Douglas Kearney is not a poet to be read causally. His most recent collection of poetry titled the Black Automaton is a wildebeest, a wild beast, horned, hooved, and heavy. Automaton is defined as a “moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being,” in other words a robot. Black Automaton, I believe, is meant not to describe African-Americans as robots, but the ideal of the “Black” experience as a robotic or same reality experienced from the south to the “city.” “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby,” “The Black Automaton in Tag” and the FloodSong poems speak to the robotic reality.
Reading “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby” a second time, I noticed the words Emmett Till at the bottom of the page and that made the poem come together, like an open wound being stitched up. At the age of fourteen in 1955, at the height of violence in the early days of the struggle for civil rights, Emmett Till was murdered, after falsely being reported flirting with a white woman. The shocking photographs of his open-casket funeral were published in Jet Magazine and the story was later picked up by Look Magazine and raised the question of “approved murder due to race.” With that understanding, the poem takes on an emotional urgency to the last word to reach an unthinkable and known ending.
The alliterations work to move the poem:
cattatil casts tattles Till tale,
lowing low along the hollow
crickets chirrup and ribbits lick-up
what’s chucked the ‘hatchie swallow
The cattails, plants that grow in abundance along the Mississippi, become eyewitnesses to Till’s death and they tattle or talk amongst each other, spreading what they know along the river bank, until the crickets chirp and frogs ribbit, creating this melancholy song.
The visual-ness of “The Black Automaton in Tag,” makes it capable of being read different ways and the play on the “n” is genius. The “n” word debate, is it a word of empowerment or fodder for fools, has polarized the African American community – either “Black” people love it or hate it. The “Black Automaton in Tag” takes a historical context and is an argument for blacks who love “it”:
it’s best not to err and ER the A
if one must air the n _ _ _ _ _.
The ER is a looming heir
of that gloomy era where
n _ _ _ _ _s were in the air
in the best knots
The poem ends with reminding the reader that “it” is still the same word that it originally meant no matter how it is pronounced, spelled, or understood as.
The Floodsong poems seem to be connected via a Southern tributary, dealing with public worship, calling out in the Black church, religious song, and life along a river and how the river shapes living, seen through the eyes of animals: “Flood Song 1” is through the eyes of a canal rat, “Flood Song 2” is through the eyes of a water moccasin, “Flood Song 3” is through the eyes of an alligator, “Flood Song 4” is through the eyes of a mosquito, “Flood Song 5” is through the eyes of a bullfrog, “Flood Song 6” is through the eyes of a seagull, “Flood Song 7” is through the eyes of a catfish, and “Flood Song 8” is through the eyes of a stray dog.
The collection as a whole is a threaded mediation on the black experience from the south to the “city,” pieced together through negro spirituals, rap lyrics, questions, and a visual experience that leaves the reader with the lines, “knocking its broken neck against the smoke” and takes them back to “Negro” in tag.
Kearney is best experienced in person above the page. I not only saw him perform pieces from Black Automaton at Otis College’s Visiting Writers Series with Nick Piombino but also I got the chance to talk to Kearney about his creative process. He uses Abode InDesign to create his poems and later asks readers to “score” his visual poems. However the pieces are scored, is how Kearney reads the pieces live.
Books to read by Kearney
1. The Black Automaton (National Poetry Series Books)
2. Fear, some
- Signing My First Autograph (victoryates.wordpress.com)