The Spectacle of Black Death: Remembering Our Killed or Rekindling Their Murders? Part 2

by Phillip B. Williams

Part Two of “The Spectacle of Black Death: Remembering Our Killed or Rekindling Their Murders?”

In her book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson writes, referring to President Obama’s administration deciding on May 2009 not to release photos depicting the torture (among other things) of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in American custody, “If you don’t want to inflame via images of the behavior, then you have to stop the behavior.” Below are two poems, one by Fatimah Asghar and another by Joshua Bennett, that interrogate what it means to be unable to stop the behavior and how, without using the dead as tokens, we can still inflame, can still inspire.

Fatimah Asghar’s speaker writes “last night I nightmared all my friends dead,” not specifying how they die in the line, rather using the title of the poem, “for mike brown,” to clue us into how these friends were killed. Mike Brown, here, is used as both dark muse and historical lens, a “brown god” who may only “exist” for the speaker. But also, this brown god can be read not as Mike Brown, but as a death god who acts as a mirror for the self-sacrificing speaker. “Take me home, where I can be a seed,” Fatimah writes, “Bismilla’ hirah maa/neraheeem.

Mike Brown becomes someone who both inspires and receives a prayer in a language that is personal to the speaker and that is the power of this poem: the speaker is wholly responsible and responsive to the dream trauma by placing the first person, singular I and plural us, in the center, not the “dead Black body.” The only way to heal the self and the dream-dead friends is to, solemnly, become the tree that will hold them after they have died. The sense of powerlessness here becomes a source of hope that we all can discover ways to purify and keep the ones we lose. The catch is that we cannot stop the killers from harming anyone we love, ourselves included: “what more gift can i offer of my body but soil.”

for mike brown
by Fatimah Asghar

last night i nightmared all my friends dead.
zippered in the roots of a tree trunk,

brown bodies revealed by morning light.
it is said the earth will swallow us home.

from our bodies sapling will grow, blades
of grass, small tulips that yawn to the open sky.

what are we to do then? in a world that doesn’t want
us? what more gift can i offer of my body but soil,

a humble field for our children to plant
whatever bulbs they hope to bloom?

it is said the earth will swallow us home.
i fold my knees to a brown god, even

if he exists only for me. Bismilla’ hirah maa
neraheeem. take me home, where i can be a seed.

take me home, ameen.

          (first appeared on Pen American)

Joshua Bennett utilizes the I a little differently in his poem “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Regicide Note,” where critiques of both public receptions of death and private interpretations act as the nexus between the living and the dead. That, lately, the speaker has “become accustomed to the way/ each newly dead face flashed like a crushed fire/-work across the screen,” speaks directly to how quickly the dead are collected in the media, made into entertainment, then made to dissipate for the next “flash,” the next death.

This poem considers how current modes of representation misname events and erase the faces of the living who are “stars” but not “dead things” that “shine too,” where death creates a type of celebrity cemetery and is the sole reason we know the names of so many. Bennett demands a revolution, for names to be spoken “like benediction.” He questions his own seeing, which he calls here thinking:

I think of the drones with pictures of first wives
in their wallets, their bad teeth, middle names,

401ks for when all of the blood dries. I think
of the badge & see children running,

children laughing, children cradled
in smoke

These mental images, which is the imagination’s failure to supersede what has been seen, are no less divisive than the images depicted on the screens like fireworks, but that they live in the active thinking of the speaker is how s/he claims the burden of this discord. In the end, the final critique comes in the form of a Q-and-A where the reader is told to, “Ask// who will claim this flesh?//Expect the quiet.//Expect the flood.”

I offer that we too expect to be unsure of our own responses, our own complicity in re-inscribing the same detrimental techniques when considering the “war,” to use Bennett’s word, against Black people.

Preface to a Twenty-Volume Regicide Note
by Joshua Bennett

          after Krista Franklin after Amiri Baraka

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
each newly dead face flashes like a crushed fire

-work across the screen. The red mass
of each name. How each name settles,

a fistful of ash at the back of the throat.
I don’t hope for ceasefire much, if you

must know. I don’t pray for rain.
On a good day, I honor the war

by calling it war. I sing
along with the hook. I sing

every nigga is a star
& don’t mean dead

things shine too. For shame,
my six-year-old nephew dreams

of a life indebted to invention,
his first prototype a blade

-thin suit to help the human body move
faster. For a muse, he claims nothing

more than the implicit sweetness of speed,
but I know his best heart, how he longs

for cousins to grow gray as an alloy alongside.
I think him a prophet. I think of the fire.

I think of the drones with pictures of first wives
in their wallets, their bad teeth, middle names,

401ks for when all of the blood dries. I think
of the badge & see children running,

children laughing, children cradled
in smoke all at the exact same time.

On a good day, I think die die die
and don’t know where to aim

the hex, who to hunt down or cut
a deal with, some armistice

without end, a certain commitment
to infinitude built right into the fine

print, in an unexpected turn.
I don’t want any more words

that heal. I want a language for being
born underground, gravestone quarried

the moment you arrive. I want explosions
or else a fresh cosmos. I want the fang

-white king splayed
against a throne of bones

& bars I see in all my new dreams
gone. Spare me any coalition

that does not require blood.
Give me time to think & a hope

-less cause. Give me lethal
equipment. Give me the names

of the slain. Say each name
like benediction. Ask

who will claim this flesh?
Expect the quiet.

Expect the flood.

          (first appeared on Guernica)

These are just two poems out of many that render their subjects as people and in doing so move toward the workings of trauma on a level less surface. By removing spectacle and moving toward introspection, artists move into territory that reveals our own vulnerability as well as interrogates the “why”: why are we attracted to the deaths of others and what does that actually say about us? We live in a nation where state sanctioned violence happens daily, where the state itself criminalizes Black and Brown people with endless mental acrobatics to justify the unjustifiable. What we need is work that does not lengthen the deaths of those whose lives were taken unfairly. What we need are artists who implicate themselves and their audience. What these poems do is see the blood that is on the hands of the living without first taking it from the dead.

Phillip B Williams 2Phillip B. Williams is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He is a recipient of the 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship and is the Coeditor In Chief of the online journal Vinyl. Phillip is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.

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