Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity
Fox Frazier-Foley & Erin Elizabeth Smith, Editors
Sundress Publications, 2016
Paperback, 229 pages
Reviewed by Michael T. Young
Trump’s administration, coasting on the forces of the many hate groups that feel validated by his election, will see an increase in the number of us who feel like exiles in our own nation. Of course, many of us have felt that way for a long time, and have been writing about it. That’s what the anthology Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity proves. It’s a collection that speaks to our culture and time, and will only become more relevant as the next few years unfold.
The collection is arranged alphabetically, by the author’s last name. What is striking about this is that as one progresses through the book, a natural cohesion takes shape. The polyphony of perspectives and styles are united as voices of witness. African-American, Muslim, woman, Native American, homosexual, war veteran, working class … all reveal the indifferences and hatreds that cripple the image of what America is, pull the veil away from what it pretends to be. There is a better version of who we are, one of inclusion and one of plurality; but it is only through facing these injustices and correcting them that this vision can become a reality.
Consider the poem by Kenzie Allen called “The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Dead Dead Dead Indian.” A descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, the poet writes,
All right, I’m tired of your nursery rhymes,
language as white language consumed
in its own syllables. What’s at stake besides being
This will not be the only time a poet in this anthology makes this connection, and it is a vital one. If, as Socrates put it, “the misuse of language induces evil in the soul,” then the subtlest manipulation of language can cause or perpetuate oppression, or alternatively, end it in a gesture of love. (Though clearly, it is not just language but action, too, that betrays oppression). Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poem “Essay on Waiting in Line” beautifully renders how white privilege manifests itself. Beautifully, I say, but also achingly, because the outrage this … and so many of these poems … presents should make you want to get up and change the world. They show the world what it is like to confront with knowledge, rather than revel in darkness. Silence is what allows social injustice and violence to continue.
As lines from Chen Chen’s Kafka’s “Axe & Michael’s Vest” put it:
Think of silence as a violence, when silence means being made a frozen sea, being evicted from meaningfully being. Think of speaking as a violence, when speaking is a house that dresses your life in the tidiest wallpaper.
A meaningful life requires having a vital voice of consequence, both individually and in the larger community. It is a voice that is both independent and interdependent, one that is heard. And that connection of heard voices is incredibly rich and vital. But when any voice is not acknowledged, when it’s simply ignored by those in power, then those meant to be served by government become its victims. Here is an example from Danielle Sellers’ poem “PTSD”:
Here, in rural Georgia, in the next field over, the Army tests explosives,
the walls of our rental stutter, windows rattle in their frames.
At nine, my stepdaughter’s hair is falling out; I find balls of blonde
wisps stuffed in the drawers.
In Arielle Greenberg’s “Pastoral: Divining Rod,” sexuality and ownership are brilliantly connected:
I’m talking about consent.
The difference between a spring divined on one’s own land with a willow switch
and an oil pipeline through seized, plowed earth from here to Alaska.
I’m talking about pleasure versus violence.
And I’m saying I sometimes like it rough.
These are the kinds of distinctions that matter, the kind that make the difference between justice and injustice, between service to the public interest and service to the interests of the few.
Sometimes, or perhaps more often, oppression is more insidious: imposed on us by ourselves, and by each other. Out of fear, we censor ourselves. Or heckle the one in the corner to be part of the crowd heckling, or to avoid becoming their object of derision. But no matter what the cause, these arbitrary divisions, defining “other” in any terms not of that other’s own making, become an oppressive force. Here are lines from Ayisha Knight-Shaw’s “Until”:
I was afraid to
express myself for
fear of rejection,
from those who say
I’m not Deaf enough because
my English is too good,
not Black enough because
my mother is white,
not Jewish enough
because my skin is black,
not Cherokee enough because
each generation gets divided in half.
Every one of those labels is weighted with a history that’s both public and private. And there are many, many more. Most of them are not wrong or right in themselves: it is their use that determines their quality. When we privately choose to learn about who we are by the history we were born into and grew up in, that’s one thing. When those same terms are wielded as weapons to corner someone by their culture, race, religion, or sex, or to cut people off from opportunities, needs, healthcare, jobs, housing, or education, it is oppression. That is why the right to self-definition is the core of all human rights, the right toward which all others tend. As Cameron Awkward-Rich says in his poem “Essay on the Awkward / Black / Object”:
The question is: once
made into an object-for-the-other, how
can the thing-for-itself survive?
That is the question at the heart of each one of these poems, for each one is a search for self-definition, the study of an identity that is used against it as a whip to enslave. The question Awkward-Rich’s poem asks is the same one we can ask of the incoming administration, with its implicit homogeneous vision that excludes so many. In that ominous light, I doubt there can be a more relevant anthology for our time.
Michael T. Young was born in Reading, PA, and moved to New York City in 1990. His fourth collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, was released by Poets Wear Prada, November 2014. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press), received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. His other two collections of poetry are Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press)and Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press). He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award, and was a runner-up for a William Stafford Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.