By Eric Morris-Pusey
Some of the most exciting works of poetry defy easy categorization, and Alan King’s Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016) blurs a lot of lines.
Most of the poems are more narrative than lyric, but they still have the freely associative qualities of many of the best lyric poems. While some of them are violent, they all display a deep humanity and gentleness at the same time. There’s a good deal of irony, too, but it isn’t usually delivered with detachment or a bitter laugh. Sometimes irony just is. Maybe paradox is a better word.
King’s poem “The Brute” is a great example. In it, a snide remark from the speaker’s boss brings back memories of “hard boys / from high school . . . homemade tattoos / strung into their biceps,” and then King deftly brings the poem back around to the present, to two adults, when fighting isn’t done with fists or clever insults, but with much more subtle words: a sarcastic thanks when the boss tells the speaker he shouldn’t have majored in journalism.
By the end, the speaker has grown to ten feet tall and is speaking his rage (or is it sadness?) more directly—it’s not just the boss who’s angered him, but the fact he’s “too broke to move out his parents’ house” that has him “desperate / for a clown to punch.” When the poem concludes, it leaves a big question hanging: is it the boss who’s the titular brute, or is it the speaker, or is it the whole damn world? Or is the brute what that world sees in both of them—two black men—when it refuses to look any closer?
It’s not just conflict and confrontation that King affords nuance and a deeply poetic voice. There are love and sex, too, and the beauty of language—both the measured, poetic kind and the sorts of everyday speech you’re likely to hear on the street, in the store, or at the bar—and a deep consideration of the meaning of time.
This last seems to be one of the prime questions of the book: how does any person reckon with the shortness of our lives, and how especially does a person reckon with that in the face of the violence of poverty and racism? The collection ends, in “Just Chillin’, B,” on the image of “time facedown / like cards on the table,” moments stolen from the larger chaos and hubbub of the world. In his poem “Mr. On Time,” King ends with the image of “time like a wad of money / burning to be spent.”
King has done a lot with his time so far—in addition to his poetic work (including his other collection, Drift, and two chapbooks, as well as poems in journals all over and plenty of readings, especially in the DC metro area), he’s been a journalist and researcher for both The Center for Public Integrity and Baltimore’s Afro-American Newspaper.
This wealth of experience isn’t just King’s personal background, but something woven throughout the poems. In addition to getting a sense of King as a person through what he chooses to write about and the ways in which he writes, we understand the things he’s seen and his way of looking at the world. Even though the book often concerns the larger world of politics, or the lives of people King’s speakers see at work or on the street, it also provides a deep impression of a more internal landscape.
As narrative poems—or, at least, poems with narratives—they show a little of his journalistic outlook and spirit, but King always keeps his eye on the personal details too, whether it’s in images or bits of dialogue. He makes the poems real as well as true.
In “Bugged,” he writes of the paranoia induced by clicking on phone lines. From a brief musing on the idea of cell phones causing cancer he jumps to “What kills the black man quicker / patrols in government-issued rides.” As the phone’s clicks transform “blood into juice startled / by the blender’s blade,” King makes us consider what time means in a violent and chaotic world, and especially what those things mean to a person of color or someone involved in any sort of activism—because “Any minute now / they’ll storm that door.”
These are truths we can recognize any day from simply turning on the news, but King’s words make them more deeply felt than images and statistics on a screen can. His words inhabit the moments of fear, and the moments of joy and exuberance in the midst of fear too.
King said in a craft interview at Little Patuxent Review that he sees poetry as a meditative process, and that he goes where the poem’s narrative and words guide him. “My poems usually come to me,” he says, “as a series of images from recounted experiences.” His mind is “a planchette the poem moves along the ouija board of possibilities.”
That freely associative quality and willingness to wander, combined with the impact of his language and the images both startling and beautiful that make up these poems, are what make this book feel so vital—like it’s not just being read, but being lived.
Alan King’s poems, thoughts on writing, and video productions can be found at alanwking.com, and his book can be found at indie bookstores and through Amazon. Author photo courtesy of Silver Birch Press, taken by Melanie Henderson.
Cover image: “The Man in the Fedora Hat” by Ewholo Jeroro
Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri Review, Driftwood 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.