In Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), a television producer tries to sabotage his own career by developing a minstrel variety show for his network, assuming he will be fired when the show bombs. To his horror, the show is a wild success. All art can slip away from intention. But Bamboozled shows how this is especially true for art that engages negative racial stereotypes in America. Even when a work of art is overtly critiquing a stereotype, the very critique can be at once overdetermined and, paradoxically, overwhelmed by the stereotype itself.
Douglas Kearney’s poetry works that difficult line. His most recent collection, Buck Studies, explores the varied representations of black men in American culture, from antiquated but ever-present representations of black minstrel figures to the valorization of Civil Rights leaders to the consumption and condemnation of hip-hop artists. The danger of that work is that it winds up simply reproducing and reifying the stereotypes—violence, hypersexuality, ignorance, or unreason. As Kearney remarked at a reading at San Francisco State University in September 2017, “I’m not even a gangster rapper, so I don’t even get paid for that.”
But the dynamics of reproduction and reception of stereotypes in Kearney’s poetry are not, after all, even as simple as “reification.” No one is coming to one of his readings or picking up one of his books because they believe that black men are inherently more violent, erotic, or ignorant. There is, instead, a much more complicated affective response, one that has a long American history—an awkward, if mildly titillating, discomfort at the fact of these presentations, combined with morose sympathy and melancholy over the persistence of the stereotypes. Maybe, too, a slight self-congratulation that by engaging with this art you have somehow, if only in a small way, conquered the stereotypes. At least, this is my own experience. This description might sound like a negative critique, but it is not meant to be. I am not convinced that this feeling is necessarily a bad thing (though I am not convinced it is a good thing either).
What I do know is that Kearney has thought about all this, and his poems and performances proceed from that knowledge and survey this affective landscape in all of its ambiguous and contradictory contours. See, for example, “Pornegrophy,” a visual poem that includes a billet for a show featuring “The Cumistad,” “Nut Turner,” “Toussaint Bend’overture,” “Harriet Buttman,” and “Martin Luther King-Size Jr.” The names of celebrated African American historical figures are sophomorically parodied as porn monikers, evoking historical (and ongoing) representations of black women as licentious and sexually available, and black men as sexually predatory. If we find it funny, it is off-putting. Our own laughter forces us to confront the fact that celebration of black history perhaps cannot, or should not, be separated from the various forms of (ongoing) historical violence of racial slavery. And this is funny?
If the crude humor of this poem suggests that Buck Studies is not an intellectually sophisticated or ambitious work, that is wrong. What is remarkable about Kearney’s poetry, before anything else, is how many different things it does well. In fact, it is difficult to know what to say about the book because there are so many potential inroads, so many different intellectual and affective preoccupations, and so many poetic and artistic forms at play. The basic aesthetic element, which is explored on various levels, is the collage. But Kearney keeps finding new ways to collage on the level of the sonic, semantic, visual, orthographic, linguistic, grammatical, and political.
The first section, “Stagger Put Work In,” is a brief epic reimagining of a folk story from the late nineteenth century about the murder of Billy Lyons by an African American pimp named “Stagger” Lee Shelton. It is as if the voice-over narration for a blaxploitation film had been remixed by Kanye West. Shot through with over-performed and over-determined violent and sexualized masculinity, the poems still find ways to surprise, like presenting the reader with bleak neo-Romantic pastoralism: “summer pass blameless and dumb-assed to autumn, lousy with apples, / red as streetlamps to Hell / and all them screen doors riddled in little men. / I hold my shit like a wound.”
The third section, “The Black Woman’s Tear Monger,” turns its attention to black femininity and mourning. The section is formally the most varied, and includes poems that may be reflections on Kearney’s own family life, including the beautiful poem “Lives,” in which a child’s repeated proclamation, “I died,” in the context of a video game, frames a meditation on the ultimate anxiety of parenthood.
runs, but then. said I died, touching the falling one.
I know you’re gonna make it, said I. too long
since cutting, his shadow fade too thick. o! said I died,
gaming finger at the falling one.
said I, song, maybe you should—.
o! said I died! the falling one. hon, you can’t just keep on—
We see Kearney, who brings an almost manic intensity to his performances (on and off the page) in a moment of repressed, tender, quiet fear, brought on by the intensity of love for a child.
Each section of the book—there are five total—yielded surprise and rereading. Much like the collages of Robert Rauschenberg (who is the inspiration for the fifth section), the playful, honest energy of Kearney’s work makes the inevitable question “Are these even poems?” seem small and fastidious. But its variety also makes the book difficult to synthesize, or to do much more than describe. Maybe this is a disservice. Whatever the case, Kearney’s work invites a much more extensive critical analysis. I hope it happens.
About the Reviewer
Sean Pears has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. His writing and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, NOMAN’s Journal, and other places. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetics at SUNY Buffalo.