|The Small Blades Hurt, by Erica Dawson. (Measure Press, 2013)|
How many contemporary poets can rhyme “Al Green” with “Balanchine,” and first “Alamo” with “Jericho” and then the two with “Pinocchio,” without sounding silly or precious? At least one: Erica Dawson, whose “Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick” and “La Revue Negre” do precisely those things, respectively. It’s impossible not to focus on the formal sound elements in Dawson’s The Small Blades Hurt. Fully three-fourths of the poems in this second collection use line-ending rhymes to control what the reader hears on a first read, and what one discovers during the rewarding process of re-reading these lush, densely-packed lyrics. Those second and third reads reveal a seriousness of purpose befitting a book that name-checks cultural icons from Langston Hughes (in “I, too, sing America”) to Malcolm X (as filtered through a Spike Lee biopic in “Jungle Fever Epithalamium”), and that grapples with historical turning points both personal (a grandfather’s suicide in “Oklahoma”) and national (John Brown’s raid in “Langston Hughes’ Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry”). Dawson presents all of this in poems that might best be read as a series of cannily-staged balancing acts, toeing the lines between present and past, living and dying, black and white (the poems “Little Black Boy Heads” and “If My Baby Girl is White” sit back-to-back; Part III of the book begins with the poem “In Black and White”), pop culture and “high” culture, and laughter and tears.
The interplay of rhyme and formal rhythm is front and center throughout The Small Blades Hurt. Of course Dawson uses the 3-stress/4-stress/4-stress/3-stress four-line stanza structure (rhyming ABBA, CDDC, etc.) that mimics Delta blues music as translated into written text by, for example, Langston Hughes, in a poem spoken by Hughes’s grandmother. What Dawson does with those sounds in a given stanza (or should I say “verse”?) is, as is the case with the best blues music, less “predictable” than is the overall form itself. The first lines spoken by “Langston Hughes’ Grandma…” find her commenting on the “permanence” not of “the state” of West Virginia (where her first husband died fighting with John Brown) but on “the sound” of the name of that state: the speaker notes that those who say Virgin-yuh and those who say Virgin-ee are separated not just by pronunciation, but by geography. The “tall Oberlin grave” marker of the eponymous Lewis Leary sits in Ohio, in a town famous for abolitionists, where the former pronunciation would be used; the echo of “Virginny” is found, fittingly, in a reference to “Lee.”
Dawson does not, however, provide a facile paean to activism and sacrifice, in which abolitionism is reflexively admired without reference to the human costs of risking life for a moral principle. The speaker, Mary Patterson Leary (later Langston), “damn[s] both [her] abolitionist/ [h]usbands” for their roles in a world in which fighting for a cause can supersede marriage and family; she says that though she has “no right/ to do so,” she “wish[es] them ill” as she tries to scrape the snow from that Ohio monument to her dead-in-his-youth first husband. There is affection in the speaker’s ruminations, to be sure, as she puns endlessly on “damn”ing and “dam”ing waters both free-flowing and frozen, and both literal and figurative, but there is also pain.
Dawson uses precisely that same blues-based stanza-and-rhyme structure in the giddily show-stopping poem that ends Part I of the book (and that appeared in Best American Poems a few years ago). “Back Matter” deserves the rhythms of the blues not just because its speaker “sees blue,” but because the speaker asks about her own being reduced to the term “jigaboo,” a slur that is anything but a laughing matter—and yet the poem puns not only on more than a dozen definitions of “back,” but on every stereotypical depiction of Black Americans and Black speech Dawson can fit into fourteen taut stanzas. She buries the idea of being “well-hung” in the lines “Back: as in ‘go,’ sound on the tongue/ Articulate, well-spoken, hung/ In the aft of the mouth,” providing the extra menace appropriate to “hung” in a collection that refers both to lynchings and to the hanging of one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, and slipping in that most back-handed of all compliments paid by whites to African-Americans: pseudo-praise for being “well-spoken.” The poem’s most direct reference to “back” as derriere (in the “baby got back” pop-culture mode to which the poem hints at least once in each of its four parts) comes in the withering final stanza, addressed directly to anyone who might think of the speaker as “the once-green jigaboo/ Who, now, sees red”: “Can you see me now? I butt/ In beats and flows and every nome/ And phoneme while I’m going home/ To lay back in the cut.” It’s tempting to say that if this poem’s speaker is indeed still invisible, in the Ralph Ellison sense of the word, Dawson has guaranteed that she is not inaudible.
The sounds whereby each of the speakers in The Small Blades Hurt demands our attention are shepherded into formal structures throughout, with the 12-bar-blues pattern shared by the two poems discussed above actually an exception to the more pervasive uses of iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter. On the one hand, the first three poems in the book show the breathtaking range of Dawson’s gaze as an observer of the physical world, and this might allow a reader to miss her control of the rhythmic aspects of the pieces. “Layover” manages to invoke Larry McMurtry, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Bob Dylan in the same stanza, but is most interested in evoking a steamy night in a Texas honky-tonk and a nearby hotel, in which the speaker is like “Cybil Shepherd in the lights/ For the first time, marking the stage.” “Rock me, Mama” keeps us on the road across the South, listening to Old Crow Medicine Show on the way out of Tennessee, the speaker having to stop to “wrestle charring leaves/ From the fog lights.” And the speaker of “Some Kind of –philia” is described mostly through what might be called personification-in-reverse, as she tells us that she is both “a suckerfish…/In love with [her] own mouth and one/ Boat’s balsa wood watertight hull” and a “riverboat’s big wheel/ Cutting through every wake’s along.” A reader, caught up in Dawson’s remarkable sensory imagination as displayed in the opening pages of the book, could be forgiven for failing to appreciate how each of those three poems uses precisely the same varied-iambic-tetrameter line as the others.
Never one to miss the opportunity for word-play and sound-play, Dawson coyly and self-deprecatingly follows those collection-opening poems with “A Poem that’s Not a Song or Set in the South,” implicitly taking to task both her own manuscript-organizational structure and any reader or reviewer who might (ahem) want to focus too much on how some of the poems in this book mimic the sounds of the blues. Not surprisingly, Dawson then proceeds to have that selfsame poem consist entirely of rhymed triplets in carefully measured iambic pentameter, the collected whole pitched as an answer to the question (asked about and of Marylanders), “Do we even have a song?”—a question asked because the speaker and her statespeople speak in “Notes [that] hang/ Near a middle C.” A poem that’s not a song? Sure. Dawson knows that there isn’t a poem here that isn’t to some degree self-consciously a song; even the hilariously biting “Mojo like a Mofo,” a tribute of sorts to ladies in their finery at Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes, takes its epigraph from a Broadway musical.
And so, since so much here is so clearly about song, I want to return to the first poem referenced in this review, the poem in the collection that is perhaps most directly and constantly about music per se, to make the case that what Dawson is up to in The Small Blades Hurt, though often very funny, can never be taken lightly, however comical the situation described. In “Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick,” the speaker (of the poem, not the title) is walking through a typical semi-upscale American mall, past The Limited and Charlotte Russe (the latter patronized by “every gothed-out kid// Smelling of kush”), utterly entranced (literally: “stricken/…up”) by the sound of Al Green’s voice singing “Tired of Being Alone.” The physical speakers from which Green’s song emanates are placed surreptitiously (and deliciously) in the Devil’s-Walkingstick. I don’t know that I’m capable of unpacking all of the puns here, or that I even want to diminish the poem by doing so. Suffice it to say that Gospel-singer-turned-soul-crooner Al Green (seen by the “mama”s of the “Gothed-out” white kids as “that devil”), legendary purveyor of songs of seduction, is, we are told six times, “in the bush.” A bush named for a phallic object used to keep the devil…well…erect, to be exact. The speaker of the poem is so taken with this idea that she enjoins the reader, “Shush,” because she wants to “dance a Balanchine,” to “let him soothe/ [her] like an invalid// Who’s got her legs back to life.” Green’s power is so pervasive that “the mannequin/…suddenly craves dick” and “the mall is all/ Possessed.”
This is all intoxicating, a blur of the sacred and the profane, a delirium of perfectly rhymed couplets. But. The welcoming of “a tall,/ Black man who will enchant// The naysayers all shaking/ Their heads” into the most intimate part of white American culture—not the bush so much as the mall—is not a story of simple cultural cohesion. It is a story of attempts to hide the facts of history and of ongoing animus while still enjoying the artifacts of the culture being denied—a story of appropriation. It’s not for nothing that the poem opens with the speaker giving voice to the oldest of stereotypes: “I need a piece of chicken.” The last stanza of the poem on the previous page has referred to Black-eyed Susans as “Black-faced” and “almost grin[ning],” and no reader with any knowledge of American minstrelsy or the history of Black-music-as-white-diversion can navigate the move into “Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick” without unease. Just look at what Al Green’s remarkable voice has been reduced to: “Al Green is in/…the fizz// Of fountain drinks, the bin/ Of half-off thongs.” The “naysayers” to whom Green’s voice is the antidote are found saying, specifically, “they’re always// Dancing,” and we know who “they” are. In the end, the speaker fairly whispers, “This beat is like blackmail.” How so? “Al Green is in the bush/ And there’s a sidewalk sale.” The commodification of culture; the cheapening of a sacred gift. The poem is not overly serious, and is not actually self-serious at all. It’s subtle and fun and quick-paced and in love with its own sounds. But it cuts all the same, in the smallest of ways, if one listens carefully. And, after all, as Erica Dawson reminds us time and again, the small blades hurt.