Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry
By John Murillo
Four Way Books: 88 pages
I’ve been on a poetry kick recently. Usually, I’m a novel guy, wanting to get immersed in the expansive world-making that the genre offers. It’s an escape. But it’s a hectic time of the year, what with the winter holidays, travel plans, mentally preparing for obligatory family gatherings, not to mention my job responsibilities. Poetry offers some quick respite, relief from the expectations of life. So, to carve out some reflective space, I grabbed John Murillo’s latest book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry.
I loved Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie, which, surprisingly, came out all the way back in 2010. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but that’s because Murillo’s poetry remains just as relevant now as a decade ago. Murillo’s power is in his urgent voice, the way it doesn’t let up or let us forget. In the forward to that collection, poet Martín Espada hits the nail on the head: “JOHN MURILLO IS DANGEROUS. He is young and urban. He is African-American and Chicano. And he is male. He fits the profile of dangerousness on multiple levels.”
The “danger” imposed on Black and brown men is a perpetual narrative; inhabiting these multiple identities, Murillo has tackled the struggles of being recognized as both Black and Mexican, such as in his excellent poem “How to Split a Cold One.” The wordplay of the title beautifully depicts a scene on Olvera Street in L.A. where the narrator and his Uncle Beto discuss the ways they both minimized their Chicano roots. Before, “Uncle Beto refused/ To speak Spanish, blasted Pat Benetar/ From Camaro speakers, and wore blond hairs” and the narrator sported “High top fades, flip up shades/ And leather Back to Africa medallions,” even changing his name to “Juanito X” and where he had “stopped eating chorizo.”
Those who attempt to enforce racial and ethnic authenticity through a codified, structured schema try to split those who have multiple identities, as they attempt to make them pick and choose a side. Splitting into these categories is like splitting a frosty beer, with one’s thirst left eternally unsatisfied.
This theme of the split seen in Up Jump the Boogie carries over into Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. Murillo grapples with the notion of being torn—torn between two worlds, two options, seemingly only two choices that works to maintain white supremacy and the marginalization of Black people. “On Confessionalism,” which serves as a sort of preface for the rest of the volume, tells the story of a man whose relationship with a woman has dissolved. Yet, he blames this on another young man, approaching him with a gun. The narrator begins the poem with a sense of dissociation from himself:
Not sleepwalking, but waking still,
with my hand on the gun, and the gun
in a mouth, and the mouth
on the face of a man on his knees
In a Section 8 apartment lot, the narrator is conflicted, his awareness of impending violence leading him to distance himself from his actions: instead, the weight of machismo standing over him, a “slow/ mounting bassline and the bark/ of a dead rapper nudging” him on. Yet, the gun jams, the perceived necessity of revenge is thwarted, to which the narrator runs back to his car, where the narrator reflects: “Cold enough day to make a young man/ weep, afternoon when everything / or nothing, changed forever.”
This moment changes the man forever; it offers an opportunity to contemplate how this seeming failure allows him to be vulnerable, how a murder on his conscious in the name of protecting his masculinity would have altered his life. But he is also saddened, the weeping prompted from considering how this event will be used to further the narrative of Black men as perpetuators of violence, reinforcing the criminalization of Black men.
Split as fracture pops up again in “Upon Reading that Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds.” This time, Murillo uses the image of a sparrow attacking the narrator to alert him to another bird whose foot is stuck in the door of a Corolla. Yet, despite the bird’s desperate attempts, “something between squawk and chirp,/ something between song and prayer,” the narrator admits “like any good god, I disappeared.” His memory jarred by these birds, the narrator thinks back to other times he stopped from intervening to help others: seeing two men fighting in the street, he “didn’t break/ stride, not even one bit” as he heard one of them begging for help. Thinking back to his household, his father abusing his mother, he said and did nothing, again returning to the metaphor of himself as a god that disappeared. Instead, he never looked back. The bird calls here, the cries of those in need in his community to which he turned his back. The question is posed, “did you know that to digress means to stray from the flock?”
But some things are meant to be broken apart, fractured, and severed, Murillo reminds us. In the visceral “On Magical Realism,” a mother watches as a frame with her son’s photo shatters in time with the narrator’s father landing “the first perfect hook” along the son’s jawline in response to calling a Black man the n-word: “my father—asks What’s my name, /What’s my name, What’s / my motherfucking name?“ The poem concludes with the frame rendered dust, the mother buckling to her knees, the man’s beating reverberating backwards to the source of generational racism passed down, trying to sever the roots of where anti-Blackness originates.
The centerpiece of the Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is a 15-sonnet cycle, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn.” Written in response to the killing of two NYPD officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the poems address the conflict within the narrator about the Black community’s struggle with police brutality and violence. Throughout the pieces, Murillo’s narrator wants peace but also justice. However, how can justice ever be carried out when Black people continue to be victimized by law enforcement and the criminal justice system?
The question goes further: is violence the way to speak to a power that only speaks the language of violence? While this works at the level of the individual in “On Magical Realism,” the notion takes on a different valence when confronting systemic racism. Murillo writes:
some want us dead. Again this week, they killed
another child who looked like me. A child
we’ll march about, who’ll grace our placards, say,
then be forgotten like a trampled pamphlet. What
I want, I’m not supposed to. Payback.
The split lies between peaceful protest and violent action for retribution. Murillo pontificates on the desire for revenge, for the satiation of an eye for an eye, even if that will only exacerbate the problem, enabling the cycle of violence, one where Black people will continue to be seen as the threat that requires more policing, more incarceration, one that will further spur the racist narrative that Black folks are all thugs and criminals.
The poems vacillate between the desire for vengeance through fire and the realization of how this would play into white supremacy’s hands. In the final sonnet, the narrator is introspective: “You used to think a rifle and a prayer,/ a pipe bomb hurled through a shopkeeper’s glass,/ enough, at last, to set the world right.” Yet, after seeing another instance of police violence against Black folks, the narrator again goes to “Find some bottles, fill with gas” and is ready to “strike your one good match, then watch it bloom.”
In a call back to the “dead rapper” urging the narrator to shoot in the book’s opening poem, Murillo ends his second collection with a riff on Notorious B.I.G.’s classic track “Juicy.” “Variation on a Theme by The Notorious B.I.G.” is Murillo’s own “American Dream” poem, paying homage to his influences that sparked his poetic journey—Martín Espada, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Willie Perdomo, the Nuyorican Poets Café. Murillo relays his rise in the poetry world, from “born sinner to fancy award winner,” from “sardines for dinner straight to champagne toasts.” But, again, the split comes: as a Black poet, his race situates him in a different space than many other esteemed contemporary American poets. Murillo’s verse, his oeuvre, this collection, and its focus on Blackness can easily be his downfall. The institution of poetry, too, still harbors within its own racist assumptions, its own hesitancies to address and redress anti-Blackness: “Changed my ways now it’s all in reach—/ till I pen my nigger pain and they snatch my seat.”
Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry serves as an impetus for all of us to examine our own place in the perpetuating of anti-Blackness from the individual to the societal level. What is unique in Murillo’s collection is that he is also self-reflective, seeing how all of us have played a part in the upholding of white supremacy. The title, with its substituting of Ks for Cs, immediately calls our attention to the place of racism in all aspects of U.S. culture. And as we gaze at the title, we seek out the third K to confirm Murillo’s purpose. Yet, he tells us that where we should be really looking is not in the poetry, but at the racism we hold, we have internalized, and that we need to confront within ourselves.
Murillo’s poetry does what all great poetry should: it cuts into our lives, infiltrates all the spaces of our thinking. While it can be easy to fit a poem into a 10-minute window, Murillo shows us poetry isn’t just there to offer an escape. It foregrounds the necessity of thinking through who we are, the roles we play, even if we can only steal away brief intervals of time for such contemplation. Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry brought me back to this process of incremental understanding of the function of poetry—of the poetry of myself.
Featured image: Cover art of ‘Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry’ by John Murillo (Courtesy of Four Way Books)