory note as both “a miscellaneous mixture” and “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.”

Olio is a textbook of poetic forms, a lesson on slavery’s history and its continuing reverberations, an homage to musicians in the Black tradition, and a collection of remarkable poems.

directedbydesireDirected by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, by June Jordan, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Directed by Desire collects June Jordan’s poetry from 1969 through 2001, a career’s worth of  unapologetically political yet deeply personal verse — poems about being, as “Poem About My Rights” puts it, “wrong the wrong sex the wrong age / the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic / the wrong sartorial.”

While this book isn’t new, it’s undeniably timely. I took comfort in Jordan’s poems in the first few months following the presidential election. Maybe “comfort” isn’t the right word. I steeped myself in her poems. I let their cadence propel me as I struggled to find a way forward in what felt like a surreal new reality. I read her fearless words and willed myself to feel less afraid.

While unflinching in its honesty, Jordan’s deftly crafted poetry manages to instill a sense of hope, to offer up the energy to face the world even while grieving war, rape, discrimination, and oppression.

Kathryn Smith’s first full-length poetry collection, Book of Exodus, will be published by Scablands Books this fall.

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