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A Poet’s Debut Provokes—and Mystifies


By Cyrée Jarelle Johnson (Nightboat: 2019)

Several years ago I read, in an opinion piece now lost to me, that the only people who read poetry magazines are other poets. Apart from the obvious hyperbole, this sounds like a remark made by one of two people: a disgruntled poet who wants poetry to be more popular than it is, or a versephobe who doesn’t see the point.

I am neither of those. I enjoy poetry, but I am not a habitual poetry reader. I appreciate nice little orderly sentences that begin with capital letters, proceed with textbook grammar and punctuation, and follow one another in a discernable logical sequence. So Shakespeare’s sonnets and Michelangelo’s sonnets work for me, as do the likes of Byron, Rimbaud, Housman, Cavafy, and Auden. But my experience with more contemporary and abstract poetry tends to be highly hit or miss.

With that caveat, I found much to like in Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s Slingshot, which won the Lambda Literary award for Best Gay Poetry this year, and much that simply went over my head. Johnson lives in New York, identified as trans-masculine in The New York Times in 2018, and uses the pronouns he/him on—but in other venues has identified or been described as a “black disabled femme genderqueer,” a “transfag,” and non-binary. The author’s biography in Slingshot uses the pronouns they/them.

Slingshot comprises 69 pages of sex, violence, protest, and longing with titles like “prince died for fem bois,” “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical,” and “a machine of mahogany and bronze” (I–III). Sometimes you know which poem you’re reading; other times you are not so sure. There are two asterisks, you turn the page, the scene and characters and typography all change, but there is no title. Is it a continuation from the previous page, or is it a different poem? Does it even matter?

“harold mouthfucks THE DEVIL” tells the story of a drunk homophobe who, full of alchohol, goes on a date with the devil. “Although THE DEVIL doesn’t have a binary gender expression / it’s still gay to Harold.” Afterwards, Harold “slits his own thoat. He’s dead and he’s gay and he’s not sure which is worse.”

Another poem recounts a street protest for human rights, all too relevant in this year of police murders of people of color, protests, and looting : “[T]he so-called nonprofit leaders were there for promotional reasons…” Chanting, marching, and “white dude anarchists” give way to cops, pepper spray, and flight.

Johnson’s language is always taut. Sometimes this tautness is vividly evocative:

You oxcart king. You spiked silver seller
turned gold-stroker in the fire and tar woods
behind my house, framed in white flame. Antlers
draped in tiny lights we learned were beetles.

You did it. I let you and you did it.
Blood magic & Hennessy: I’m sorry.
I promise you—I paid, and paid, and paid
with eight years of no good dick, with violence.

Other times it is, to me, merely confusing: “My ouroboros & rupture / my undoing unto death’s / custard pus / make of me your swept bloat, sunlight burst / marrow fruit.”

Will I pick up Slingshot again and again? I probably won’t, but I’m equally sure there are others who will; and either way, Johnson is a poet to watch.

Illustration: James Jefferys, “Nude Male Figures Bearing the Bodies of Their Dead Companions,” ca. 1779 (Art Institute of Chicago)

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