blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Review | Boy with Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015

spacer Book Title (Publisher, year)

Terrance Hayes ends his foreword to Boy with Thorn, Rickey Laurentiis’s exceptionally penetrating work of lyric poetry, by quoting from the poem “Modern Ripple”: “You have seen what happens when a stone / plops onto the tension of the water—it moves / through the water, or the water moves away from it.” That image, of a wave, is an emblem for how this collection navigates a series of formal and thematic points with grace and accomplishment.

One of those concerns, echoed throughout the collection, is mastery—a word that, like the stone in the water, creates its own sonic wave in many of the poems. One of the inferences of the word is its challenge to skill. In an interview from an exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago entitled “Mastry,” Kerry James Marshall says: “ . . . [the] idea of mastery is important [because] if you want to get in the game you’ve got to play it at the level that the people who are playing at the highest level are playing it.”

In the poem “Black Iris,” Laurentiis examines a master, and the reflection of looking into a master’s work: “Black mirror. Space delicate / and cracked. Now anything could / go in there: a fist, veined, fat.” The speaker sees something of himself in this painting, standing so close as to see the tiny cracks in the paint, as one might see the detailed map of one’s own crow’s-feet by leaning forward.

This poem, an ekphrasis on Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of the same name, serves also as a prime reason to avoid limiting mastery-centric discussions of exceptional art. Laurentiis’s facility is striking and clear, but here, and throughout, the poet foregrounds the authority of imagination itself, both formally through lyric form (here and throughout the collection) and in the language itself. Laurentiis reminds the reader that a work of art is an infinitely curtained thing whose meaning is wrestled open within the imaginations of every body perceiving it. In this poem, the speaker’s blackness and queerness make it impossible to interpret a universal femininity in O’Keefe’s paintings, or, at the very least, impossible to accept that universality without first accepting the blackness and queerness that exist, forcefully, even violently, in that universal.

The lyric, in Laurentiis’s hands, often manifests as an imagining of the body—or uncovering, for those of us with the privilege of being able to forget ourselves. What makes this especially powerful is the exposure he creates—the rawness and tenderness both—of a body the canon (or history, which is, itself, a canonization) has attempted to disembody, which is both an act of witness and an expression of the ways in which history has shaped the contemporary internal dialogue of the speaker—history is happening, right now.

That history is central to “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen” (the longest poem in the collection, which deals with many of the collection’s core themes and invokes the public vs. private, external vs. internal conflict, history, sexuality, religion, and identity):

The sense I get from you, Emmett,
And your recanted youth,
Says that another song about you is
Just another song you didn’t sing.

There is nothing romantic about a dead black boy, about Emmett Till. He (a/the black boy is recurring) isn’t set dressing. He is sense: sense both as the ability to understand and sense as the feeling of. And the black boy is the source of anthem, and he is unaccounted for, and he is impossible for which to account.

The black boy, like the southern gothic landscape itself, is an acting witness, but he is also an abstraction of the deeply present and personal—a notion that each poem builds upon. Emmett Till’s youth was recanted (a formal rejection, a retraction) in that his body was physically taken from him. But what is it to have one’s youth recanted here, now, Laurentiis posits, as the speaker, across the collection as a whole, returns again and again to a sense of identification with the boy, wherever, whoever, he is?

In the same poem, the speaker projects the inward outwardly, again through landscape:

To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open
To the dark: dirt, the hundred worms beneath you, beneath
Where hands come to claw the dirt, let, and lay you down.

This process dominates much of the collection. The excavation of a landscape that has been shaped against the speaker enables him to recover something tied to an opposing history that yet remains personal and within the speaker’s ability to hold in his own hands. It is not an examination or reflection over a southern gothic, but a clawing of the dirt, where worms sleep. Southern gothic, of course, has its own history as a controlled reflection of a smoothed over (read: heterosexual and white) South that is intimately aware of blackness as atmosphere. But for Laurentiis, identity is rooted in transformation and imagination, which are here, within reach.

Imagination, in this context, holds an ironic doubleness by being both devastatingly final and malleable (a trait I would argue that the lyric inherently holds as a form), as in the lines: “I saw I dreamt / Two men hoisted hung up not American the rope / Not closed on their breathing” from “I Saw I dreamt Two Men,” a poem driven by the lynching of black men for homosexuality that has occurred in several African nations. That the speaker says these men are not American somehow does not lessen their Americanness (what about this scene is un-American except its physical location?) and referring to the scene as a dream similarly does not absolve it of a corporeality unattended by dreams.

This indivisible play between the dream as a trap and as a power the speaker can wield shows itself prominently again in the lines: “Must it be true / That everything I make will be a self” (“This Pair This Marriage of Two”). In this poem, the speaker disputes the power that imagination has over him (“I’ve been made to perceive / That voice colonial scribbled in wrong”), or if he doesn’t dispute its power, at least contends that his imagination is a catalyst of its own, capable of building for him a body of his own making—the speaker comes to recognize that “To imagine is the one mirror I trust.”

This marriage between images and ideas shows itself particularly in the materiality of ideation that happens in “Faggot”:

you had meant to say maelstrom but now
interposed between you and the open world,
male-storm (no one would think to give a sex
to it, so were unready)

Who is not ready? Certainly not the canon where Laurentiis finds himself. Also, perhaps, not ready: the American imagination, or, of course, the southern gothic, the idea of which inspires much of the first section of Boy With Thorn. If Laurentiis is concerned with the black queer imagination, it makes perfect sense that he would understand that imagination at least in part via the context of the southern gothic, a landscape that has borne some of America’s most powerful literature since at least the nineteenth century, but a genre in which the black voice is mysteriously absent except as imagined—almost entirely, if one examines the canon—by white writers.

A line from the opening poem of the collection, “Conditions for a Southern Gothic,” that refuses to leave me, states, “I was a head alone, moaning in a wet black field.” Southern gothic, yes, but also a wretchedly beautiful (beautifully wretched?) encapsulation of what it feels like to be black, or in fact what it might feel to be anything that history has despised and tried to eradicate—to be reminded—despite every canny assertion from someone outside that this or that identity is only a social construct, a “made up” thing. As if this might somehow reduce its power.

It is impossible to read this poem or this collection outside the context of the South and, I’d argue, it is impossible to think about America without thinking about the South. And the South we know is a myth our imagination might affect, a notion Laurentiis asserts in that same poem. In it, the speaker asks,

Who among us was made to scratch a myth? Speak.
If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of the imagination.

The question hangs; imagination, here, presents itself as a lens, not an answer outright. Historically, it has been “colonially scribbled,” but, again, the black body itself is an act of resistance. Imagination and witness are acts of resistance. The landscape, stained as it is with a certain history, is physically accepting of change, and as a representation of the speaker’s mind, is just as subject to his hands or imagination. That is an act of resistance—to the kinds of erasure to which colonialism has aspired, but also to any power that might threaten the black boy for being black, being boy, loving, knowing, speaking. Laurentiis’s poems, dark and dreamlike as they sometimes are, insist upon that vital resistance.  

Rickey Laurentiis’s poetry collection, Boy with Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), received the 2016 Levis Reading Prize. His poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a 2013 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2012 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundations. Laurentiis teaches at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.

return to top