Douglas Kearney, The Black Automaton

Selected by the poet Catherine Wagner, The Black Automaton is deserving of its title as the winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series, for it speaks (no, it blasts and shakes) both to the current events of today and the WTF maelstroms of yesterday. Do you need an ark or a battleship or a parachute or a fiery torch to end up on the other side? It couldn’t hurt. Kearney’s pages couple eloquent craft with a tremor of an unforeseeable change, for better or worse. There are different kinds of anger, and there are kinds that appear on the page. Despite the propaganda encircling this emotion, I consider Douglas Kearney’s work to be both ”beautiful and above all, useful.”

Through self-designed typographical maneuvers by the author himself, the reader is charged with a curious uncertainty of new symbols that override stale ideologies and ridged dogmatisms of what poetry is supposed to be—or not. Douglas Kearney is a poet for the people (but the good ones: the sensitive, the giving, the human, the creative bombs that we are) and much more: he does what needs to be done, he shares what needs to be shared, but he doesn’t forget:

—Emmett Tilll (1941-1955)

Kearney’s The Black Automaton proves cryptic—it speaks a trickster’s hex, pushing us towards a sentiment that the tragedies of today might soon bleed into the mythologies of the past, if we’re not careful. It sketches cityscape interrogations and is drenched with tears and flood songs:

wade in the water
wade in the water, children
wade in the water
god’s gon’ trouble the water

These words are reminders of Hurricane Katrina and the now, more present disasters in Haiti. Living in a stifled economy, Haitians have been forced to rape their own forests, making charcoal from burnt timber as one of the few ways to feed their families. And the absence of timber has also caused massive flooding, leaving few trees to prevent massive runoff into crowded villages. When words harbor meaning, they have a way of applying to multiple scenarios over time.

Kearney concocts a riotous mythology of concern, bitterness, despair, and humor. He doesn’t shy away from the words of previous century poets (Paul Laurence Dunbar and T. S. Eliot) or from R&B/hip-hop/rap lyrical manipulation (Destiny’s Child, DMX, Eminem, Jay-Z, Kool Keith, Ludacris, Ice Cube, Mos Def, ad infinitum), folk song influences, dark dance and chant:

the four dancers move
like the blood on their feet is fire;
that man on the street,
a sweat-damp field.

The text uncomfortably surprises and juxtaposes, like an unexpected door knock at the witching hour, like a telegram with news that will never let your life be the same. This text rocks, stutters, but more importantly, it tries with all its might to reach you, to be heard and to encourage you, the reader, to be heard. It’s so hard to be heard. The waves of technology and faulty media can silence a significant voice. Kearney is summoning the strong (hence, the pictorial robot holds its weight in gold; sometimes, to be strong, mechanical distance is needed), and this poetry is at war with sullen complacency and unnecessary downfall:

…over here!―everybody
make some nooooise!
…over there!―I can’t―

just a little bit louder.

say:say:said say:

a little bit louder.

I    can’t       hear     you!

Someone somewhere write about something that’s important. Did Kearney hear us thinking to ourselves? Did he hear our pleas for some sense of fairness and truth? For who are we to be making pointless art when the shit is still hitting the fan, when our talking heads, drones and fools just won’t take ”no” for an answer?

In addition, The Black Automaton examines writerly compromise, such as writing about a mundane subject (”it’s 2000 and I am a writer/who gets paid/to write about fish hooks.”), office place pretense (”I will smile/at my coworkers/in their ironed shirts,/and hope they weren’t too despicable/after their dutiful hours/in suburban churches.”) or inherited rights and privileges, especially in the publishing realm. Kearney slyly hints that some creative scenes embody a ”little boys club” essence, where you should be grateful to receive a page in their literati limelight to graciously speak. Thank you, Thank you. Nooo, thank YOU! Kearney writes, ”i should like to publish in your little magazine.” It seems now that they should like to publish in his—whether metaphorical or very, very real.

Kearney meets a passive, sheepish silence with his deliberately confrontational examination of widespread ignorance, violence, racism and ill-suited (re)actions stemming from these. This confusing, hush-hush word (n.i.g.g.e.r.) clearly points to a bloody and disgraceful US history—but now: exploded and owned by the author of The Black Automaton. Not only does the poet own it, but you the American, you the victim, you the guilty and you the judge own it. Have your history and eat it, too. Ash, muddy water, apocalypse—nothing keeps us from it now.To see the review in context, click here.

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