A volume of poems explores the fears and hopes of contemporary blacks in America.
“Black face— / your mask is your skin. / Cops will shoot you and claim you ignited suspicion.” So begins “Brevity of a Black Boy,” the first poem in Allen’s (A Walk Through Brooklyn, 2012, etc.) combustive new collection of poems that directly tackle the state of blackness in America. From the history of oppression to the Black Lives Matter movement, the poet examines the large and small ways that racism manifests itself in the lives of African Americans. In “Ten Reasons,” he uses an innocuous list format to commemorate black victims of police violence. It begins, “I am killed: / Carrying a fake gun1/ Selling CD2/ Routine traffic stops3” and continues all the way to 10. The footnotes at the bottom reveal the people hidden in the statlike superscripts: “1 Tamir Rice / 2 Alton Sterling / 3 Samuel DuBose.” In “For Black Cops Who Bleed Blue,” Allen takes a more essayistic approach, writing in prose: “I respect your position and understand your crisis filled work weeks still might not be enough to pay for your child’s college tuition. But your quiet is deafening.” Some poems are more personal in nature, like the lyric “A Melody On Repeat,” which gives readers a look into the inner life of an artist: “Peek into my rebirth. / Cramped, / elevator music is spinning in my mind / I am / inspired by syncopated rhythms / digging / fiendishly for a gold standard vision.” The poems vary widely in quality, in part because Allen adopts so many different strategies. The less successful offerings tend to be wordier and academic, like “Language Is Color Now”: “Casual colorism is rampant amongst my peers and I / … / Language is meant to communicate but no one is listening / Opinions should hold less weight than facts.” Many books of poetry published in the last five years tackle this same subject, and some of them do so with a bit more virtuosity and precision than this volume. But Allen displays a willingness to take risks, and readers will likely feel stirred by the sentiment of many of these poems even if the verses themselves do not always wow.
An energetic and varied collection of poetry that speaks to institutional racism in America.