Book Review: Prime: Poetry & Conversation

Prime: Poetry & Conversation, Various Poets, 2014

A collection of poems from five black and queer poets who are making waves in the literary scene.

Leila Green

Leila Green

Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams and L. Lamar Wilson offer stunning poems and reflections on what it means to be black and queer in contemporary America. 

96 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, $13.00

     Prime: Poetry & Conversation is a collection of poems by five queer black poets: Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams and L. Lamar Wilson. The 96-page book dedicates a small section to each poet, allowing readers to immerse themselves in their similar, yet very distinct, modes of writing and thought. These poets blend very well together because they each grapple with themselves and with the world in a different way. Each set of poems reflects upon the conundrum of being queer, male and black. Sibling Rivalry Press, an independent publishing house based in Arkansas, did a fine job to scout and compile a beautifully vibrant group of up-and-coming poets for this collection. The stunning introduction by the esteemed Jericho Brown lets us know that these are the poets that we should look out for in the future. Although Prime was published in 2014 and is thus by no means a totally “new release,” this collection is still relevant as we go into 2017 because we still have not answered the many poignant questions it poses about queerness and blackness. These poems invite ongoing dialogue. For this reason, I particularly enjoy its subtitle, “Poetry and Conversation.” While the second half of the book is literally devoted to transcripts of dialogue between the poets, the poems themselves are launching points for important conversations we need to have with others and with ourselves.

    The collection begins with Rickey Laurentiis, a New Orleans-born poet with an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Laurentiis’ poetry begs tender questions; questions aimed outward, but seemingly pointed to the self. In the wistfully poignant “Cadaver,” he wonders abjectly: “Can the fly ever know/ to stop? — Or a man/ who abandons his son, / can’t he know it amounts/ the same injury/ to just kill the son instead?” He goes on, his questions circling a singular hurt: “Who says that flesh softens at burial?” It is the aimlessness—the answerlessness—of these questions that heightens their universality. Laurentiis’ ability to both pose and navigate these unknowns is what gives his poetry a sense of his own wonder.

     Williams’ poetry is disjointed, visceral and frantic. His focus is on doing and undoing; on breaking and blending together. In the structurally dense “Legacy,” he writes: “The man, / glass-caught, refused my broken civilization, / my iris a breaking wheel un-teaching joint from socket, where blood has/ introduced itself to the exterior.” However, he abandons this efficient structure in his next poem, “Manifesto,” in which loosely metered stanzas liken the black text in books to literal “black bodies.” While the metaphor is sound, it reads more like a hypothesis than a solid thesis. He returns to the visceral in “Blue and Green” and in “Sonnet with a Slit Wrist and Flies,” wherein he writes: “…the slit would talk back sweet nothings in a red gown” and of blood “veined by the rhapsodic” and “wild with knowledge.” He toys eloquently and intimately with the grotesque – offering a stunning poem whose stunted gestures tell a haunting tale.

     Holnes’ poetry is melodic and contained. He meditates upon his identity as a black and queer Panamanian in New York with candid doses of humor (“I Always Promised I’d Never Do Drag”), honesty and grace. Holnes is more explicit in his rendering of sex and of coping with queerness. He flamboyantly displays the tug-of-war gone on in his head whilst being in his own, queer body. In “The Down Low Messiahs,” his tone is particularly confessional: “My ring finger slides forbidden/ down his thighs in communion/ with flesh, its burn and concurrent healing, / oh lord, its reddening appetite.” While Laurentiis had questions, Holnes seems to have answers. His verse maintains an astute awareness of his “sin”—and I only say “sin” because each of his poems is either accentuated by or drenched in shame; a certain, illicit secrecy. Holnes manages to plant seeds of shame that bloom exquisitely. His confessions reek of temptation and loss, but they are also evident of healing—the quiet catharsis that comes forth from truth.

     Saeed Jones departs from Holnes’ confessional tone and offers poems that feel more like declarations. His tone is frank and rigid; forcing reconciliation – not asking for it. In the sparse, yet powerful, “Nocturne: Beheaded,” Jones makes ample use of allusion and proclaims: “My tongue is a kingdom. / You live there.” In “Aubade,” he hints subtly at doom: “Polite partners. / The wind calls out each/ step and, necks noosed, / they spin.” His poems feel like a tearing away, rather than a building up. With each tense line, he rips things down until they are threadbare.  Then, he watches our smiles fade as we painfully reconcile with what he has left for us at the end: a shaky truth.

     Wilson is the final poet. His poems seem weighed down; like they are pushing up against some burden, some forlorn heaviness. They are sarcastic, perceptive and often critical. Similar to Holnes, Wilson seems to be engaged in some kind of tug-of-war with himself. “Malevolence,” in particular, cleverly resorts to similar bouts of questioning and doubt. Wilson, too, is reconciling with something: “See our innards spilled on the turned page that tells/ The same story you’s wrote on the one before i/ Fell in the deep end, black&bluesed & saw you corralled/ In the continental shelf below i, blooming. / You should know i hate loving you. / You should know i will never stop.” In the stunning “Cake: for Chris Brown,” he points the lens outward and soberingly deconstructs Chris Brown’s (unintentionally and unwittingly confessed) statutory rape. By interpolating Chris horrifying comments with truth, Wilson emotionally critiques the false notion that neither men nor boys can be victims of rape. In the poignant, “After The Verdict: Marshall, N.C., July 15th, 2013,” he writes: “For each cloud has become a lone/ White hoodie, each a shroud/ As the children wonder aloud:/ Why won’t God stop crying? / Mothers, struck dumb, comb their hair, / Cook grits, turn on the TV, let SpongeBob/ Do his queer work with time. / Let us reach for the poster of Obama/ Above the sill, all glitter & golden. How gay he looks, this new black vision.” Wilson rounds out the bunch in an exceptionally powerful manner.

     “Conversation,” the second half of the book, is a collection of transcripts of the poets’ intimate conversations. They ask each other questions about their lives and their work and we gain a thoughtful, more robust portrait of each of their individual inspirations and aspirations as artists. When biographical, these conversations offer complex insight toward each man’s acceptance of himself as “gay” within the rough context of their homophobic communities. These details were valuable because they allow a greater appreciation of these poets’ bravery. Hearing all they have endured heightens the audacity they must possess in order to write the things that they do. Their varied conversations range all the way from poetry, to theology, academia, writing, race, violence, New York City, womanism and mentorship. This section seems whimsical and meandering, but it is this relative lack of structure that, ironically, allows these poets to blossom. It is through these conversations that we are able to fill in the crevices, the longing and the blank spaces left in their poems.