The Feast Before Her / The Threat @ Her Back: A Review of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s dying in the scarecrow’s arms

Authentic (noun) — a word too frequently used in literary reviews.

All art is authentic in one sense: it is the genuine product of a mind and the culture surrounding it. But all art is also inauthentic, because it is something someone has labored over with the goal of perfecting it—something we don’t often get the chance to do with our everyday speech. At worst, authentic is the wrong way to describe art, and at best it is inadequate.

But it’s the word that leaps to mind when I think of Mitchell L.H. Douglas’s writing style, and it’ll have to do until I find a better one.

Douglas’s voice in his third poetry collection, dying in the scarecrow’s arms, is conversational and intimate, and he isn’t afraid of addressing the reader directly. Talking in an interview about his tendency to do this, the poet said, “This is my attempt at the poem being between people instead of between pages in a Frank O’Hara kind of way,” and described his work as “thinking aloud.”

Dying in the Scarecrows Arms - Cover

In his poem “Heretics,” Douglas puts it even more directly: “the rebellion you speak of / is a poet rejecting the language of poetry.”

This authenticity is not just an element of dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but an integral part of its power. Douglas’s celebration of himself, his voice (even when he works in persona), and his blackness is a political act.

The beauty in this collection isn’t only found in the self and the voice, though—quite the contrary. Douglas celebrates the human body, and the work and personalities of countless poets, musicians, icons, and ordinary people. Muhammad Ali, Rita Dove, and Robert Hayden (from whom the title of the work is drawn) all make appearances.

These aren’t name-drops, but ways of getting at what it means to be human—even, or especially, when denied humanity by one’s society. The beauty of Ali’s physical form when fighting, as well as the beauty of his poetic language and quick wit, are quietly emphasized in Douglas’s “{Ení (of the Unreliable Knuckles)}” and “Epilogue”—and the artistry and day-to-day life of an unnamed fellow author are celebrated similarly in his poem “Two Black writers walk into a bar in Colorado is not the beginning of a racist joke,” where he speaks of “lives devoted to lines of witness” and “dare[s] a motherfucker to say something about Alizé or Courvoisier.”

The poet Martín Espada comes into the book early on, his voice entering the poem “Used. Sold.” in the form of a note in a book Mitchell Douglas “rescued” after it was removed from circulation in a Michigan library. The idea of finding beauty—both in the artistic sense and in the sense of a personal connection—in an unexpected place is crucial to this book.

It’s no accident that “Used. Sold.” follows “Loosies,” a poem addressed to the NYPD officer who murdered Eric Garner over cigarettes. Both poems, in very different ways, explore the violence our society directs at people of color. “What’s that like, / standing in place / night after night, / your spine exposed?” the speaker asks in “Used. Sold.” Douglas spends the rest of the collection answering this question—and confronting the answer.

A series of poems titled “Persist,” gradually unfolding a tale of two lovers’ encounter in quiet, intimate language and image, is threaded throughout dying in the scarecrow’s arms. “We glow,” one says, “in candlelight, now halos / in the mirror’s bend.”

In somebody else’s book of poetry, “Persist” might be a respite from the violence that makes up so much of the rest of the book. In this collection, though, “Persist” offers not relief, but a reason for the speaker to continue getting out of bed in the morning; or, put another way, to continue living. Again and again, Douglas finds beauty, joy, and humor even in the world where so many are murdered every day—some names we’ll recognize, from Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland to Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, and some whose names never get reported or recorded.

A poet I know once casually dismissed Martín Espada’s work as “too political”—a descriptor I’ve rarely heard attached to a white writer’s work— and perhaps it was too political for the library depicted in “Used. Sold.” I can easily imagine Douglas’s work facing the same criticism from some quarters, though the book is much less concerned with something as narrow and sharply defined as “politics” than it is with the things that human hands can make and do: songs and guns, punches and caresses—as in “Selma Love Song,” when Douglas writes: “This body / tuned & flawed, / the fret board / a plank of mercy. / In the burn / of the baddest juke, / no soul fears dance.”

The complication of small moments of joy and power, acts of compassion and mercy in the face of all this pain and oppression, is central to the book, as when the speaker in “Family Business: Indy” asks “How / is this living? How do you keep / your daughter’s mind on the feast / before her, not the threat / @ her back?”

There’s no easy answer in dying in the scarecrow’s arms, but perhaps asking the question provides its own answer—if there is a daughter or fellow writer or friend or lover, or even someone you don’t know, barely audible somewhere out in that “guncentric city” or violent country, then there is a reason to live, and a reason to fight back.

dying in the scarecrow’s arms is available from Persea Books on March 6, 2018

Mitchell LH Douglas

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Author site

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

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