In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Shelley declares that poets should be “the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke takes a more confessional stance, stating that to write well, poets must “go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise. Even in the later part of the 20th Century, the debate over the role of social and political issues in poetry and the place of the poet in modern society was ongoing and addressed in interviews and writings by Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, and others. However, in contemporary narrative American poetry, a middle ground can be found between Shelley and Rilke’s positions, a mode which combines the confessional with the political, the exterior with the interior, thus creating a unique intersection. In the works of Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, that intersection allows for an address of race and class issues, while the narrative poems of Sharon Olds and Gary Soto blend personal history with broader issues of gender and identity.
When relatives came out of town,we would drive down to Blackbottom,drive slowly down the congested main streets–Beubian and Hastings—trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.
We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we wouldreturn safely to our jobs, the post office and classroom.We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat,and our triumphs to be belted out in a raucous song.We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,where each brick house delineated a fence of silence;we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation.
And if you’re thinking my knuckles knockeda few times against his jaw or my fingers knottedat his throat, you’re wrong because I pretendedI didn’t hear him, and when he didn’t ask it againwe slipped into our middle school uniformssince it was November, the beginning of basketball season.
My parents would have had me believethere was no such thing as racethere in the wild backyard, our knees blackwith store-bought grass and dirt,black as the soil of pastures or of orchardsgrown above graves. We clawed freethe stones and filled their beds with soiland covered the soil with sodas if we owned the earth.
As the guests arrive at my son’s partythey gather in the living room—short men, men in first gradewith smooth jaws and chins.Hands in pockets, they stand aroundjostling, jockeying for place, small fightsbreaking out and claiming.
When I take our girl to the swimming partyI set her down among the boys. They tower andbristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,her math scores unfolding in the air around her.They will strip to their suits, her body hard andindivisible as a prime number,they’ll plunge in the deep end, she’ll subtracther height from ten feet, divide it intohundreds of gallons of water, the numbersbouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorinein the bright blue pool.
When they climb out,her ponytail will hang its pencil leaddown her back, her narrow silk suitwith hamburgers and French fries printed on itwill glisten in the brilliant air, and they willsee her sweet face, solemn andsealed, a factor of one, and she willsee their eyes, two each,their legs, two each, and the curves of their sexes,one each, and in her head she’ll be doing herwild multiplying, as the dropssparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body.
In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,Waving players in and stomping my feet,Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank waterAnd bit my arm through the late innings.When Hector lined up balls into deep
Center, in my mind I rounded the basesWith him, my face flared, my hair liftingBeautifully, because we were coming homeTo the arms of brown people.