Poetry in times of strife | Literature

As Amanda Gorman reminded the world with her performance at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, good poets have the power to speak intimately and profoundly about love and loss, about phenomena and trauma.

The last year had its share of all of those things. As the world reeled from the coronavirus pandemic and its human, social, and economic toll, people across the country took to the streets calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, CITY checked in with three local poets who shared their thoughts on the upheaval and how it inspired them.

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  • PHOTO BY COCOA DAVID
  • Anderson Allen.

ANDERSON ALLEN

The work of Anderson Allen — a local poet and artist-in-residence at Avenue Blackbox Theatre — is inextricably linked to his connection with his community, and his identity as a Black man choosing to love as he navigates violence, brutality, and racism.

Allen initially wrote the poem “Joy, Fury in Purpose” in 2018, but its message of living life defiantly, and pushing back as a person of color against social institutions that would destroy him, perhaps resonates now more than ever. He recited the poem at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer.

In the work, Allen invokes goddesses from West African mythology and religious traditions to signal new birth, both literal and spiritual, and embrace the sanctity of Black life.

Joy, Fury in Purpose

I rep the village disenfranchised in the concrete jungle

for the children looking for a Black Transformer who converts himself from
safe space to Jungle Jim,
(**Safe space is a constant**)
From Rubix cube to dictionary,
from living verb to extraordinary,
they feared my greatness and so did I
they feared my becoming and so did I
I was blinded by the anointing
within my clumsy grace and somehow,
I still managed to stumble upon my greatness

Which is proof,
that accidents have purpose
and happen on purpose
Which then proves,
that you have purpose
So I,
must stand and evolve in
my power until the light comes
on purpose

This world fears Black Bodies
embodying Black Stars
in Black Space
on Black Time

When you see Black Men
give reverence to
Black Women, Black Children
To all Black Beings
this worship is ritual
They are our power
Without them,
We are just warriors
with spears and bleeding hearts
fighting for a now
that can be nurtured and protected
I can feel the earth tremble in the breath of my lover’s labor I hold her hand as we brace ourselves for the next contraction I carry a river in my eyes waiting to release itself She squeezes in reciprocity
clenches for the final push
Yemaya,
Mawu,
I have never seen a change so beautiful

Listen to the emphatic melody of a love child’s purity it’s the sound of a father’s lifeline
double dutching with a replication of his DNA
I look into her eyes and see how far we’ve come and I look at her mother knowing
the path ahead is far from over
Because the preservation of my legacy
will cost me my life and then some

I hope the day never comes
that I have to look My Sun in the eyes and tell him That he, too, must become a martyr
in a war he never asked for
the powers that be only want what they can buy and rising above the will of the almighty dollar
makes you a threat to national security
melanin in motion is synonymous to danger
dribble your thoughts with a perseverance
that sends death fleeting in the opposite direction

Run your route, Sun!
if the cops come knockin’ daddy’s blocking
you ‘til you reach the end zone
that is my duty as your father
I’ll be a savage if it means you get to live in a world where a black boy knows what it means to be a child

I will not whitewash your pride
just to drape you in pretentious patriotism
I will not tell you to pledge allegiance to a country
that paints you as a villain from your first cry I will not tell you to be coal and burn to cinder till you are grey and lifeless

Our bodies have been the fossil fuels
churning the melting pot for far too long
Sons and Daughters of the days to come,
The pursuit of happiness is a long road to misery Do not trouble yourself with such a fickle thing that you effortlessly transcend
Chase your bliss

Remember who you are
who you’ve always been
a beautiful, majestic, undying Love
a lineage of tribal spirit that traces back to a time when your heartbeat
was just a random thought
your parents couldn’t fathom

You are the ascendant of your ancestors greatest hopes so rise!
You are the becoming of a nation
so rise!
Lift the weights of oppression off your back and rise!
Stand on the shoulders of the present moment and Rise!
Your brothers and sisters across the diaspora need you so Rise!

I won’t stop screaming
Until you rise
I won’t stop bleeding
Until you rise
I won’t stop fighting
until you rise
I won’t stop dying
until you rise
This is your world
Paint it as you see fit.

You are my joy
and my joy is not to be tampered with I Love You.
Claim what is rightfully yours.

You are my joy,
Claim what is rightfully yours
You are my life,
Claim what is rightfully yours
You are my pride,
Claim what is rightfully yours
You are my joy
my Joy, my joy
You are my life,
my life, my joy
You are my pride,
My pride, my joy

My life, my pride, my joy, my joy,
You are my joy,
Claim what is rightfully yours.

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Charles Coté. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH

  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Charles Coté.

CHARLES COTÉ

Charles Coté, a poet and professional psychotherapist, is perhaps best known for his “I Play His Red Guitar,” a 2019 full-length book of poems reflecting on the death of his son Charlie from cancer in 2005.

Coté is adept at articulating emotions that often go unverbalized — moments of love and interpersonal connection that are seemingly intangible. In 2020, the idealism of his romantic poems was tempered by the loss and alienation brought on by the health crisis. He said his recent work is “less so much caught up in my personal benefit from love, and more about ‘How can love help us transcend this moment?’”

Throughout last year, Coté recalled, he read a different poem by 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi each day, and subsequently wrote a tanka, or 31-syllable poem of five lines, in response to each piece. Coté then combined several of the tankas into a single poem.

In December, he wrote about how, during a nighttime walk with his wife, love led him to empathize with and appreciate a neighbor he had previously judged.

December

When it’s time, will you
turn toward that sound that is
no sound without you,
here writing every morning
when there were no words before,

when you pierce that rind,
its shiny coat in winter
when the sun hangs low
its head on the horizon,
when the first snow starts falling?

The first drafts you’ll write
on blank pages, this again
a new beginning
after so many attempts
to avoid Love’s helplessness.

And this love inside
branching to eternity,
light ghosting the tree
last night at the hoarder’s house,
what we’d never seen before,

what before we’d scoffed:
Look at all that uselessness,
the shame of it all.
But now we gaze and wonder
how they gathered in the stars.

They gathered their own
longing, and what they found there,
they brought it all home,
and what they gathered, they loved,
and what they loved, it cost them.

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Albert Abonado. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH

  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Albert Abonado.

ALBERT ABONADO

As the child of Filipino immigrants, poet and essayist Albert Abonado’s writing often contains themes of identity and rich descriptions of the relationship between family and food. He blends sense-impressions with stream-of-consciousness imagery, connecting the present with personal and cultural memory.

Abonado says that last year he found himself thinking in a more nuanced way about mortality, about the relationships he has with conservative friends and relatives, and about widespread conspiracy theories and how people get obsessed with them.

“Sympathy for the Conspiracy Theorist,” which he penned in April of 2020, warily explores those ruminations.

“It’s easy to forget how we can have wildly different ways of processing our grief and terror,” Abonado said.

Abonado published a book of poems, “JAW,” in March 2020 and is the recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship for his creative writing.

Sympathy for the Conspiracy Theorist

The world is indeed rotten and inexplicable and who
doesn’t wish to see the truth behind the truth? Beyond
the gauzy simulation of public prayers, the latest
promises of chemistry. The problem is, as you see it,
how we come to know. What we find, for example,
on the windowsill are the wasps who entered
through some undiscovered hole of our house,
a thimble of wings I sweep into my palm.
Their carefully wrought mechanisms come
apart between my fingers. What held any of them
together, and what did they do with their suffering?
There must be a reason for this performance
against our glass besides desire, the breeze
on the other side of the window or the fields filled
with photosynthesis and sugar. Let’s assume, then,
a hypothesis about wasps that begins here
as a sliver of venom before it is buried
into the brain of another animal, which is
preceded by the atoms that became poisonous,
preceded by the engine of stars, preceded by
the ripple in gravity we call prayer. No,
you are right, as you suspect you have always
been. Consider this my apology. There is
always something more to this than this.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor and can be reached at [email protected]

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor and can be reached at [email protected]

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