Sunday, January 6, 2013

Absence is such a Transparent House by Aby Kaupang
(Tebot Bach, 2011) 

reviewed by Andrew David King

Of all the challenges Aby Kaupang’s Absence Is Such a Transparent House poses to a reader encountering poetry through narrative goggles, the most vexing might be that of voice: who’s speaking, and when? Kaupang’s collection dismantles the hegemony of the “I,” though not entirely; shards of the first-person shred through the background chorus’s panoply. These instances of individual testimony manifest like ghosts—forms that linger long enough to be recognized but are intangible, secondary to the landscape of material things. More specifically, these poems long for the materials of the body: what it’s tied to, how it breaks, and what’s lost in its dissolution. “Language poetry had as its explicit aim to oppose such ‘natural’ expressivist speech, such individual voicing and accessible syntax,” Marjorie Perloff writes in Unoriginal Genius. Kaupang’s book is not the sound of any single voice, but the clamor of bones in a box.

And there is music in this bone-clamor, be it the glossolalia of “{tongues}”—“cori cori cori cori kana nai,” one line reads—or the fatigued syntax of the “I”-speaker in “what he’d seen | seen through.” In a stanza from the latter poem, the logic of the first person is interrogated:

    one set of lips or
    tongue beneath my age
    & I concedes

“what closes in on me          concerns me alone” offers another such complication, one page after the provision of the name of the woman whose death, it seems, spurs the book’s project:

    this is my deaths I’m anxious for
    but there you are

In both these excerpts, the “I” is lost—first in a whirlpool of mourning, then in a multitude of second-person possibilities. This isn’t Kaupang’s modus operandi, though, which includes enough conventional “I” sentences to prompt the inference that, despite the grammatical complexity on display, there’s a human presence in there somewhere. In “{admittance},” it emerges several times: “I am a girl with a flawed pelt” and “I am the one tonguing in flesh.” But why is this parsing of the “I”-speaker from its linguistic materials important? Because in its attempt to unravel grief Absence becomes concerned—no, obsessed—with the self and, as an extension, what makes up the self. Everywhere in these poems the “I”-speaker, whether comprehensible or outside of the realm of intelligibility, seeks to reconcile his or her individual existence not with the fact of loss as much as in spite of it: and so ensues the fight for sovereignty.

That many of these poems would deal with the mystical as well as mythical, then, makes perfect sense; the psychic terrain explored is rough, and requires such. Only in the last third of the collection do more telling details about the tragic event that serves as its locus reveal themselves—this is more a symptom of this slow-burning self-investigation than a failure of exposition. But when Kaupang’s Heideggerian speaker voyages into the theological, some of the collection’s best, most rending pieces are produced. In “{Soak},” the self agonizes over its uncertain place in a cosmology that is one part Elizabethan Great Chain of Being to two parts Donato Creti paintings:

    me, a tender haunting in the glass beneath the waves
    me, a blessed peacemaker
    me, tonguing Chiron for his skiff
    me, my own My Heavy—

The beatitudes, a famed centaur, and surreal proper nouns: each is subjugated to the antecedent, anaphoric “me” that begins the lines. This search for grounded-ness that starts out with the deceptively clear coordinate of the “I” grows out of anxiety and disintegrates into discord. “Little ‘g’ god grows tired of me,” the speaker confesses before the question of “me” becomes a necessary, chant-like repetition. Religion is the façade, but the materials of language are most of interest to the consciousness behind these pieces. For Socrates, the body was the prison of the soul; this same impulse is on display in poems like “{living tombs},” a four-part opus on the life cycle and the problematic divide between living organism and corpse:

    the body  {the body mumbled

The poem employs brackets that echo and compartmentalize—much like the titles in this section, all of which are in brackets. Bracketed text is visually segregated from the rest of the field; it is a container, one that holds something, but one that cannot be read as existing in its own reality entirely despite the barrier between areas it represents. In this way, like many other sleights of hand sleeping in the wrists of these poems, an examination of language-as-body is prompted. Both are vehicles; both appear to hold something, though how much they can hold and whether or not they distort it is up for debate. But do both decay? In the face of mortality, is there any possibility of self-preservation via linguistic embodiment? And what about clarity—can we attain it, or are we doomed to the sarcophagus of what we almost successfully said?

Kaupang’s speaker throttles, and is throttled by, these notions of identity that language imposes (or, as the case may be, the ones it holds hostage). But rather than “defeat” these notions by shoehorning them into reductive, clean-cut epiphanies, she gives us the gore and ragged edges. Excluding the book’s Prelude and Postlude, it consists of four sections, termed “symphyses.” It’s fitting that a collection so intently scrutinizing the body as a permutation of language, and vice versa, would label each of its composite parts with the word used to name the fibrocartilaginous fusion between bones. Language, after all, is what holds the artifice together—even if it is artifice, even if it eventually falls. And loss can rattle the rafters: “what is death to me now,” the speaker asks in “I hardly remember the days.” The book’s sense of fatalism gives way to chaos, which in turn gives way to fatalism again, as in “{three angels canting}”:

    2.    god    my brute necessity
        is perfectly

    3.    if

        god wants me     god will

        find me

Models of supernatural ecology are plotted in the collection—corporeality as an extension of ethereality, ethereality as an extension of divinity, which is itself a form of corporeality—though it does take a breather here and there. At points, the speaker recalls being found asleep “in [the deceased’s] jade scarf,” and that at the funeral “her rings were a transom / her guitar was a transom.” There are the quotidian but immovable things—green valleys, anise, maroon bells, hyssop. And then there are aggressive, Zukofsky-esque loops, as with the dizzying “{Adventum].” But Kaupang is at her best when her speaker’s associative flywheel doesn’t off-kilter the poem with its momentum, when there’s visible conflict between her linear and nonlinear inclinations. In “we go to the garden of swords and fire    and go,” the speaker ponders how small a catalyst could send one into the afterlife:

    even the underworld articulates emergency
    and snarling and poppies startling
    in their sudden orangeness

    these are sights I could leave for
    accidentally—my driving eye drawn
    to a plosive bank of poppy

The sonic flora here is dense: the sharpened glee of “snarling” and “startling,” the alliteration of “plosive” and “poppy,” the enjambment of “I could leave for / accidentally”—and all of this faux-tiered by triplets. Relatively short words and earthen sensibilities govern much of this musicality; “what sudden lightening in a torso / what Rorschach of angst song,” she writes in “a woman chooses a bird and buries it.” In “{Ecclesia}” and “{Ecclesia cont…},” among the most well-wrought poems in Absence, several call-and-responses are paired, one addressing language (“& this too is semantics”; “syntax is long remembered”) and another time (“god lays such burden on us—eternity”; “such a burden on eternity      living with god”). The seances in Kaupang’s throat recall poets ranging from Dickinson to Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

As the books closes, the speaker’s verbal riffing, that angst of which is clear, sets roots down: we’re given more details about the central event, its character (Sue, maybe the woman to whom the book is dedicated), and a scenario (death by car crash). Whether or not Kaupang intended this incorporation of narrative elements to so fully aid the book’s speech, it does so; in light of the second half, the first is made more sensible in that it seems the necessary, aphasic stage preceding any communicable attempt to cope with grief. The book eventually defends its titular hypothesis: though grief is a place to be inhabited, its walls are transparent, constricting but unable to be navigated. The tone of the work might not be overtly optimistic, but the fact that such an experience can be at least partially conveyed is promising for the speaker and for language’s capacities in the midst of loss. “And death i think is no parenthesis,” writes e. e. cummings in his 1926 collection is 5. And neither is it a bracket, as Absence Is Such a Transparent House uncovers.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Every Green Word by Mark Jackley
(Finishing Line Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Christopher Lee Miles

Mark Jackley’s concise, free-verse poems keep their aesthetic distance from the reader. They’ve outlived the vain and youthful need to be heard. Independent of assumptions, they seem sanguine without being slight; learned without being preachy. They are uninterested in whether or not you care for their quality—a quality that distinguishes itself within the field of contemporary poetry by dramatizing, not the rock colliding with the water, but the concentric ripples afterward. But Jackley’s brevity excludes neither awe nor dread. These poems employ the images and the fictions they need to reveal the truth. And the truth is whatever guides us through the dark.

    In the end,
    we are villagers.
    There is magic and a wolf.

    She clutches
    her coffee like a torch.

In this poem, “At the Hospice’,” the fairy-tale motif lends the final-line the weight of closure: we hear a heavy oak door click shut. But we were invited in before we left: the speaker includes the readers in the village. The wolf is the woman. And the magic is the transformation of her coffee whose steam, like the light of a torch, is her guide. By her persistence, we witness the woman lift herself from her animal nature into the light of compassion. She projects onto her cup of coffee the need for something to help pull her, or help her pull others, through that final threshold of death. Whether a patient or a worker, she either helps people die or is dying herself. It doesn’t matter which. Jackley has mythologized coffee, which is slightly comical—all good myths make us laugh—but valuable and true.

When a poet delivers a comedic and tragic poem in six lines, technique is in charge. Heaney made the distinction between technique and craft in his essay “Feelings into Words.” Craft merely translates thoughts into words, whereas Technique translates feelings into thoughts. The latter is where the best poems in Every Green Word dwell: down below, in the hinterland, occasionally bobbing up above the waters of the unconscious, revealing themselves to be globes of dream-stuff, soft and weighty, buoyantly resting on their true fictions, as in “Kentucky Lush”:

    Bourbon floods the curving
    two-lane of the tongue.

    The moment stretched like red-wing
    blackbird tules, we are

    lost again and savor
    every green word.

Because the metaphor is poetry’s, the reprieve of self-forgetting—as a major function of art—is praised in six cerebral but concrete lines. This poem owes homage to Baudelaire’s ‘Be Drunk.’ And how deft that first couplet: a line of iambic pentameter—its first foot a trochee, its final an anapest—split in two. On the other hand, the poems that dwell in craft, strangely enough, shoot a straight and sober look at objects, events, or psychological states, without making a high or symbolic leap. They rest on image and tone. Sometimes they try to be technique poems and don’t make the cut. Whether it’s a urinal or a motel room, they ride on a fact of experience, not a genuine deception. Of this batch, the best are love poems, and they rival the poems informed by Technique. Magnifying heartache, pain, and regret, they do not look for agreement or sympathy from the reader. They assert themselves, step off the stage, and let the echo of their words work on you. Not green, but middle-aged, they seize love knowing its wrack and ruin. And yet they remain sweet, smart, and sensitive to their own implications. Their speakers have tasted the hard fact that shows through in a spouse after a few years of marriage, when the fantasy of goodness and beauty is stripped. They do not affirm love from the platform of one who is addicted to that early fog of falling, but the later drought, when daily duties rise and nearly claw one into a machine. But these poems go even further: they know the only thing preventing that final transformation into a robot is companionship tethered by kindness. Without compassion, they say, love fails. The sweetest and funniest of these poems is “Vow.” Like some of the best free-verse poems, it is a list guided by a narrative. A candid poem polished with humor, it is a watermark not only of Jackley’s craft, but also of our culture’s domestic life.

    If you, Kim, take me to be
    your lawfully wedded guy
    and in your loving arms
    take all my baggage, like
    marriages one and two, the tales
    of wine tossed down and dishes
    flung, of breaking hearts
    at 4 a.m. and lawyers
    and their bill — my god, their bills —
    if you will take my failing
    eyes, weak knees and everything
    that sags, my daughter too,
    her pre-teen sass, the brutal fact
    we’ll be pushing sixty
    when she goes to college,
    if you will take my punk rock
    and my scraggly beard,
    placing them alongside
    your Tim McGraw CD’s,
    your Alabama Christian
    faith and tidy spice rack,
    your perfect penmanship,
    oh honey, if you will,
    I will do the dishes

Every Green Word’s epigraph states this book is for no one in particular. A humble statement. The delight in these poems rests on their wisdom, which is knowledge derived from experience. It’s easy, and perhaps fashionable, to toss a fat rock and make a loud splash; but if you come to poetry, not for noise or disrupting splatter, but for reflection in the waters of your mind, then this book is for you.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
(Red Hen Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Katherine Hollander

“We will learn / more about the cosmos then apply / that knowledge to the arts,” promises Lillian-Yvonne Bertram in her poem “The New Thing,” succinctly articulating the strategy at work throughout her first book, the deft and confident But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise. Many poets these days want to bring the natural sciences to poetry, but Bertram does it with rare finesse and real beauty; instead of clinical mimesis or grotesquery, Bertram delivers what she promises, putting the mysteries of physics and chemistry in service of her own expression of an American reality. And the America she presents is one not only of coyotes, elk, and starlight, not only of cornfields, highways, and 4-H fairs, but also one of racism, misogyny, poverty, and courage.

Bertram is good with language—very good. She is a master of the one-shot, the atmospheric Polaroid of phrase, with lines like, “chuckle-colored barns,” “deer-white light,” “my heart’s blackening egg,” and “the devil in his hide of night.” She deals, too, in the economy of hurt, as in “the julienne I make of my thumb and peppers,” “January’s frigid waistcoat / slinging my belly,” or the horrifying epithet, “nigger piglet,” hurled at a young woman on her way home from the late-shift. Perhaps most powerful is when Bertram combines extra-distilled images with the wry tone of her most frequent speaker, the one who can scoff, “Them and their silky vaginas,” who suggests you “uncostume. And I don’t mean / in the swanlike way,” and who muses ruefully on “dark matters of design: those particulates causing all the trouble.” The spare but gorgeous “Circles in the Sky” (“I want to want / to tell you / about dakota”), the tender “Golfing in the Dark with Old Man Heart” (“dirts of the prairie fly from us”), and the title poem (possessed of too many great lines to choose one) are some of the best in a very strong collection.

Sometimes, though, Bertram’s commitment to the pliability of language gets the better of her. Poems like “Behind the Christian Door” (composed only of repeated iterations of the phrase, “And when is the state gonna pay us?”), the overly mathematical “Queen City Fractal,” or “Hinterland Ham Radio Signals,” which includes entire column-inches of “jettajettajettajetta,” become self-consciously experimental to a degree that feels like posturing, a hipster-acrobatics that makes Bertram seem more like other (weaker) poets and less like herself. The diagram that bursts into the otherwise fantastic “The Science of Heart” does more harm than good.

Another snag concerns the title, which borrows a famous phrase from the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1941). Bertram’s book is so deeply rooted in the American West that nothing of Benjamin (or of Paul Klee’s painting, “Angelus Novus,” which inspired the passage) expresses itself in the collection; and though Bertram is vigilant about attributing her wide-ranging allusions, it’s Benjamin who gets the prime spot, despite his absence from the book at large.

Deliberate or not, this move allows Bertram to wink at those of us who know the Benjamin essay, while letting unfamiliar readers attribute all the mystery and pain and magic in that line to Bertram herself, as Steve Davenport does in his blurb for the book (“What’s a storm doing in Paradise . . . And why’s it blowing this way? I blame Bertram”). This is problematic, not least because it participates in the wide-scale appropriation of a man who suffered humiliation and hardship only to become, after his death, a kind of saint of postmodernity. It is acute because one of the things Bertram does is talk about a marginalized, invisible underclass—a status to which Benjamin, who committed suicide in flight from Vichy France, found himself relegated in the Europe of his time.

I raise this complaint in admiration for the book and for Bertram, who seems about to leap into relief as a poetic voice of real national importance. Judging from the Tupelo Press website, where her name appears frequently as a contest finalist, Bertram has at least three more collections nearly ready to release into the world. If she is to become one of our next great American poets, I hope she will extend to her influences the same care, sympathy and precision she has for language itself—the care, sympathy and precision that allows her to confide so beautifully in the collection’s opening poem that “All planets but this one were named after gods.” I look forward to more worlds of her crafting.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New and Selected Poems 1957-2011 by Robert Sward 
(Red Hen Press, 2011) 

reviewed by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Robert Sward begins his New and Selected Poems with a disclaimer borrowed from the spiritual figure Ram Dass, “Old age is about harvesting whatever your life’s work has been.” Indeed Sward’s new book presents a harvesting of his long, productive career as a poet. Sward, who is now in his 70s and lives in Santa Cruz, CA, began his writing career in the 1950s. During this career, Sward has written over twenty books of poetry. At its heart, the collection follows a winding path that switches between views of seemingly opposite worlds: the domestic world and the divine, what’s forgotten and what’s remembered, the living and the dead. Walking this path where nothing is held back by imagined boundaries brings the epiphanies, or a sort of dual vision where one world intersects with another and, in doing so, illumes a truth that could not otherwise have been understood.

Throughout the collection Sward writes of the domestic world and its deep connection with the divine. “If God lived on earth…people would knock out all of His windows.” For Sward, the domestic life is simultaneously humorous and filled with epiphany. For example, in this exchange between a poet husband and his wife found in “My Muse,” the poet’s wife updates the idea of what a muse is to a twentieth century woman:

    “Talk about muses,” I sulk,
    “Yeats’ wife was visited in her dreams by angels
    saying, ‘We have come to bring you images
    for your husband’s poetry.’

    “Yeah? So what?” she says. “It’s out of style.
    I already do too much for you.”

Sward temporarily lost his memory when he was in a car accident in 1966, and that sense of amnesia haunts the domestic sphere of his poems. In “Mr. Amensia” the speaker meets a young mother who had gone fishing in Lake Michigan and catches him as if he is a deep dwelling fish. It’s not until the speaker emerges from the deep that he realizes he has been caught and rescued by his own wife and children. This sense of amnesia equally haunts the many intimate, domestic portraits of Sward’s children he includes in the collection. In “Hannah,” the speaker eats breakfast with “the smallest person in the world” whose “third eye is strawberry jam.” The speaker in “Water Breather” describes the seemingly unsurpassable distance he feels from his estranged son as “the hunger.”

Sward, who lost his mother at age 14, also writes poems that inhabit an emotive realm between the living and the dead. The young boy who loses his mother is filled with grief and anger at a god he had just come to understand, “At 14, I walk out / Looking / For stones / I might hurl into heaven.” But the ghost mother, who is summoned through the poems, isn’t soothing and comforting. Rather, she is a straightforward atheist and her portraits are weighted in the objects that make up a home such as beauty cream and cigarettes.

    Mother applies Pond’s Beauty Cream. Her face glistens.
    Massages her forehead with one hand, holds the other to her heart.
    “What’s the point?” she asks, cigarette ablaze,
                        mouth tightening.
    When she dies, they bury her not in a shroud, but in pancake make-up and best gray dress.

When the child asks this mother if there is an afterlife, his mother tells him to shape up and “‘You are my afterlife. / God help us.’” Sward’s poems about the loss of his mother are peppered with troubling wisdom from his father and grandfather as in “A Prayer for My Mother” when his Grandfather tells him “The Angel of Death is made entirely of eyes.” 

Even though Sward is a poet that wanders between worlds, he is also a poet that is at times grounded in place. “Four Incarnations” presents a biographical epic that examines Sward’s beginnings as a poet and the act of poetry as based on a theory of Thoreau’s: “While at sea, I began writing poetry as if poems / to paraphrase Thoreau, were secret letters from/ some distant land.”  In “Ode to Santa Cruz,” a poem written for the place where Sward finally moored, he defines the aesthetic of the college beach town in an energetic collage of disparate things:

    A busload of German tourists
    applauding (applaudieren!)
    the sunrise.
    clam chowder, O scrubbed blue light
    melon balls and watermelon shooters,
    arcade, pink neon, roller coaster heart-shaped mirror.

The vast breadth of poetry included in this collection showcases the wisdom Sward has accumulated over his career as a poet. It is evident that Sward’s definition of poetry is as deep and wide as the life he has lived:

    What is poetry? For me it’s the restrained music
    of a switchblade knife. It’s an amphibious warship
    magically transformed again into a basketball court, and
    then transformed again into a movie theater showing
    a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It is the
    vision of an amnesiac, bleeding from a head injury,
    witnessing the play of sunlight on a redbrick wall.

Indeed, the winding road offered by New and Selected Poems 1957–2011 is a fruitful, enlightening journey where we are mesmerized by the sounds and sites of a poet who has examined not only what poetry is, but what it means to live as a poet.
Booker T. and Them: A Blues by Bill Harris
(Wayne State University Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Patrick Thomas Henry

With its cover festooned in banners and patriotically bordered in stars and stripes, Bill Harris’ Booker T. & Them: A Blues promises a manifesto about Booker T. Washington’s uncanny knack for working across political factions to redefine race relations. It’s no surprise that the collection’s cover copy designates it a “bio-poem” about Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) which is akin to claiming that Disneyworld is a monument dedicated to Walt Disney, instead of a celebration of creative minds orbiting Disney’s sphere of influence. More accurately, Booker T. & Them studies an era, “Booker T. Washington Time. / [. . .] from 1881 to 1915,” and Booker T.’s position between black activists and the racist, white establishment. To represent this collusion, Bill Harris has melded poetry, blues, historical quotations, and commentahry into a lyric social history that should be shelved alongside Howard Zinn and David McCullough. Harris’ scrutiny applies not just to Booker T., but also to pugilist Jack Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, President Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Thomas Alva Edison, Jack London, and others. Harris’ dramatis personae perform the scope of African American travails and inequality, progressing beyond history á la Zinn, McCullough, and company, who pin social woes to class struggle. Yet despite Booker T.’s efforts and the awareness Harris’ lyric history generates, equality remains unattained:  “& still,” Harris reminds us, “it is a tough time for negroes.”

Harris writes that his “interest [. . .] is the depiction, in historical and imaginative ways, of several figures, with the emphasis on black males in the process of seeking to be men who mattered in racist America.”  Harris culls quotes from speeches and writings of the period’s powerbrokers, and his play with these textual artifacts performs, like Booker T. himself, a negotiation between the era’s racism and African Americans’ needs. But Harris strangely tamps down the quotations’ gravity with a tendency to hammer in definitions or data in a “Who’s Who?” format. In the collection’s opening chapter, this technique cudgels Thomas Alva Edison:

    “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was
    all fun.”  Thomas A for Alva
    Edison (1847–19-
    31) tinkers, & is a man of
    business. “I find out what the world needs. Then I go
    ahead and try to invent it.”

The authorial insertion about tinkering and business renders Edison’s own utterance redundant, diluting this moment’s irony. Harris could have armed himself with Edison’s verbal firepower and shot the inventor down with his own artillery. Edison’s claim that work is fun and games is anathema to the men and women Booker T. represents. Harris’ indexing technique also pares potential away from some provocative moments, such as when a senior at Booker T.’s Tuskegee Institute recollects a visit from William Howard Taft and Andrew Carnegie:

    William Howard Taft & Andrew Carnegie
    were 2 who paid Tuskegee a call:  Taft (18-
    57-1930), ton-sized future
    President (27th), & stumpy Andrew
    Carnegie (1835-1919),
    with no more schooling than a cat, but is the 2nd
    richest man in the world.

Harris’ imagined Tuskegee student might have judged these men and their attributes’ insinuations—instead of blandly recounting Taft’s girth or the paradox of Carnegie’s lack of education-cum-surfeit of wealth. Harris inters the only hint of judgment in a possible pun. “[S]tumpy Andrew / Carnegie” may refer to more than the steel baron’s height. Reading generously into this, the student might view Carnegie as stumping for Taft’s Republican values and, ergo, white prejudices.

Harris’ indexing technique, as well as many interspersed dictionary-style definitions, are questionable recurring structures in this blues for Booker T., especially when we hear Harris’ evocatively jagged line breaks and his riffs of figurative language. The harsh enjambment rollicks this book along, the breaks splintering names, dates, thoughts, and conjectures. Because Harris fragments this data, the poem lulls the reader into a sixteenth-note-sized pause, just enough quiet to reflect on the hatred that whitewashed history conveniently neglects. Harris’ enjambment even dismantles Jack London, that celebrated figure of tough realism, and his derision of African American pugilist Jack Johnson. London is a

    Bastard, partially raised by an ex-slave; pseudo-
    socialist son of an off-kilter suicidal
    mother who channels a Native American
[. . .]

That “pseudo-” insinuates that London has little time for his own biography, factoids that could challenge his notions of white supremacy. The line break opens the line—and us—for that takeaway, which reverberates into the following line:  London’s a bad socialist, from unstable stock. Harris salvages this bit from the annals of petty, campaign advert character attacks by, naturally, summoning London’s writing on white supremacy:

    “[. . .] there is a certain
    integrity, a sternness of conscience, a
    melancholy responsibility of life,
    a sympathy and comradeship and warm human feel,
    which is ours, indubitably ours . . .”

Harris’ London has cast his intellectual rod to fish for the right abstraction, but to no avail:  the enjambment has shaken any belief a reader might have placed in London’s integrity. (Besides, Jack Johnson knocked out London’s “Great White Hope” prizefighter, Tommy Burns.)

Yet, it is Harris’ figurative language that offers the most scathing assessment of Booker T.’s epoch, as his diction creates historical, mythological, and cultural allusions. Repeated references to faces rewind us to the Roman Janus, the two-faced deity who gazes into the past and the future simultaneously. Harris hints at this in Booker T.’s initial meeting with Teddy Roosevelt, when the prior is “[s]howing his full face duplicity”—an impossible feat, since Booker T.’s middleman status (as a moderate and as a former slave) forces him to gaze toward an equal future yet backward toward slavery. Even the student at Tuskegee (who was strangely maladroit at criticizing Taft and Carnegie) recognizes how these dual facets bind Booker T.:

    the different faces Washington dons for each [white guest]
    [. . .]
    What face would our principal wear if Champion Jack [Johnson]
    came?—not that he’d be invited, not that he’d accept.

Booker T.’s faces weaken his sway with such figures as the student, Jack Johnson or W.E.B. Du Bois, because they recognize putting on the most appeasing visage as a political tactic and a weakness. This one-faced versus two-faced distinction transforms into symbolic shorthand for one-faced ideological stalwarts (both for good and for ill) and those Janus-faced men, like Booker T., muddled between incompatible visions for humanity.

Fortunately, the repeating images don’t receive the same blunderbuss as the indexing gimmick, as Harris dispatches deft similes and metaphors to telegraph the underlying themes of racial tension. For instance, Booker T., en route to Tuskegee, deems a stifling steam locomotive “suffocating as the mine,” the simile a reminder of blacks’ weary and often-calamitous physical labor. Likewise, in an interlude set during a Macon County, Alabama, lynching, the victim surveys the crowd from the gallows and sees “[s]moke, a curtain, thick as ginned cotton.”  This “ginned cotton” simile summons Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, an invention that accelerated King Cotton but subjected slaves to the caprice of white taskmasters; the lynch mob is the ruthless shadow of those cruel overseers and plantation life. We can detect a tiered symbolism, if we connect Whitney’s timesaving device to Edison’s claim about work equaling fun:  racist whites see no evil, because only blacks suffer the fatal consequences. After hanging this nameless black man, the mob gathers its weapons and its “[c]hained hounds, panting” a subtle metaphor for racism’s perpetuation of cruelty. Here, even Booker T. is told to “[l]ay low.”

The figurative language inoculates us against any chance of missing Harris’ point:  “& still it was a tough time for negroes.”  Yet, Harris yearns for Booker T. and Them to stand as an object lesson, a scholarly yet lyrical challenge to blanched History Channel-grade accounts of turn-of-the-century America. So, concluding this collection, Harris has compiled a few “After Words,” including W.E.B. Du Bois’s lament in “Black Reconstruction in America”:  “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. [. . .]  The difficulty [. . .] with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example.”  These “After Words”—the book’s last pages—are rather late-game announcements of Booker T. & Them’s mission, but we receive the book’s raison d’être:  if we remain ignorant of historical evils and human rights violations, the powers that be shall perpetuate those atrocities. Bill Harris’ lyric social history reminds us that history, freed from sanitizing re-writes, can offer a liberating education in principles and perspectives.