C Derick Varn reviews the first collection by up and coming Black American poet Rickey Laurentiis.
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy With Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) 104pp.
Laurentiis, the winner of 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is a poet who digs into the relationship between art, history, and oppression. Setting the tone immediately, in “Conditions for a Southern Gothic,” he ends with “Who among us was made to scratch myth? Speak. / If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of the imagination.” Immediately, we are made to wrestle with the grotesque of the human body, specifically the black body, as it has been used in art and discarded by American and world history. Laurentiis shows the reader Ugandan and Nigerian men who were killed for their sexuality, sometimes directly pairing them with verse about lynched black boys and men in the American South or the life of Emmett Till. While Laurentiis’s poetry is not without beauty, he does not let beautiful language soften the blow or hide the violence of the subjects he interrogates.
Laurentiis, a Louisiana native, does not shy away from the violence particular to his region and the often polite silences that can be found around this violence. In a poem about the destruction of New Orleans, “No Ararat”, we read: “I didn’t dream this. There was a storm. Then there wasn’t. The day after came like a hammer through glass. The sky shook off his clothes and it was brilliant. I tell you it was necessary: Violence had to preface such beauty.” Laurentiis knows the South, maybe even loves it, but he knows what it is and is acutely aware of the violence that is prefaced by it and which it gives rise to. As he says in the last poem of the book, “Boy with Thorn”: “Violence thou shalt want. Violence/ thou shalt steal and store inside.”
Laurentiis makes queer and black bodies the principle focus in his southern Gothic verse. Yet this is not the only dialogue with history in which Laurentiis is engaging: many of the poems are ekphrastic. In fact, it is turning away from the violence that Laurentiis’s calls most of the canonical art to task for in these ekprhastic poems. Laurentiis reflects on rape as well as seemingly forced heterosexuality in his reflection on Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Iris” in a poem of the same name. In “Vanitas with Negro Boy,” a poem referencing David Bailly’s painting of that name, Laurentiis addresses his distrust of art as such, embodied in the statement: “Why trust the Old Masters? Old / Masters, never trust me.”
Laurentiis, however, is as introspective as didactic in his poetry. In the long form central poem of the book, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” Laurentiis imagines that “. . . I dream what haunts each night: / These bodies, even lynched, are still thinking,” and even the violence of oppression and death does not undo the weight of trying to figure out it. In this poem, phrases around wind and darkness repeat in a way that never let you figure that this is aftermath of a lynching.
The last poem of the book, “Boy with Thorn” seems to both combine the elements of and then comment upon the rest of the book. This finale is another ekphrastic poem with the same sectional structure as “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” seeming to combine the techniques and topics used throughout the collection into a poem that serves as an apologia for the methods of the entire book. This poem starts with ancient sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from his foot, but soon incorporates the author as a third person character in the poems. By doing this, Laurentiis makes the body of himself subject to his thoughts and also objectifies himself and his own body as both subject of violence and subject of art – two not unconnected things. For me, this makes both the author and reader more vulnerable to the subject matter at hand.
This is a powerful collection and Laurentiis is a poet willing to deploy truths about both oppression and human—specifically black and/or queer–bodies that art often both reviles in and hides. This is a brave collection.
C Derick Varn is a teacher, poet, and theorist living in Cairo. He is a reader for Zero Books and the editor of the online literary magazine, Former People. His poetry has appeared in Axe Factory, Writing Disorder, Union Station, and Unlikely Stories.