Paperback, 110 pages
In his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes defines blues and jazz as a “revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work, the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.” Donnelle McGee’s latest collection of poems, Naked, is very much a blues hymn, and not only because the collection borrows some core blues techniques, including repetition and refrain. The poems serve as a way to transcend pain swallowed in a smile and feature a central speaker who recounts tales of street life, tumultuous family issues, and the search for sexual identity.
In one of the collection’s opening poems, “Inner City Blues,” McGee successfully connects the confessional with a broader landscape, joining his family history with inner city life, including its violence. The poem begins, “this is what I saw / mexican boy fall against / a chain / link fence his jaw busted for five / dollars / and the crip say told you I was gonna take the fool’s money.” Those opening lines expose an exterior landscape, including the slang of the gang members, while also giving the reader a sense of the speaker’s childhood and what he witnessed. The poem then shifts to images of the interior, delving into personal memory: “and this too / mi pops pulling mi hermano / off the top / bunk / and another belt high / up on a little boy’s tender/back.” The poem goes even deeper a few lines later to memories of the speaker’s friend Michelle taking a bullet to the chest after she “couldn’t wait to live on the wild side.” Like a lyric poem, the conclusion of “Inner City Blues” reaches an epiphany, specifically the speaker’s admission that to navigate an inner city landscape, he had to do his best to keep his head held high, even though he wanted to holler.
Early in the book, the reader is not only introduced to the speaker’s childhood, but also one of the reoccurring characters, muh. In “Riding the RTD Bus Down Crenshaw,” muh’s demons are exposed, including the “scars from men on her body,” but also the love that her sons had for her, despite her severe flaws. In recalling a scene in which they buy doughnuts and then ride the bus, the speaker says of his mother:
muh stops to get a red jelly filled doughnuti get the glazedthen she shuffles us onto the rtd buswe savor the taste of the doughnutsbut really we are just happy to be with herand it doesn’t matterthat the fbi is lurkin’and it doesn’t matterthat we are nearly brokeand it doesn’t matterthat muh carries the beat downs/scars from men on her bodyand it doesn’t matterthat people look at her and wonderwho is this little white boy holding her handbefore she buckles their stares withYeah this is my sonthen looking at ed and me and telling uspeople are just so damn ignorant sometimes
The poem does much to illustrate not only the difficulties of the speaker’s upbringing, but also how to find pleasure in the small moments, including the taste of the doughnuts and time with muh. The poem also incorporates some aspects of the blues, at least in the use of repetition, specifically the line “it doesn’t matter,” which serves as a way to transcend the pain of muh’s scars and the speaker’s mixed racial identity, in particular the stares it causes on the bus.
There are several other unflinching memories presented in the book, including more tales of inner city violence, drug addiction, and prostitution. Ultimately, though, writing and poetry serve as a way for the speaker to overcome the past, while also leaving a document of everything that he survived. In one of the book’s final poems, “Dinosaurs,” the speaker describes his son digging for dinosaur bones in the backyard, and the image evolves into an extended metaphor for the speaker to reflect on his past, specifically the hope that his son will one day learn, “how a body has to return to the dark, wet earth,” and how one day he will “hold this book in his hands and discover how organisms/mutate/How his daddy excavated himself from the muck.”
McGee’s Naked is big in scope and covers a broad landscape that includes the inner city streets, seedy hotel rooms with prostitutes, bedrooms where hip-hop pumps through stereos, and a backyard where a young boy digs for fossils. The book drops a number of references and showcases McGee’s many influences, including Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, and several others. At the heart of the book, however, is a blues song about muh’s scars, friends and family members lost to violence, and the struggles of sexual and racial identity, and like a blues song, the poems are a revolt against hardship and weariness, a way to navigate through the muck of past memories and ultimately transcend the pain.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have recently been published or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, Paterson Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Chiron Review, and many other publications. He is the author of Front Man and All That Remains, and he teaches at Lackawanna College.