The Sobbing School by Joshua Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Sobbing School is filled with meditation on how a black man might respond to the trauma of America in ways that neither give way to despair or default to tired stereotypes and expectations. The evocation of Zora Neale Hurston’s famous critique of Richard Wright points toward a poetry that does not refuse the violence of the world, but refuses to submit to it: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it…No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” The image of the blade, Hurston’s “oyster knife,” animates a number of these poems, a recurrent nod to Hurston’s admonition to accept the terms that “life”–or in this case an encompassing racial and racist reality — has set in motion and to respond, with force if necessary. It is, of course, impossible to avoid the analogy of poetry as a kind of blade in Hurston’s quote, and so in Bennett’s homage.
Any collection of poetry usually has only a handful that grip any reader, those we go back to at the end of the reading, and can imagine ourselves coming back to again and again. And perhaps different poems for different readers. I loved the opening historical poem to the memory of Henry Box Brown, who achieved his freedom from slavery by arranging to have himself mailed in a crate to the abolitionists in the North, and later performed this act on stage for abolitionist audiences. Bennett’s poem reflects on the performativity of freedom, reflecting on the ways that black despair plays to white appreciation: “I too/ have signed over the rights to all my/ best wounds. I know the stage/ is a leviathan with no proper name/ to curtail its breath. I know/ the respectable man enjoys a dark/ body best when it comes with a good/ cry thrown in.”
Bennett is particularly effective in evoking the emotion (if that is not too tepid a word) of the black man and community in the face of police killings and other violence against African Americans in the United States, and especially the pressure of white constructions of those events. In “Anthropophobia” he reads/hears white rhetoric justifying the killing of black men against the grain of its intention: “The steel blue ghost standing/ at the podium says VonDerrit Myers/ was no angel & all I can hear is// the boy was a human boy. The boy/ had a best friend & 206 bones. The boy/ had a name that God didn’t give him/….but/let me be clear: we are simply running out// of ways to shame the dead.”
Such lines, such poems, remind us suddenly, and we are surprised that we ever could have forgotten, that no man or woman has to justify their right to be among the living. This book makes that remembrance possible. I’ll look forward to reading more.