We read a lot of poetry around our house, reserving Monday nights after dinner as the time each member of the family shares one or two poems that struck them that week with the others around the table. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dark subject matter satisfies a wider audience and age range. The following three recent collections by Valzhyna Mort (2020), Cynthia Pelayo (2020), and J.B. Stevens (forthcoming in 2021) all resonated especially well. If you like poetry that pulls you out of your comfort zone in both image and topic, these three are guaranteed to arrest any listener’s attention.
Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG 2020) by Valzhyna Mort, an immigrant to the USA from Belarus who writes in Belarusian and English, evokes the history of propaganda over the past hundred years, a century of harvested humanity when not only blood and treasure but so much emotion and ritual were conscripted into the service of the state.
Non-Americans in the 1980s often told me how much alike they thought American and Soviet mentalities were. It was an easy, cheap comparison to make, but they had a real point about the messianic self-image of both regimes and the absolute certainty with which our respective citizens repeated our unexamined national myths. For instance, determine which of those two countries Mort is describing here:
“One by one, streets introduced themselves
with the names of national
murderers.”(Excerpt by “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica”)
Her poems focus on family; lies and hidden ciphers passed through nods between generations no longer able to speak openly. One of her most poignant poems describes a grandmother who cried both when the secret police disappeared her son, and again at the death of Stalin, the man who’d empowered those same thugs to kill her child. I am sure there were many such people.
Mort’s vivid imagery captures the wonder present even in times of horror, as when village women flock out to see a tank roll through the streets, a tank sent to terrorize them, but now only an object of glee to their numbed and narrowed lives:
“Once a tank drives through a street here.
Like an elephant,
it waves its trunk
from right to left.
An elephant in our village!
Instead of hiding, women run to look.”(Excerpt from “Little Songs”)
The book’s introduction states that Mort’s work asks, “How do we mourn after a century of propaganda?” Having the awareness to ask that question is as important as finding its answer.
And speaking of Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
Chicago-based poet Cynthia Pelayo’s volume “Through the Forest and All the Way Through: A collection of true crime poetry of missing and murdered women” turns this apocryphal quote by Uncle Joe on its head, demonstrating that the sheer magnitude of violence surrounding us becomes an additional tragedy in its own right.
Pelayo’s book contains 100 individual poems for 100 missing and murdered women. The poems are as unique as each victim, but in being forced to view them in the aggregate they weigh heavier and heavier, alerting us that it’s not just 100 murders, not just 100 irrevocably unanswered mysteries, that are stalking is.
Instead, the numbers demand we stop averting our gaze from a system of injustice, from a culture of misogyny, rape, and murder in which we swim as blissfully unaware of our medium as fish are of water.
A high percentage of the missing are minority women, and many especially are Native women, who face overwhelming odds against safety and justice in this country. Pelayo, who researched active police case files for her subjects, treats the class and racial disparities among victims as the indisputable fact it is, but never wavers in considering each individual as her own person.
They say she left on her own
She did not leave on her own
They say she will come back
Home, it’s been months and
Newspapers won’t print her
Name, television won’t show
You her face, the internet is
Burgeoning with irrelevance
And yes, detective, I have
Called all of her friends, and
She is not a runaway or any
Of those other names that
Are said to discredit the value
Of their lives…”(Excerpt from “A Woman of Color Has Gone Missing, in Three Parts”)
You won’t read this book in one sitting, it takes several. Pelayo’s individual portrayal of each murdered soul is too complete to allow moving on from page to page without reflection. The missing are arranged by state, and that’s how I ended up reading them, a state or two a day.
These poems are sad, and this volume in brutal, but it’s essential that more of us take this trip through the dark if we’re ever going to summon the collective will to reach the other side.
The third volume that’s been raising the hair on our necks around the dinner table isn’t out yet, but is available for preorder (ebook now, paperback coming). This is J.B. Stevens’s deeply personal chapbook of war poems, “All the Violent Memories.” These reflections on his time as a junior officer in the US Army infantry fighting in Iraq (and more recently in law enforcement) read like a journal set to rhythm. I was lucky enough to score an advance copy, and this is one I did read all the way through in one sitting, and then again in a second.
“The first patrol was short,
The first patrol was a letdown.
And it will forever feel unfinished.”(Excerpt from “I Left the Wire”)
I almost called Stevens an Iraq War veteran, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate since the post-9/11 war has never been declared, and the theatre of war for the past 20 years has been partially Iraq, partially Afghanistan, partially everywhere and nowhere, but mostly out of sight and out of mind among the Western public who’ve funded it and in whose name it’s still being fought. But people on many sides continue to die. Stevens’s book is not political, is neither a glorification of war nor a screed against it. It’s rather exactly what the title says: a poetic rendering of battlefield memories that followed him home and refuse to excuse themselves.
Among other topics, PTSD and veteran suicides figure large in Stevens’s post-war memories, reminding us that war scars every generation sent to wage it:
“Logan died in a single car accident,
On a clear day.
On an empty road.
On a dry road.
On an easy drive.
Thirty-one years old and sharp of mind,
He was going to the VA for a counseling appointment.
He still had a single car accident.
It is much easier for families to accept,
And insurance payouts to come,
When it is not a suicide,
Or so I’ve heard.”(Excerpt from “Logan”)
The speed and pacing of many of the poems about moments in combat read like frenetic action sequences from a Gus Van Sant movie, or, as likely, from the nightmares they’ve caused. They’re tight, spare, and lean in language, with Stevens recreating the heart-pumping moments of danger with rare skill. Many of the poems of near escapes, combat, and police raids are funny if only for the ridiculousness of the scenes they describe, and from the realization that these Boschian horrors make up the ins and outs of many people’s lives, or careers:
“The first warrant was a meth dealer who made masturbation videos of himself while smoking crystal and wearing a Scream movie mask.
It was a Thursday night.
How do I explain that to my wife when she asks how my day was?”(Excerpt from “War is Great”)
Stevens’s “All the Violent Memories” comes out March 26, 2021, and in my opinion, builds a perfect base along with Mort’s and Pelayo’s poems to examine the violence we do to ourselves and each other, violence that is, hopefully, not without end.
I highly recommend fans of dark and cutting poetry explore all three of these fine artists.