Looking for justice in poetry: America’s spring poetry review

Social movements need great art. They need it if only to make plain for themselves that success is not merely linear; that changing law is not the only way to reform; that vibrantly naming truth rips apart untruths.

Four of the authors in this year’s spring poetry review (Juan Felipe Herrera, Joseph Brown, Reginald Dwayne Betts and Remi Kanazi) shine a light on the serrated edges of life: violence, injustice, hard living, deep wrongs. In one way or another they could all be said to be part of a movement in the struggle for justice.


Herrera—whose varied career includes roles as a community teacher, theatre artist, children’s book author, political activist and current poet laureate of the United States—would seem to be the ideal writer to crystallize painful reality into great poetry. But even a renowned writer does not hit every time.

“Ayotzinapa,” the second poem in his new collection Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights Books, 2015), tells the story of 43 Mexican students who were fired upon and kidnapped after a protest demanding funding for their teachers.

In one long sentence he describes the demonstration, the police and how the students continue to march even after they have been dismembered. They are making their way “toward all the cities in the world/ toward all the students and teachers in the world/ demonstrating on all the streets sprung open.” It ends: “we are not disposable.” This poem is solid, but it does not light up the page, turn it to ash.

“Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’—for all the dead” lists the names of black men shot dead by police officers. It also names two New York cops shot dead while on duty. It ends:

we are all still burnin’ can you hear
can you feel me swaggin’ tall and
      driving low &
talkin’ fine & hollerin’ from my
corner crime & fryin’
                         against the wall
almost livin’ almost dyin’
almost livin’ almost dyin’

As with many of the poems in this collection, it does the job, relates the needed information. But it does not bring us in a searing way to the truth of matters.

In its own quiet, chilling way, “And if the man with the choke-hold” gets closer to achieving that. The poem refers to the death of Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island who died after being put in a chokehold by a cop:

And if the man with the choke-hold pulls the standing man down why does he live and if the dead man is gone why does he rise… If looters broke the wall and spilt the wine why are they still scorched…and if all the laws are Freedom for you for me why do we not speak.

My favorite poem in this collection is “White Dove—Found Outside Don Teriyaki’s.” It features no social wrongs, just a hurt bird:

Cedar & Herndon going nowhere
    brought her home
bought her seeds and a rabbit cage
    & carried her out
everyday & let her fly in the room
    next to my bedroom

Herrera offers us no sentiment about how noble the men are who whisk to safety lame doves. We can fill in the blanks. This poem is as powerful as, if not more powerful than any of his poems that deal directly with social concerns. This one cuts into us and we see it sharply. It is authentic and it is human. Maybe any literature that is bracingly human is a work of social justice.

Bastards of the Reagan Era, by Reginald Dwayne Betts (Four Way Books, 2015). Judging merely by the sledge-hammer title, you may expect Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Bastards of the Reagan Era to be a simplistic attack on the president and his conservative revolution; i.e., a book of poems that casts Ronald Reagan as the sinister force behind an era of fatherless black men.

This collection, however, is not a throwdown of clunky political poetry aimed strictly at a political leader. Betts, who over the course of his life went from incarceration to Yale Law School, fills his book with disheartening tales of violence, drugs and jail. As with the best political art, the poems primarily notice and name reality—the first step toward changing it.

The lengthy title poem condenses an entire way of life for prisoners, with descriptions of jail life so sad I barely even want to describe them here. The poem ends with this, opening up into something larger than its words:

We were all running down demons with our
Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was
Like them, unwilling to admit one thing:
On some days I just needed my father.

In “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” after a man is killed by the cops, a woman...

talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks...
Someone says the people need
    to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house
    falling on only
a few heads.

But then the people won’t stand up to violence in their community because, as Betts writes, “This & the stop snitching ads/ are the conundrums....”

Stand up and abhor together the destruction of black bodies by officers of the law. At the same time sit down and don’t rat on someone not a cop who has destroyed a black body. This veritable stand-off is called tragedy (both sides can argue well for their stance) and Betts is unafraid to nail it clean.

In “The Invention of Crack” Betts describes what taking the drug is actually like. Crack would not have power to do terrible things if there were not a fantastic upside to it. It is so wickedly potent because it feels so good:

It feels like God has dropped
A piece of heaven behind
Your eyelids. After that, all
You want is to be that close
To an angel again.

This collection is not all heartbreak. In “Elephants in the Fall,” for his son Micah, he puts down lines you could only describe as classic:

Our song is how right we got it
when the light from that moon
out of your mother’s belly, I tell
        you, you were smiling then
as if you knew you were the first
that found me worthy.

Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine, by Remi Kanazi (Haymarket Books, 2015). Some of the poems in Remi Kanazi’s new collection, largely about the endless Arab-Israeli conflict, catch and hold the reader. The first crushing line in “Lit Up”:

later: a doctor cradling a child
falling apart in his hands

And this in “#WhatRemains,” where a child in the aftermath, we can guess, of a bombing,

still wets the bed
shivers in the corner
the last clean sheet
around his shoulders

Many of the poems, however, are simply sturdy journalism (facts, statistics, events) or have the feel of someone making a first stab at poetry.

We regular citizens are accused (as probably we should be) of our own silence and tax-dollar complicity in the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. But the tone of Kanazi’s accusation in “Nothing to Worry About” is almost a caricature of “protest poetry”:

the world is a messed-up place
rolled off your tongue
like an arrogant excuse
it’s easy to say that
   when drone strikes aren’t
leveling your block in Brooklyn
   when stop-and-frisk isn’t
haunting your every move
   when your baby’s
blood-spattered body isn’t
plastered onto your
Park Slope avenue

You have it so easy, White People of Wealthy Brooklyn! No blood-splattered babies to trouble your sight-lines! (The pro-life movement is criticized, and rightly so, for using images of dead babies as a political shock tool. Evidently, however, it is not the only cause to do so.)

Or this, in “Until It Isn’t”:

suffering 2.0
keyboard clicks
like bombs so effortlessly

Suffering 2.0. I was dismayed to see this phrase.

Some poems in this collection are filled up with stanzas like this:

Black men make up 40%
of the US prison population
nearly half for drugs that
white men abuse at a higher rate

Though powerful and sad, these stats-as-poems do not achieve the thing that art uniquely can do: through detailed vibrant images lodge a subject into our souls in a way we may never forget.

Often as subtle as a hurricane, the poems pound us again and again with the suffering of the Palestinians and other oppressed groups. Maybe this isn’t so wrong-headed. Maybe some tragedies need to be yelled about un-artfully lest we become charmed, even lulled, by any attempt to talk about horror beautifully.

The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems, by Luke (Brown Turtle Press, 2009). Joseph Brown, S.J., who writes under the name Luke, has been known to take (seize, really) the floor at Jesuit meetings and demand to know why are there not more black Jesuits in the United States. Once, before an overwhelmingly white group of 500 Jesuits and a nurse, he stood up and said, “Are we going to have to buy a black man?” The room went silent. We all looked down into our coffee cups. Jesuit leaders paused, then responded carefully. This is Joseph Brown.

After reading this book, it is clear to me Joseph Brown is not simply a chastiser of pale hierarchies. He is a writer, the real deal.

In “Stories About Chrone,” an old handyman sees a boy curse an old woman and later called the child over to him:

    you done two things wrong son
you showed your behind to a
    good woman and you
tarnished sunlight with your tongue
    now stop
and he slapped him
                        deep hard and final.

Many people in 2016 mortally reject any slap of any child for any reason. But how many kind-hearted adults cursed by a child—in 2016 or whenever—find themselves startled by the impulse to slap. They loathe the impulse. They bury it. But it’s there. And they don’t abhor entirely the freedom of Chrone in his era to get away with it.

A great poem drags a reader smack into a reality that reaches beyond moral truths into the true thing that is a conflicted human soul.

(Later the grandma gives Chrone 50 cents “wrapped in one of them stiff lilac-smelling handkerchiefs” and told him to buy some wine.)

Father Brown’s poems mark language wonderfully; they record how people actually speak. They paint superb pictures and generally they do not force conclusions on us.

Brown’s grandma in “Lord Knows”:

before you go i wants to give you
a little something
                                    to help out
and i still have it

and the dollar bill
she unfolded slowly and put
into my hand

The North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith once sent $200 to every player he ever coached. It is the gift of a classic poem to put you in mind of other gestures like that—simple and lovely.

“An Agony: In a Garden” sets down one of the most concise and perfect renderings of the life and passion of Jesus I have ever read. It describes Christ as:

     the friend
who called death closer with each
     undoing of hunger
twisted limbs soiled names
                     each gathering of the lost.

His healing and shepherding threatens the leaders who were supposed to be healing and shepherding. And they take measures.

“A Prayer From the Heart—for Marcus Thomas 2006” is painfully timeless in its depiction of the energy surrounding a black child born in a city:

When a boy is born around these
    parts seems like everybody
and her mama holds they breath
feeling the heart beating  the throat
    closing shut
    the eyes straining not
to see the future
hoping against the storm
    we smooth the skin
making our fingers learn a memory
    for when
we are going to wish for skin to love

The author doesn’t force us to code race, poverty or violence into his work. He just tells us what happens: how a black life that matters will soon be one that mattered.

Lullabies, by Lang Leav (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014). Lang Leav’s writing is so audacious that one poem, “Us,” actually starts: “I love him and he loves me.” It takes a special kind of boldness to write a poem that begins that so quaintly and think that Andrews McNeel will publish it and people will buy it and will even give it the 2015 Goodreads Choice award.

And all those things happened! Simplicity is deceptive. It holds great power. Her poems are straightforward and sweet and many appear to have been written on the back of junior high notebooks. Yet they contain depth.

A line like this one echoes Scripture: “My name is no longer a name, it is a call.” Like a biblical figure renamed by God, the love of another person can widen the soul, change our very names.

Or “Tsunamis.” How is it I can read a near-cliché like this: “He swept in like a tsunami, wave after wave, and I didn’t stand a chance,” and not be dismayed by the writing?

Is it the way the words snap together? Or because clichés sometimes can be beautiful? Maybe it is because there are drawings of adorable children and their musical instruments and cats in the book.

Maybe I like that line because of what follows: “All those warnings, all the things they tried to prepare me for—lost in an instant—to the enormity of what I felt.” Other people’s fretful warnings about a relationship are like the cheapest of cyclone fences to keep away storms. The only way you learn, usually, is by going through it.

In “Clocks”: “Here in time,/ you are mine;/ my heart has not sung louder/ I do not know/ why I love you so/ the clock knows not its hour.”

“The clock knows not its hour.” Who are we in relation to other things? Am I just a thing, or do I need another thing to be in relationship with me to be more fully a thing? Theo-philosophical questions made so simple and striking in these poems. “Yet it is clear,/ to all that’s here/ that time is told by seeing./ Even though/clocks do not know,/ it is the reason/ for their being.”

Some poems in this collection are fairly inappropriate:

There was a girl named Despondency,
who loved a boy named Altruistic

Sadly, it goes on like that. Another poem that doesn’t hit is “Pretext”:

Our love—a dead star
to the world it burns brightly—
but it died long ago.

Many of these pieces, in fact, walk a fine line between the junior high notebook and the complexities of love Frenchmen write theology dissertations about. Any great writing should have its share of unfortunate poems like these. If you don’t risk and fail you will never risk and succeed.

One of Leav’s finest poems is not in Lullabies, nor her first volume, Love and Misadventure. It can be found on her website, langleav.com. It’s not actually a poem. But it feels like one. The poem is two lines, and it falls under the heading of questions people frequently ask Lang Leav—F.A.Q.’s. The poem reads:

Will you promote me?
Sorry, no

Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limon (Milkweed Editions, 2015). The poems in Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things (a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award) are lovely. They snap you to attention. They put words together in a way that, if nothing else, makes you smile:

A girl pit bull came and circled me as I circled the cars; she sniffed me like I was her kin…
I want to try and be terrific. Even for an hour...
I’m like a fence, or a cow, or that word, yonder...
This is Kentucky, not New York, and I am not important...

For our purposes here, Limon’s (few) poems that reference the divine are worth a deeper look. For some artists today, any talk of the spiritual veers away from the old orthodoxy of religion/ God as “eternal answer.” It often operates from a new orthodoxy of religion/ God as “forever interrogated.”

In “Miracle Fish”:

I used to pretend to believe in God.
Mainly, I liked so much to talk to someone in the dark.

Eventually, she “learned to harness that upward motion inside me, before I nested my head in the blood of my body.”
Limon goes on to tell us that once in New York she went to a “Miracle Fish” to hear her fortune and finally realized, “It was my body’s water that moved [my fortune], that the massive ocean inside me was what made the fish swim.”

God, maker of our fortunes, dwells within us. True. But this dwelling within, as I understand it, does not ordain our flesh with the power to entirely make one’s fortune; to be a sort of God. Limon is not implying she is like unto God. But there can be in this sort of writing an uncritical and hazy demarcation between what is human power and where ultimately all power comes from.

In “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use”:

J said,
You don’t believe in God? And I

No. I believe in this connection
    we all have
to nature, to each other, to the
And she said, Yeah, God.

Limon goes on to list good things of the earth: “white oaks, Spanish moss, and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.”

For some people, chalking up all goodness to “God” can be too flip an answer, a response that threatens to take all fine hassle and lyric mess out of their reckoning with life. Exit the world of things and enter an airy stupor high above reality. The answer “God” seems to bring not life but a living death.

“The Wild Divine” in which Limon and her boyfriend are startled when a horse appears in their backyard, is earthly and divine in one breath:

and I thought, this was what it was
    to be blessed—
to know a love that was beyond an
    owning, beyond
the body and its needs, but went
    straight from wild
thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.

The first step toward living with God is living in reality. Noticing who, what and where we are. Here is our yard, and us in it; here, suddenly, is a horse, and a realization that we cannot own it: not horse, not love, not this sacred moment; not the eternally cross-examined God. It is all too wild. When Limon writes like this, she gets as near as possible to what is real. The craft can’t hope to accomplish much more.


Blurb of the Year

When poets endorse one another’s books with back cover blurbs, they seem to feel the need to write poems themselves. And oh, these poems! The best of 2015 has to be Dana Ward’s blurb about Titanic, by Cecilia Corrigan:

As if, in the speculative affect of the newest unfreedoms, romance shipped with the inter-dimensional inversion of jouissance, Jack & Rose are, in this book, a tone of their own wind-swept crucifi xion very secretly, & laughing back through Corrigan’s sand, a petting glacier in this zoo of looped and generously blasé disorders, wherein the deck chairs re-arrange themselves, because, what else are they supposed to do, turn into luminous sapphire diamonds?

Who couldn’t agree?

Correction: April 21, 2016
An earlier version of this article misquoted “An Agony: In a Garden,” by John Brown. The line should read “each gathering of the lost,” not “each gather of the lost.” An earlier version also stated misstated that Joseph Brown, S.J., is the author of The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems. Joseph Brown, S.J., writes under the name Luke. 
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