What's the experience, I've been wondering recently, of reading just one poem?
This morning, I pulled Reginald Harris's Autogeography off the shelf, mostly just looking around at different poems. I ended up reading "The Lost Boys: A Requiem," where he provides a list or catalog of sorts of black boys who left, were killed, imprisoned, were "lost to AIDS," or mysteriously disappeared. To open, Harris writes,
Ricky who moved away when I was threeI realized that one notable reading experience early on was my mind's activity of drawing connections. First, I linked to familiar points; Harris's list of "lost boys" had me recalling all the guys lost during my childhood and teenage years. Initially, Harris's list seemed long, but when I thought on it, my own list somewhat paralleled his. Young boys died in terrible accidents and also in killings, oh, and many went to prison.
Jamie killed in a hit and run, aged 10
Wayne--fell from a project window, age 14
Keith--fell off a bridge at 17 (or was he pushed?)
Tee-Tee, Bam-Bam, Walter, Little Man
Shot in a drive-by over money by
Black Charles, and Jeep
Shot by Tee's cousin the following week
Even as I thought about commonalities, I considered differences. Harris's catalog of men "lost to AIDS" gave me a reason to wonder why I struggled to immediately match that aspect of his list. Harris is a little older than me, and it's telling and useful that he has superior memory concerning what AIDS meant and means particularly for a distinct generation of black men (This point about what different memories and experiences various generations of black men have needs more elaboration, for sure).
I started thinking about the lists that would emerge among the young black men in the courses I teach when and if we read Harris's poem. Most likely, the catalog would include names of recent murders of black men: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, etc. Of course, Harris's poem would also prompt readers to compile personal catalogs.
I also thought of the list that Tony Medina offers prior to reading a poem about police brutality. He goes "In memory of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Eleanor Bumpurs, and on and on til the break of dawn." Unlike the younger guys in my class who'd be inclined to mention only fairly recent cases, Medina's includes Bell (killed in 2006), Diallo (killed in 1999), Baez (killed in 1994), and Bumpurs (killed in 1984). So here we are again with the notion of distinct memories of black men from different generations.
The nicknames scattered throughout Harris's poem also caught my attention. Tee-Tee, Bam-Bam, Little Man, Black Charles, Jeep, Lennie, Big K, and Richie resembled or overlapped with monikers for guys in my local communities. I also recalled all the notably named characters throughout African American literature, such as characters from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (Milkman, Pilate, Guitar, First Corinthians, Railroad Tommy, etc.).
Finally, thinking about the listing feature of Harris's poem took me to Amiri Baraka, who was one of our most prominent poetic catalogers. In his tribute to John Coltrane entitled "I Love Music," Baraka references several of the saxophonist's songs; in "Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test," Baraka name checks a wide range of injustices and troublemakers; and in "Digging Max," Baraka shouts out dozens of jazz musicians. Harris's catalog got me back to Baraka's catalogs.
So that's some of what it was like reading one poem this morning. I read Harris's "The Lost Boys" and began making connections.
• A Notebook on Reginald Harris