Hold Up a Poem


Does poetry matter in America today? Does it matter, for instance, to Black Lives Matter? What does that movement have to say to poetry, and vice versa?

There is a video on YouTube that shows The Donald holding forth at a podium. Behind him has been arranged the semi-diverse human background before which politicians usually speak. What makes the video tweetable is that an audience member, a black woman, renounces her role as a token object of identification, and she does so by reading a book. She lifts it high, covering her face, so that we can see that it’s Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry, Citizen. There’s a rustling in the crowd. People try to get her to put the book down or leave.

Blocking out a Trump rally by holding up the work of an anti-racist public intellectual makes a powerful statement. Reading poetry at such an event sends a related but slightly different message. A choice is being made—not only of ideas and values but also of ways of thinking and speaking. A choice even of how to spend one’s time.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s provocative poems engage the race politics of our moment. This is the case in the deliberately painful vignette “Mortality Ode.” We linger here with the poet in a quintessential contemporary scene: the cell phone store. Waiting for his phone means waiting for “my home / Screen.” The enjambment reminds us that we see our phones as uniquely our own, familiar and safe, like home, and as a form of shelter, a “screen.” Meanwhile, the store fills up with police officers. They do nothing but exhibit their authority and affirm their belonging to each other (they are “huddled like gum”), but that is enough to seem menacing. The store clerk offers to sell the poet “protection: because you never know.”

How does a black father bring up his child in a world where “you never know”? What will that child’s life be like? In “Dark Matter Ode,” Phillips worries these questions with his wrists dangling over the bars of the baby’s crib; he feels like an abject, slightly ridiculous figure, “the poet in his pillory.” Time marches on, and what matters today might not tomorrow. Except that we know that, as if it were a law of nature, the child will be angry and determined, dissatisfied, and set on his own path. All the father can do is pass on his poem as “a fucking living weapon.”

Balancing that weapon handed over in “Dark Matter Ode” is another sort of gift, the light of “Halo.” In 2014 in this space, we published “Loss of Halo,” David Lehman’s translation of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Perte d’auréole,” which concerns an angel who has lost his halo in a crowded city street. Baudelaire gives up romantic lyricism for prose, and makes daily social friction a poetic subject. Phillips’s poem, no doubt written with Baudelaire’s in mind, is unashamed, but not in the least naïve, in reclaiming the lyric halo. Yes, it is only a poem, he seems to say. But it lights up the dark better than a phone, and you can hold it up and take it anywhere, even to a Trump rally.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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