In Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey’s work, the spatial and temporal upheavals of slavery and colonization are given material shape. Partial human forms—a bust made from a death mask, wooden hands and forearms, a glass heart—emerge from a black backdrop or a white wall. Black ships and African masks and sculptures populate mixed-media collages. These materials do not isolate the slave trade to a moment; instead, they remind the viewer that a world-shaping project coerced people and things into otherwise impossible, still ongoing assemblages.
We live with these legacies. They inhabit our homes and cities through mundane objects that threaten us with unanswerable questions about their exact origins and their anonymous makers. Our indebtedness to exploited labor can be unbearable to imagine on any scale; consumer electronics become material microcosms of the upturned world.
This is why, ultimately, sculpture is such an effective medium for conveying historical-materialist critiques of the global economy: it partakes of the very conditions it studies. Objects remain connected to the processes that shape them. This is especially evident in Bailey’s ‘3’, an abstract composition consisting of fabric divided by miniature railroad tracks into unequal quadrants. A glowing number three resides in the upper-right quadrant.
The canvas, a splayed mailbag, frames two rail lines that interrupt each other. The neon number three evokes a sense of vulgar consumerism and advertising while also indexing the main compositional elements of the work: mailbag, train tracks, and neon. In illustrating the intersection between commerce and communication, ‘3’ is neither ahistorical nor apolitical: the mailbag displays the message “U.S. Mail,” and American railroads owe their existence to exploitative, racialized labor, including the labor of enslaved Africans. But unlike figural sculptures, the objects pull the viewer’s attention back to the composition—self-referential and self-interfering.
As a poet looking at these works, I am reminded of the challenges of dwelling on objects outside the realm of visual art. Visual artists can directly incorporate physical media into their compositions; when poets investigate the social and political dimensions of objects, they must use different strategies. Kei Miller’s In Nearby Bushes is one such project. The book painstakingly considers the ambivalence of bushes, real and imagined, as sites of both depraved violence and a kind of queer utopia. Here, bushes are capable of hosting transformations, “the shadows being our refuge & strength.”
Throughout Miller’s book, ambivalence unsettles us. With an opening cenotaphic poem—reminiscent of the infamous list of names in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) and the epigraph to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)—and a final section that graphically recounts murders perpetrated in the bushes, the collection as a whole does not try to redeem the space of the bushes. The poet does not neutralize violence by establishing an authorial distance. He writes, “I did not know you. I do not know that my breath had any right to catch, or my heart to stop, or myself to wake up these past few nights haunted by the dream of you.”
Lyrical contemplation brings to the fore the Jamaican landscape in which the collection is set and its inextricable relationship to racialized violence. This latent violence is seen in the collapsing of time: “On evenings like this, the air smelling / of what you might call molasses & I / might call slavery—it is hard to tell / what century we are in.” Here, the molasses is named with a specificity that the book’s bushes resist. Indeed, the “stretch of canefield” from which the molasses may have originated or “the crotons behind the house” can become “the nearby bushes,” in a pinch.
The poem’s cagey references to specific flora make for an interesting twist on a more conventional use of botanical nomenclature to taxonomize. One plant blends into another. The poem “To Know Green from Green,” for instance, begins with an epigraph by travel writer James Henderson referencing the “million shades of green” in Jamaica. The poem goes on to show that one million shades might actually be a conservative appraisal, as it lists one shade after another and notes that there remain “still a million shades between.” Instead of scientific precision, these poems insist upon surplus.
Above all, Bailey, Miller, and Johnson remind us that our world is not inert, and we need not accept the unbearable certainty of objects.
For all the fabulous poetic ambiguity that bushes generate, however, there are a few overly explicit moments in this collection. Parentheses enclose a flat, editorializing voice, and self-conscious clauses like “by which I mean” and “you must forgive this” pull me right out of the poem. Perhaps the best example of just how disruptive it can be to pay too much mind to the reader appears in the poem “Here Where Run the Wild Deer.”
The poem begins with a three-sentence epigraph that gives a bare-bones history of how wild deer came to Jamaica. Then, the first three lines read, “Here where run the wild deer— / the Caribbean caribou — does this / surprise you, deer without snow.” After reading the poem’s title and the epigraph, this inelegant address is more surprising than learning, for a third time, that there are deer in Jamaica.
If I carp, it is because these poems succeed when they avoid these pitfalls. Look at this triumph from the end of the same poem:
the landscape is creaking
as if these bushes open themselves
to drunk men
just now stumbling home.
Here, where the wild deer roam. Here,
where dried branches
may not be dried branches
but the majesty of antlers. Here,
where white flowers
may not be white flowers, but the blossoming
of their tails, the strange warning
of deer—we do not see well, but we sense
you are here, with us in this strange,
strange land. Will you come now
to the river? Will you teach us
King Alpha’s song, & how to survive
Babylon—how to belong
where we do not belong.
This lyric gives us everything we need to infer that the wild deer are exogenous; to detect the ambivalence of the nearby bushes; and to question claims of belonging, within a complicated network of exclusions and possessions. It combines the humility before nature witnessed in a poem like Linda Hogan’s “Elk Song” with a rightful suspicion of nature. When the experiential and observational win out over the interpolative or the expository—when the “you” apostrophizes the deer instead of the reader, and when branches of the deer-rich bushes become “the majesty of antlers”—the poems in this collection make their strongest case for the importance of the objects that dominate their attention.
Indeed, the bushes of In Nearby Bushes—in which I encounter threat and refuge, reportage and fantasy—keep me on my toes. Those few instances of setting the record straight do not eclipse the ambitious moments when this collection sets the record spinning. The frequency with which these poems deploy the signifier bush but nevertheless find ways to reimagine its social, political, and aesthetic potentials suggests that we may no sooner exhaust our compulsion for clarity than our desire for obscurity.
This compulsion is not without its risks. In the poetry world at large, there is no shortage of cheap criticism and easy narratives that prey upon the desire for clarity and simplicity. But Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s Slingshot made me slow down and read like I want to. Two poems, “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” and “chewbacca was the blackest part of the The Force Awakens,” resemble reviews, or, more accurately, the sort of incensed criticism shared between friends, as much as poetry. It is a persuasive mode of criticism that is hard to capture and translate into text, but Johnson does so convincingly.
For example, “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” represents the anger that bubbles up when an audience member watches the “beige actor singing on a wheel.” Beige, like Miller’s greens, is an ambiguous color. It may refer to the performers’ skin tones or costumes. Mostly unpunctuated clauses demonstrate the impossibility of holding the Founding Fathers and America’s racist past at a historical distance:
If I could go back in time, which is a game
I am sometimes forced to play I would lynch
george washington Standing there in step
with slaves whose teeth he yanked out & wore.
The teeth of enslaved peoples viscerally revivify Washington’s fabled dentures—the human and the object tangle in a nauseating knot. Writing “I would lynch / george washington” is one kind of resistance, but transforming the dentures from propagandistic curiosities into a locus of brutality is another altogether. To see how effective this rhetorical move can be, one only needs to recall the furor that former First Lady Michelle Obama elicited when she reminded people what she cannot forget: enslaved peoples built the White House. To enact this kind of memorialization, to awaken the violence in objects, is painful and difficult, but necessary.
What are the consequences of not being in control of one’s own time? Here the poet points out how un-fun the question “if you could go back in time, what would you do?” can be. Through this imaginary act of time travel, the poem continues its meditation on American violence until it arrives at a frantic list of complaints hurtling toward a precarious future:
… nobody cares what I think
Unless I frighten them Nothing ever resolves
itself in America No incentive, you see All
fireworks are just replicas of some foreign
bomb they drop bombs & bronze sculptures
for every genocide anyway Somebody says
we bouta bomb North Korea Nobody cares.
If “Nothing ever resolves / itself in America,” then a unity forms between slavery, Hamilton, and the threat of violent entanglement with North Korea, insofar as these exigencies weigh on the poet in the present. American problems may not resolve themselves, but perhaps there is space for intervention—an intervention spurred on by an inexhaustible list of offenses.
Often, that space for intervention is located in objects. Just as, in the lines above, fireworks become a prism that refracts the many faces of American imperialism, Johnson’s poems take their materials seriously. In doing so, these poems manage to treat with dignity subjects and situations that, in less deft hands, might succumb to uneasy voyeurism.
A portrayal of sex work gives way to a scene of practical kindness when the speaker learns to fold a garment—a slingshot—with the help of a fellow dancer. At other times, when these poems address sexual violence, they become reverent benedictions. Meanwhile, protest and activism take on an experiential power that is not self-congratulating or idealized but wholly contained within the poem. The cops, the press, and the “white dude anarchists” become the interlopers. Maalox rings like the name of a mythic plant out of Homer but gains its distinction in the poem as an over-the-counter antacid that can be made into a solution to alleviate the impact of tear gas.
While these poems display an interest in the speculative, a critical imperative and a responsibility to history exempts them from the fantastic. Slingshot uses lyric poetry’s rhetorical extremes in order to render into art that dyspeptic rush that comes after ingesting the glossy confections of Broadway and Disney. Against these and other conglomerates, it seems vitally important that poetry affords a place for sophisticated critiques and interrogations of the less-than-fabulous world of consumer goods.
While it is my hope that the shorter poems in Slingshot find their way into classrooms and workshops, it is ultimately the triptych “a machine of mahogany and bronze” that pushes this collection into a sphere of influence that few books ever achieve. Despite the poem’s length, it comprises moments that are brutally sparse and claustrophobic:
There are trunks full of people like me.
There are dumpsters full of women late for shifts
but no one knows if they have the name to ask after.
The book is an incredibly tight, powerful work. The first time I read it, I had to take a walk around the block in the rain. When I say this book does something new, I do not mean that Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is one of those new voices or poets to watch. What I mean is that even if you’ve read thousands of books of poetry, you will be compelled to reread this one. It is unlike whatever you’re reading. This is a debut collection, but this is not an immature work.
There are forces at play that dissuade us from taking art seriously. Hollywood repackages the same tired tales we all know. Amazon builds you a bookshelf, while your local library loses funding. The remedy is not and never can be simple. Bailey, Miller, and Johnson decline to accept simplicity. They examine closely the sites most likely to be overlooked. Their work contains pain and violence and grief, along with the pleasures of artistic invention. Above all, they remind us that our world is not inert, and we need not accept the unbearable certainty of objects.
This article was commissioned by Yanyi.
Featured-image photograph by Nathan Anderson / Unsplash