» Book Review
The Failure of the Verdict
Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan
TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2018
90 pages, paperback, $18.00
In his fifth volume of poetry, Kyle Dargan challenges readers to engage with his experience of living in a society some of whose members continue to regard African Americans as less than equal. Dargan prompts readers to ask themselves what it would be like to walk in the shoes of the speakers of these poems, and readers may be surprised to find themselves uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, sad, guilty, absolved of guilt, and/or ashamed. Dargan’s voice is at his most confident as the poems comment on the world we face today—of an ultra-conservative administration; continued gun violence, especially aimed at African Americans; and continued racism.
The first poem, “Failed Sonnet After the Verdict,” sets the tone, as well as its historical context. The verdict of the title refers to the not guilty granted to George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. In the poem, this recent public racial discrimination hearkens back to the racism of the past, “dredging up the cotton gin’s gothic maw, / yoking it to another child devoured.” Although Dargan chooses to include the word sonnet in its title, the poem makes no attempt to follow the rhyme and meter schemes of traditional sonnets. Modern sonnets often are suggestive of the sonnet form primarily by having fourteen lines, as this one does, and are sometimes known as “ghost sonnets.” Dargan’s opening poem carries the ghost of Trayvon Martin and other young African American males throughout. Naming the poem a “failed sonnet” invites readers to ponder whether Dargan is referring not to the failure of the poetic form, but, rather, to the failure of the verdict to bring justice for the murder of a young black man.
Dargan has found his home in Washington, DC. Several of the poems in the first section, as well as the longer prose pieces in the second section, reference the city. “Eastland” references Anacostia, in Southeast DC, the quadrant of the city notorious for a high crime rate. Despite the violence, the area is, to the speaker, “peaceful” and “sleepy.” But,
Our bleeding is not random. At nightfall,
we are not here awaiting a chance to stalk
the whites nesting your dilating irises.
We have our own private violence to stir
and sip just like you—most often
not on the streets but inside our own homes.
The prose piece “Lost One” takes place on the same night that Michael Brown is shot in Ferguson, Missouri, though the speaker does not know this information yet. The speaker and friend are walking home through Anacostia, SE, and, in seeing two young black men, the speaker takes the reader through his too-familiar process of discerning whether the two young back men pose a threat to the speaker and his friend. First, he must “appear unfazed and devoid of concern.” Then, he scans the boys for weapons and signs of communication with each other. “I begin to accept how tired I am of feeling as though I have to treat these young boys as though they are our primary threats in the world.” At the last minute before encountering the boys, his friend suggests they cross the street, and the speaker sees them go through the gate to their own rowhouse. “They were merely trying to get home—just like Kirstyn and me, just like, for all we’ll know, Michael Brown.”
It is difficult to read this collection of poetry without noticing its many contradictions, which serve to shine a light on the contradictions that persist in the current environment. Many of us claim that we do not discriminate, while at the same time enjoying our lives of privilege without realizing it. One of the core questions the speaker of these poems confronts is whether he wants to be seen or to stay hidden. Put another way, should the speaker resist and question what has become the norm or should he accept the norm and stay hidden, which, perhaps, is safer.
Dargan’s study in contradictions begins in “Daily Conscription,” in which the speaker sees race as something “akin to climate change, // a force we don’t have to believe in for us to undo us.” Whether or not we want to believe in racism, or “whiteness,” as the speaker says, it exists and will affect us. In this same poem, the speaker crosses the street, keeping his head down, “straining to discern the crossfire from the cover.” In “Poem Resisting Arrest,” the speaker/poem asks “Where is the daylight (this poem asks and is // thus crushed) between existence and resistance?” The speaker in “Tredegar,” the name of a Civil War museum in Richmond, observes the ecosystem in the James River. In trying to understand why black dragonflies chase red ones away, a metaphor for trying to understand racism, the speaker says, “Just the law of things / here…,” as though the laws of nature should be enough to explain such contradictions. Later, in the same poem, the speaker laments, “I am the stupid human. My eye / unable to distinguish hiding from lurking—each a form / of stillness.”
The poems in Section III, China Cycle, may seem wildly out of place in this book. However, Dargan uses his experience of travel to China to push through to a deeper questioning and exploration of identity. If he can feel displaced in his own country, how much greater can his experience of displacement be in a country where his being a minority makes him an enigma? He is mistaken for Ethiopian, Dominican, and Caribe in “The Shouts of Tanggu Station,” and is both being asked for money and heralded by a young boy. He practices the calligraphy of the Chinese characters, the hanzi, and seeks understanding of their meaning. The speaker of “Beautiful Country’’”learns that the translation of “American” is “from the ‘Beautiful Country.’” In the poem, the speaker “bemoan[s] / the translation, yet I was not brought here // to explain all the beauty not found at home.” Dargan recognizes his own privilege in being born in America in “Early Onset Survivor’s Guilt.” Speaking of the relentless smog in Binhai, he says,
Where there is sadness,
it bubbles from thoughts of the blue
that awaits me, the blue I take for granted, the blue
I never asked to be born beneath.
Dargan’s volume is aptly titled. In literary terms, anagnorisis refers to the moment, usually in a tragedy, when the protagonist comes to a full understanding of their own nature, situation, or vulnerability. The end of anagnorisis, at least in literature, may lead to catharsis in readers. The entire volume may be read as the speaker’s anagnorisis of enduring racism. However, the one moment that stands out as the moment of understanding appears in “Another Poem Beginning with a Bullet,” which could also serve as the title of this collection. The wrenching narrative of the speaker hearing gunshots on his way to his mother’s house and the pains he takes to change his path there so that the gunman won’t follow him and learn where his mother lives is harrowing. Arriving at his mother’s house, the speaker learns that one of her neighbors had been hit by the gunfire. Seeing the mother’s porch light on, the wounded man went to her house for help, tracking blood into her house. The moment of seeing the blood is the moment of anagnorisis for the speaker—that despite his best efforts, he cannot keep his mother safe. “The city no longer stops / at Mother’s door. It has come inside now, has bled / here. In the living room.”
Dargan deftly infuses historical and cultural facts into his poetry. He is a careful poet; each word, each line break, each form is studied and purposeful. Each of these choices serves the poem, calling attention to them, as though saying subtly: reader, pay attention here; this is important. The careful reader of Dargan’s work needs to be prepared to spend time with these poems. Dargan is an introspective poet—even in his anger.