For The Ladies in White
The walls of Santa Rita swell like a capillary.
Hundreds of mother-wives,
dressed as doves,
recite their reasons:
For the steel-held.
Para la malasangre.
To argue on behalf of ghosts.
Outside the church, men
with bladed knuckles
intimidate for sport.
They lean on their old, rectangular cars,
make smoke on command.
When mass is finished, the mother-wives take
to the streets.
They move about Havana the way a fly enters a skull—
every step a vigil,
every breath surveilled.
¡Libertad! ¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!
They link hands and birth a prism.
The men open like cylinders.
Howls between blows. Flesh
folding into itself like a flag—
The women that escape
are followed, placed
on 24-hour watch.
The tongueless republic,
unable to lick its wounds,
does not sleep.
We know the sun to be a man. We know Hell
has many mouths, too many teeth to count. Fire—
we’ve heard it by name, seen the cane leaves blunted
to ash. Smoke like the inside of a throat,
our throats dry, dry, drier.
We are so young, us girls.
The node of light between our legs still intact,
yet we wield our knives with accuracy.
Close to the ground, and saw. Do not hack.
Keep only the green shoot. Store as you go.
Our backs bent and clotted. Our eyes, starless.
We suck on our blisters for drink.
When all is done, we mustn’t forget the roots.
With a blanket of whittled straw, the cane will sleep
till next season. We try to sleep, too, our bodies tenderized.
Some nights, we manage to dream:
sprig-thin fingers holding shovel to earth, the sky a parade of red.
No mothers, no fathers. Just a voice, heavy as myth, saying
It’s not that far from here. You could use your hands.
Disappeared from the landscape.
Slick & black in the Tangerine Diner
Where I stood to speak into the handpiece
Greasy with other people’s oil & spit.
Gone that day’s newspaper, boot-printed,
The dog walking itself leash-in-mouth
Down the small avenue, the bookstore
Where I felt the train rumble past
On the other side of the wall. Gone
Those old men I watched smoke at their stools
& the bloodsucking bug I smeared in sweat
Until it was only blood. I am obsessed with
What’s phantom: the younger self;
The angry & agile body, starved & able
To consume indiscriminately;
The gently-pumping vein.
The operator had everyone’s number
At her fingertips back then. Who remembers
The sensation of the rotary dial whirring
Backward? Who of us keeps the record
Now? Outside of the gardens the smartphone
Missed my back pocket, smacked
The ground. Gone its face, diamonded
Into uselessness. No way to get ahold of
A way home. I hummed along while I waited
Across from the jukebox, in the booth
Ripped from its button, scratching
The back of my thigh. Gone the wild weeds
& Honeysuckle air
That made me. The coin slipped
Into its dark slot.
Kyle Dargan is the author of five collections of poetry: Anagnorisis (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2018). Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press, 2015), Logorrhea Dementia (University of Georgia Press, 2010), Bouquet of Hungers (University of Georgia Press, 2007) and The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2003). He is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works, writes, and edits POST NO ILLS Magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia, and Indiana University.
FWR: “Anagnorisis” is the moment in a tragedy where a character realizes his or her (or another’s) true nature. I was struck that your poems consider not only your realization of yourself, but also your realization of America, and what America thinks it knows about you. The first section of Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination came to mind as a possible influence, but I wonder what other works you turned to in the shaping of this manuscript.
Along that thought, you’ve said that this is a work expressing “the freedom of speak”. Can we hope that America, the idea with the capital A, is listening?
KD: I appreciate your picking up on the multiple “recognition” moments throughout the text. I know the term anagnorisis leads one to look for one such moment, but the idea is at play in different parts of the book’s journey. If I can interpret text loosely enough to include more than books, I would definitely say Solange Knowles’ album SEAT AT THE TABLE (which was, interesting enough, inspired in part by Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN). Whether or not America is listening doesn’t matter. I had to accept, as did Solange, that making art that clearly and unabashed depicts blk disdain and exhaustion –– and not as a function of either rage or woundedness –– will likely not be embraced by the popular critical and awards entities. (The lack of critical acknowledgement for A SEAT AT THE TABLE remains egregious to me.) But you have to do that sometimes to move the popular American consciousness towards being open to and able to process righteous, necessary and crisply articulated blk indignation. Or even just the belief that “white” America is not doing the best job at exorcising its own demons. This is not a book that was in my existing creative plan, and some days it really does feel like a “service” to me –– one that I am more likely to get tacitly maligned for by the artistic gatekeeping class.
FWR: In structuring the manuscript, how did you find balance between shorter and longer works? You’ve said that this wasn’t a ‘planned’ manuscript, like your other books had been. At what point did you realize what you had could, and needed, to stand on its own?
KD: Well, there was a point where I thought “In 2016, the African-American Poet Kyle Dargan Is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” was the centerpiece of the manuscript (that was probably more of an emotional truth than a craft truth). So I knew that piece –– running about six pages –– needed space to function, somewhat as “Always a Rose” does in the center of Li-Young Lee’s ROSE. That aside, though, these poems are, on average, a lot longer than the poems in my previous four collections. I think that is related to my push towards a new depth of candor in my voice. There is a relentlessness to the opening section –– a weight –– that I wanted to be unavoidable, to go back to that idea of “training” readers’ consciousness. You have to deal with the first section just as I, and many other people of color, have had to live it over the past five years. I do let in more “air” as the book/journey progresses.
FWR: The “China Cycle” poems seemed to serve two purposes. The preceding poems were cast in a new light, as the speaker (and audience) consider the way both China and the United States are continually editing and creating the myths and history of each nation, while also establishing a new angle on the succeeding poems by bringing in more fully concerns of humanity’s impact on the natural world. When you wrote those poems, had you envisioned them as their own manuscript? If not, what was the act of joining them with the rest of poems like?
KD: There was a lot about my travels to China that, until recently, I was still processing. Even just the decision to write things that I would potentially publish, for as much as I am extremely appreciative of how I was hosted and treated as an American by the Chinese Writers Association (which is an arm of the ruling Communist party), I also was very aware of how the government was surveilling and detaining their own dissident writers and artists. To not say anything felt disrespectful to those silenced writers, and to speak candidly felt disrespectful to those who’d hosted me. But once I got over that, it was clear that China was the “bridge” for me and the book. It was both the place I escaped to in a psychically trying time as a blk American, and the place that showed me my American privilege and my inability to escape global colorism and its political ramifications. So what you stated about the “reconsidering” those poems encourage in the manuscript, that is exactly what I experienced in thinking about and having to explain my life in America to others as I traveled abroad.
FWR: Within the “China Cycle”, the idea of being ‘other’ takes on new meaning. While a poem like “A Progressive Mile” points with one hand to the act of being visibly a “dark/spectacle” in China, it also recalls the lines “I’m still trying to buy/ the same stitch of citizenship/ you take for granted” from “In 2016, The African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” or “I think of race as something akin to climate change, / a force we don’t have to believe in for it to undo us” from “Daily Conscription”.
How do you see your poems speaking to the role of “the other” and the act of being made visible or invisible?
KD: So I honestly think that writing about feeling racially othered in a general way has reached the limits of its rhetorical usefulness. (And I may be totally off in thinking that.) There are many experiences of otherness from China I did not bother to attempt to render as poetry because, am I wrong, of course in 2018 the reality of a blk man in Tianjin China who speaks a little Mandarin is going to register as an oddity. What is more interesting to me at the moment is not what the “other” feels but what desires and anxieties fuel the actions of those doing the othering. That is what is happening at the end of “Progressive Mile.” It is quasi erotic, or maybe fetishistic the way in which he is staring at me. And only he really knows what’s up, so how do I get in there –– into his head? That is what I am examining now. I’d say that dynamic is true domestically as well.
FWR: Thinking of the performance of the body, I was struck by your use and manipulation of pop culture references, such as the opening epigram to “Dark Humor”, which quotes Richard Pryor, or “Avenger”, when you write:
Somewhere is the negro’s imagined America,
where we have Iron Man on our side,
though it does not matter if the hero is “black”
so long as the body inside is.
That poem, in particular, which contains Ferguson, Obama, and Tony Stark, struck me as an attempt to answer the multiple ways people of color are called upon to adjust to the expectations of whiteness, without the release that whiteness grants itself. Would you be able to speak further to this?
KD: Well, it is really an imagined Eric Holder cast as a Tony Stark figure, but yes. I think the sentiment you mention is present in that poem, but I think it is more –– or more interestingly to me –– present in “Poem Resisting Arrest.” I remember when I showed the book to a mentor, one not raised in America, he did not understand the poem because he could not identify the resistance, but that is the point. That blk people bend themselves backwards often to avoid abuse by the police, wind up abused or even dead, and are then further abused or criticized for asking why they have suffered this fate. (“Why” is one of the most dangerous questions a blk person can ask an officer.) But I think that goes back to Iron Man and the “negro’s imagined America.” Even there, the police, the State, is too corrupt to be imagined as a benevolent force so it has to be a superhero that fulfills the duty the State should fulfill –– i.e. protecting the innocent.
FWR: I know you teach writing across several genres. How does that influence your own writing?
KD: I think of myself as a learned unlearner, which puts me in a weird position as a teacher in the creative writing classroom. I think my way into craft through martial arts because I appreciate the clarity of high stakes arts (i.e. in some instances you live or you die depending on your craft decisions). That is, I believe, actually freeing because if your main goal is to fight to live, your cannot be stiffly, strictly beholden to styles and forms. It is the ability to transition between forms as needed which lead to success. Because, as they say in NARUTO, every jutsu (technique) has a weakness. So I teach, as Bruce Lee suggests, not knowledge of form but lived performance of fluidity. And I think that is something that one models more than one teaches to others. Thus I need to be continually striving for that –– and getting freer in my necessary formal transitions –– in my own work. One of my former students wrote me to say that reading ANAGNORISIS was like taking an intensive on lineation / line breaks. While flattered, what I really hope they see are the ways I am trying (and failing and trying) to achieve more effective fluidity when it comes to form.
FWR: Is there a poet (or poems) you love to teach or share?
KD: I’d say, to the above idea of moving as freely or as purely as the poem needs, pieces like Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” or Larry Levis’ “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” or Etheridge Knight’s “Belly Song.” There is really little for me to even teach with those works. You just need to internalize them and allow them to inform your own instinct.
FWR: (this is purely a NJ question, as someone else from that great, maligned place that I’ll never live in): Can we call Walt Whitman a New Jersey poet, as we’ve named a rest stop in his honor?
KD: I don’t think any one place can comfortably or wholly claim Mr. Multitudes. (The bridge even is operated by the Delaware River Port Authority––a Delaware/Jersey collaboration. And Jersey’s turnpike is one of its most hated aspects, so I don’t know how much of an honor the rest stop is.) Maybe Brooklyn can. And D.C. I’d rather New Jersey reconcile its relationship to Amiri Baraka than make space for Whitman. I think that is the problem, poetically with Jersey––and why so many of us don’t or cannot go back: it is often looking elsewhere for the genius when it is already right there going ignored in its own garden.
This is how the whole holy mess
went down: cue the girl in tone-deaf
gold, drama thick in her blood. Their
love always caught in the underworld
or the other world. All vendetta and Vedas.
She woke from dreams silted with arrows,
broken teeth, the man-smell still sharp
and human on her. The birds nearsighted
with melancholy. Her heart wintering
over some god she’ll probably never
see again. He tells her to play dead, that
no one will notice— just another girl
from some hill town with her lotus-petal
eyes walking into a forest on fire.
SELF PORTRAIT AS A GIRL, ONLY PART MIRACLE
This air full of birdsong and chatter,
this girl only part miracle. He as the god
with many heads whose tongues swell
from all the lies pulled from them—
one thorn and nettle at a time.
He as a reminder that sweetness
is only a prelude to pain: what he
couldn’t love, he sent back out
into the jungle, let the animals
have at it. This: the price of freedom.
This: the remnants of love. Your mother
tells you over and over — don’t be just a girl.
You wish she’d teach you something
that would make you belong to this world.
You live in a high fort above a blue city. The rooftops below
speckled with laundry. At night the distant echoes
of a hundred brass bands, a hundred weddings. The blue
of the city is not quite robin’s egg, not exactly
the blue of chicory. Outside the city is the desert.
Don’t tell it like a story. It will sound too beautiful.
You stand on a high parapet, in the rustle and coo
of pigeons, under filigreed eaves. When you step over red
velvet ropes, leaving the museum behind, you find rooms
empty as the moon, floors carpeted in desert silt.
In one bedchamber-turned-cave, you hold your breath, you bow
before a rank hill of bat guano. You touch niches
for the ghosts of little lamps, and frescoed girls dance
with gods along the wall. Plaster dusts your fingertips.
Stained glass windows turn your thin skin rainbow. You take
a photo of a white hallway: Mughal arches echo, fade into
light. Not a story, not an image. It is a map. At the end of the hallway,
a balcony—the ground hazily distant—the wide-winged
turkey vultures gliding so close—hold tight
the railing, notice how soft the sandstone carved
into curling vines. Notice it is crumbling. Mehrangarh means
Sun Citadel. Sheesh Mahal means Mirror Palace, or else
Hall of Mirrors, but it is just a tiny space, dim, claustrophobic
with reflections: wild, intimate room, it wants an audience.
Here you are, alone with your ten thousand selves.
Alumnae of the Void,
we measure our loyalty
in clicks and non-fungible
We measure our loyalty
against our guilt of never
never opening email.
Against our guilt of never
showing up, or as we say
in today’s culture,
making ourselves visible.
Showing up, or as we say
meaning a world
we are like stars
to become markers of night.
We are like stars
whose arrival designates
the time of comparison
between priests and beggars.
Whose arrival is called “Creation”
and requires a red carpet
or no carpet at all.
And requires a red carpet
at how such terms formed
an encyclopedia of misdirection.
we are but a satellite,
an off-shore account
waiting to be dissolved.
We are but a satellite
and yet are we not also a center
whose periphery is wonder?
Waiting to be dissolved
an encyclopedia of misdirection
or no carpet at all
between priests and beggars
to become markers of night
making ourselves visible
never opening email
who can say
we are not loyal alumnae
clicking, donating our being
to some Void
some Egypt of guilt and wonder.
ONE WAY IN—ONE WAY OUT
during the fire, i thought only of closed roads—
lines of cars redirected to find another way
in or out. while the mountain above them burned,
a couple jumped into their water tank to save themselves.
i turned on every sprinkler & placed a few on the roof.
i sat on top of my house, dry terrain on all sides,
breathing the ash-rain & smoke. perhaps i should have
been more concerned. perhaps i should have packed
my letters & left. perhaps i was too cavalier.
i thought myself willing to go down with the house.
it was in fact, not bravado, but a life that did not know loss.
on an old ranch, when the stables caught fire
& there was no chance of rescuing them, all the horses
were loosened. i imagined them wild eyed & panicked.
a stampede emerging from a smoke cloud. the sound
of hooves—an unsaddled stream rushing out
in a single direction with nothing but their lives.
my eyes were bloodshot
from finding spare hours
in the curve of your
you drove me to a flight
& said you hadn’t seen
a sunrise in months.
the sky—a pool
of crushed hibiscus.
i wanted to swim in it
with you. we were quiet
the way anything that leaves
is quiet. you promised
to find me
& i closed the door.
parting is never
the ceremony we wish
it were—someone is there
& then they’re not.
i sat in a terminal
& felt the sun
through large windows.
i thought of your hand
squeezing mine in sleep.
how one night you turned
away from me so that
i wouldn’t see you cry.
& later beneath a blanket
we hummed lullabies
to one another.
you placed me
in a cold empty sky not
because you wanted to,
but because i asked you to.
When it was too hot
to smoke cigarettes we drowned
ants in gasoline
until they curled. Upstream,
in a trailer, your mother, drunk
on hand sanitizer cut with water,
called each kid
It’s April. You are dying
among the poplars
among blueberry fields and farmhands
beating chickens with pipes.
When we travel
the dead travel too.
That is the law
and the law is full of dreams.
The news says
wildfires are burning
all over the county.
from the couch I’ve been sleeping on
for weeks. I put
cold water to my face,
blow ash off the deck
with a hose. I sit
in the yard and close my eyes.
When I left that town
I left for good. I dreamed,
rarely, of streams, of blackbirds. I drew
everything we did to the trees, everything the trees
did to us. I drew it badly
and spent years trying
to draw it well. Eventually
after Linette Reeman and torrin a. greathouse
The body is a betrayal you are forced to carry
Don’t say the word father
OR become a slow crawl of thigh highs
OR let each be your god
Divide all possible solutions by Remember this was your idea
Theoretical Math Problem – TRUE OR FALSE
When solving for y the answer to diet pills is more diet pills
The word genetics is a mean hammer
The difference between shame and guilt is showing your work
MATH PROBLEM AS MAP=
You are the smallest place you know.
Possible steps to solving for y (you)
1. Give back the rib
2. Eat every apple until you are fat with orchards
3. Dress in snake and dig a grave
(there no use for girls who think themselves vessel. They should never expect to float)
MATH PROBLEM, v. 2.0=
Russian nesting doll
Find the lowest common denominator.
Divide the fractions among many mouths
Tell the junior at UCLA you have the answers + use words like better now + walk her to her car.
(Do not say the hunter never sleeps) x (Do not tell her, like you, she will always be hungry)
= Do not tell her there is no X = Or worse, that each of you are cause.
Your mother laughed when you disappeared + you are still suspect + so is she
you have not finished disappearing + you are still thirsty for bones
MATH PROBLEM IN REVERSE
Unbuild the boat
Write letters to kerosene
Have X solve for you
There is nothing special about a body
AND You keep on carrying
A TOAST TO THE DESTRUCTION OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH
The waitress tending our party of three dips her tanned
torso over the table as she grabs the menus from us men. Well,
men minus one, since it appears that I’m the only guy
not looking. Not looking at women anyway. The gold
crucifix on her necklace rubs against my brother’s straw
as she withdraws and Jesus ascends again to the heaven
of her breasts. The Motorboat is what I order, described
as something between a porter and a stout—now that’s
my kind of cross. My father says there’s no such thing as sin
that’s large and sin that’s small. Drinking too much, he says,
is the sin, not the drinking, as he peers through our waitress’
knapsack crop-top. There’s no such thing as small or large
sizes here, the waitress says, man size is large, girl is small.
Do you really want to order the girl size? Fine, I want the girl
size. My brother laughs and my father looks away. It’s stupid,
my brother says. But are you really telling me her body
did nothing for you? My father looks at me like God
looking for the smallest redemption in Gomorrah, looking
for any reason in Sodom not to raze it. There is no reason
for how things are sometimes—better to accept. My father
didn’t raise me to be a girly man, a fact that might bother him,
except for the other fact: he didn’t raise me. It bothers him.
Some people are beyond saving. Me, I tell my brother, as I look
over his shoulder at the bearded roughneck going gaga
for our waitress as he sips from his bottle, there is nothing
straight about me, except maybe my hair, and even that
has gotten kinky with age. I drink beer because I’m thirsty
when I eat pretzels. I don’t have a prayer when I say amen.
REASONS FOR ABOLISHING ICE
with a first line by Bei Dao
because you say we can’t use our voice to launch an avalanche ice
because if you want papers then we’ll crush you like booklice thumbed into paper
As if you could dig it up like a carrot
or shake it loose from the branches.
As if you could thwack it in half
like a coconut, could drink the milk
sloshing inside and be revived, as if you could command it
onto your tongue, as if it had a taste,
as if it could be poured or caught or captured or held
or worried loose like a tooth, a knot, a nail, as if it were an eye
fixed on a snake bisecting the path.
As if it could be summoned and hooded,
cut and partitioned: this: meat. This: poison. Many times
there was only the bright smell of gin
on my mouth and the butterscotch glow
of stupid I must have been haloed in, the sudden
seizure of my bitter orange and juniper tongue. Desire,
yes, also, urgency. But I could be
caught, I could be lightning
directed, flash inanimate. Out beyond
these walls, a ferocious wind
makes love to the trees in a yard,
pine needles scattering all over
the green, green ground. I want to say
I never assented to any role I was not fully certain I could sell,
but I, too, am susceptible to the suspicion I should be
dumb and grateful, like a cow or a potted plant.
Everyday I build the little boat,
my body boat, hold for the unique one,
the formless soul, the blue fire
that coaxes my being into being.
Yes, there was music in the woods, and
I was in love with the trees, and a beautiful man
grew my heartbeat in his hands, and there
was my mother’s regret that I slept with.
To live there is pointless. I’m building the boat,
the same way I’d build a new love—
looking ahead at the terrain. And the water
is rising, and the generous ones are moving on.
O New Day, I get to build the boat!
I tell myself to live again.
Somehow I made it out of being 15
and wanting to jump off the roof
of my attic room. Somehow I survived
my loneliness and throwing up in a jail cell.
O New Day, I’ve broken my own heart. The boat
is still here, is fortified in my brokeness.
I’ve picked up the hammer everyday
and forgiven myself. There is a new
language I’m learning by speaking it.
I’m a blind cartographer, I know the way
fearing the distance. O New Day,
there isn’t a part of you I don’t love
to fear. I’m holding hands with
the poet speaking of light, saying I made it up
I made it up.