Claudia Rankine and Michael Dowdy’s American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement / Luke Jarzyna

Saint Joseph Church in Inarajan, Guam. Public Domain. 

Claudia Rankine and Michael Dowdy. American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2018.

Released in 2018 in the middle of the Trump presidency, Poetics of Social Engagement brings together work by 14 poets in addition to short poetics statements and critical essays. Although collected by both the esteemed poet Claudia Rankine and the scholar Michael Dowdy, only Dowdy provides an essay, explaining in the volume’s introduction that  “social engagement” has more to do with how the editors situate the collection historically than with any specific content they share. Almost every page of this collection does discuss issues related to what we might call politics, but they are ultimately most surprising and worthwhile because of their oblique presentation. These poems arrive at their subject matter by sliding away from expectations, contorting mythologies, and playing with language. Through their “multivalent, multidirectional, radically interrelational, centerless, constantly shifting” facets, these poems articulate the common constructedness of all political positions or identity claims (Dowdy 11). In turn, the collection refuses a division between identarian poetics on the one hand and avant-garde poetics on the other. Instead, these poems articulate how we arrive at our identities through language, among and with others.

This political program both re-frames the work of familiar poets and introduces new ones. In a generous chapter surveying the career of Fred Moten, Brent Hayes Edwards writes that Moten articulates a dialectical shuffle which “enacts collectivity while at the same time insisting on the inevitable ephemerality of its convocations” (307). Moten’s “the Gramsci monument” employs a light touch to ask questions about poverty, critique, and material existence:

we love the projects. Let’s move
the projects. We project the projects. I’m just
projecting the project’s mine to give away. I’m not
mine when I dispossess me I’m just a projection (303)

Moten thinks on the page in small, wavelike gestures. He paints something that appears chatty and sweet while also announcing an elaboration of Marx’s elaborators. This is a deceptively economized poem as polysemous as the intimate sinews of community.

Elsewhere, poets bring theme and form into hastened contact to articulate a troubled surface.1 Consider Edwin Torres’ “Viva La Vida”:

       I used to be the leader of a nation of woe
I used to push a button and the missile would go
I used to blow the whistle on the fizzle below
I used to put the sugar in the cappuccino
         my people suffer more than you do
         my people suffer more than you do
         my people suffer more than you do
         my people suffer more than you do (403)

Torres restricts the poem to variations on sentence components to articulate how imperial histories manifest in the contested terrain of collective identity. The tight lyrical range and contrasting repeated phrases enable a slippage between a discrete “I” and a “we.” Such slippages demonstrate one way that poets have complicated the existence of  an authentic position for witness. Poets more often think with witness or toward witness rather than claim to inhabit witness. They consider things out of sight, of distant origin, or otherwise vulnerable within our information economies. Poems in this vein include Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s “The Change,” a sprawling, speculative trip through an agrarian past dedicated to “All the Sharecroppers Behind Me“; or the hopefulness of Craig Santos Perez’ unfolding aerial roots series, a serialized poem in the vein of someone like Nathaniel Mackey and Robert Duncan. Perez uses indigenous Chamorro language and English to carve out “vast currents, islands of voices” and “dynamic archipelagoes” out of text and blank space, promoting cultural revitalization and expressing decolonial thought (331).

Like how Perez sculpts poems into space to interrupt colonial thinking, other poets from this collection such as Brian Blancfhield use a range of tactics to demarcate the outer limits of the English language. Blanchfield’s poems are full of longing, rage, desire, and concern for civilization, offering complex forms worthy of a more prominent place in contemporary queer poetry. Rosa Alcalá explores entanglements related to identity, heritage languages, and compulsory English use in “Voice Activation”:

I’m done with emotion, I’m done, especially, with that certain
weakness called exiting one’s intention. What I mean is Spanish.
what a mess that is, fishing for good old American bread, and
ending up with a boatload of uncles and their boxes of salt cod, a
round of aunts poking for fat in your middle. (36–7)

The poet states she’s done with emotion and then describes how vivid personal experiences and memories reside in her language: salt cod, a round of aunts, fishing for sustenance. Noun figurations create static in  the flattened syntax. Over this static, ancestral remembrances and matrilineal traces become voiced. The stark sentence format and the speaker’s contradictory language attest to the preciousness of multi-lingual experiences.

Best American Experimental Writing · Voice Activation

At their best, the editorial labor behind The Poetics of Social Engagement provides evidence of poets’ evolving questions sustained over years of craft. The editors allow us to glimpse emerging, protean poetic counter-histories.  The section on Carmen Giménez Smith includes an early excerpt that anticipates the list-like, propulsive poems of her 2019 Be Recorder. The enumerated lines of “Parts of an Autobiography,” from 2011’s Can We Talk Here, uses the sentence, rather than the line, to articulate a feminist genealogy:

20. Her poetry was pungent when so little poetry is pungent.
Poetry of regimented epiphany smelled like fabric softener when
I was young.

21. I liked my poetry to smell like I had forgotten my deodorant.
You could smell me from across the table. I liked my work to
smell of work and fuck. (127)

These early poems prepare readers for the intellectual work of the excerpted Be Recorder section, and enables an even more nuanced understanding of those poems’ “anti-Heraclitan, fungible everytime” (McSweeney 146).

With its avant-garde advancement of questions related to identity, voice, colony, and nation, the poems in Poetics of Social Engagement demand to be studied and shared. Not just because the poets do not have enough recognition (many have good jobs, all have published more than three books, and they seem to be doing just fine), but because the book can expand understanding of what poetry can do. These poems make the reader remember how to be a beginner—to look at lines and swerve with them. To mouth our way towards finding the poetry’s questions. Contending with this collection will present challenges to even seasoned readers of poetry. In preparing this review I resorted to old tools of voice and recitation. Attention to rhythm and speech brought me there fastest. I read the poems out loud, often in public spaces, whispering quietly to myself when necessary. I encourage others to do the same with this book. Become your own funny little amplifier.

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  1. I initially encountered this formulation of dense textual surfaces in Anthony Reed’s Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing.