Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Cortney Lamar Charleston
Saturnalia Books, $16 (paper)
In Cortney Lamar Charleston’s Telepathologies, witnessing black death becomes as everyday as riding the PATH train, chatting up coworkers, or running spell-check on the computer. These poems reveal how visions of annihilated black bodies, multiplied across our screens, shape daily life. Sometimes the speaker manages to make a meal for his lover after hearing the words “No indictment.” But at other times the physiology of anger overwhelms the page, as in the poem, “Feeling Fucked Up,” which describes the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in lines that erupt asthmatically:
got-damned life?! I got work in the a.m. but what for? who
I'm feeding? Walter Scott have kids or not? they caught them
bastards on tape planting the taser next to a body
handcuffed to its own color to lifelessness itself motherfucker
I can't even I need a woman to hold me tonight a good
woman like she would bury me with her own hands good if
I bit the bullet kicked the bucket of blood over I need Jesus
some Kanye College Dropout tonight I really need
some liquor for them to stay outta my face with all
their Oh my God! every day they kill my God just a little bit
Here is the presented paradox of black anger: you are always prepared to feel it, but at the same time, it keeps catching you off-guard. Charleston’s poems enact questions without ever posing them: how many times must you witness the same thing before you become desensitized to it? How many times must you witness the same thing before you become enraged? Throughout the collection, the speaker becomes a body of shifting resilience, a case study in the effects of trauma media. The measured reactions (both poetically and emotionally) of the speaker tell us about what happens when black bodies become spectacles for televisual consumption, when the speaker’s own body becomes “a dark comedy about transatlantic history.”
Here is the presented paradox of black anger: you are always prepared to feel it, but at the same time, it keeps catching you off-guard.
This is a book that teaches us how anger can manifest in syntax. For example, when the speaker is close to the reader and on the brink of a breakdown—as in the opening poem “How do you Raise a Black Child?”—the enjambment is terse and unforgiving. The lines keep splitting with deliberate violence. The words at the end of lines accumulate as threats to black bodies: belts, leashes, boys in blue.
Putting some wood to their behind. With a switch. With a belt
to keep their pants high. Not high all the time. On all-time highs
at all times until they learn not to feel and think so lowly of
their aims. To be six feet tall and not under. With a little elbow
grease and some duct tape. Sweating bullets. On a short leash.
Away from the big boys on the block. Away from the boys in blue.
The poem makes sharp use of prepositions, each one slipping the reader into further disorientation. The title’s question looms: how do you raise a black child? The poem’s answers move from “with a mama” to “on faith” to “in the hood” to “before school and after.” With each step, the child becomes more precarious, coming close to disappearing. In a video of the poem by Seyi Peter Thomas, the director captures this elongated suspense: the pleasures of Curtis Mayfield are juxtaposed with images of a growing boy criminalized by the gaze of whiteness. The image of a folded American flag slips in and out of view until the final scene, in which a mother clutches a flag and stares desperately into the camera, shifting, as the flag she clutches is replaced by her son. Such filmic interpretation honors the way Charleston’s poem summons readers into the unbearable reality of a particular black childhood.
When the poet seeks distance from the reader, to whom he might feel he has revealed too much already, he uses the ghazal form, in which soft, strophic repeating lines and neat end stops philosophize masculinity in relation to different portraits of animality. In the first of three, “Ghazal on the Cusp of Rage,” the speaker warns a younger male relative to act like a hawk—to “talk softly” and “walk softly” before law enforcement. Consistently, the “brother” is advised to appear smaller and less human for his own safety: “Whereas measures of masculinity are so often predicated on size, and / you look the part of a big-stick boy, be warned my brother: walk softly.” “Ghazal for the Bathing Ape” describes the ways in which hands can be violently erased, caged, and scathed so as to make an animal of a human: “Remember, the beast walking on its fists isn’t truly a man. / If it turns unruly, use this here bullet, a staving of its hands.” The last, “Ghazal of the Code,” explicitly lays out the rules of masculinity that absolutely forbid any kind of display of artistic vulnerability or fear that could be mistaken for “homo” behavior.
The three ghazals act as a series of warnings. You do not get to be a full human here. You do not get to have your height, which emasculates and threatens the police. You do not get to have your hands, so you have to walk on the ground like an unruly animal. You do not get to show compassion or fear or vulnerability, so you have to perform a homophobic, patriarchal masculinity that shows none of its inherent weakness. Black masculinity is violently constrained from all sides with devastating results.
bell hooks writes ‘You learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen. Black looks, as they were constituted in the context of social movements for racial uplift, were interrogating gazes.’
How are these codes learned and propagated? This question brings us to Charleston’s provocative title, definitions of which punctuate the collection’s three sections. The first reads “a subliminally transmitted belief espousing the sub-humanity of certain groups of people and deviating from healthy emotional and social cognition.” The word “subliminally” strikes at one of Charleston’s main contestations: the degree to which we are conscious of the ideologies we consume—particularly those about race. Screens become mediums for understanding both concentrated and passive forms of looking. The book employs what bell hooks calls the “oppositional gaze” in her seminal essay on critical black spectatorship—a way for African Americans to interrogate whiteness by examining their behavior through the television and other screen media. hooks writes: “You learned to look at white people by staring at them on the screen. Black looks, as they were constituted in the context of social movements for racial uplift, were interrogating gazes.”
Charleston’s own interrogation reverses the gaze in precisely the way hooks describes. Yes, we watch television and can see, quite clearly, what America thinks of black bodies. But hooks argues that whiteness and white action are also surveilled, and this has the effect of a reverse haunting. For example, in “In Case I Still,” the speaker says, “My TV’s one eye is Aryan blue,” and the television itself becomes an organ of white supremacy. In “D.W.B.” the speaker uses his knowledge of how white police officers “gaze” upon black bodies. The speaker learns how to “look” a certain way. I mean this literally: the poem is about where to keep your hands, how to hold your breath, how to ask questions, the tension of your lips, the angle of your nods, and yes, the “cursive” of your tone. This bodily adaptation becomes a protocol enabling the speaker to elicit prescriptive reactions from the officer. The oppositional gaze is a form of resistance that defies a model of governance that makes black bodies submissive to white power, a way of making a disguised violence transparent. The oppositional gaze says: “I know you. You are knowable. Worse, you are predictable.”
The two columns appearing on Charleston’s page act as the double consciousness famously theorized by W. E. B. Du Bois, spatializing the speaker’s psychic conflict. One column responds to how the speaker is “seen” by whiteness and the other responds as the speaker himself, with the echoing refrain, “Don’t Panic,” which really means, “Don’t make him panic.”
Calmly ask to reach intoYour glove compartment for yourRegistration, insurance card, if requested.Don’t panic.For any other type of question,keep a tight lip, nod only, theninquire if you may leave, politely.Don’t panic.Speak slowly. Speak softly.Use your best English at all times.Suggest a hint of cursive in your tone.Don’t panic.
A recurring theme here is not just that the white gaze sees black bodies as criminal, but that the black gaze sees white bodies as unpredictable, inconsistent, and therefore, cosmically suspect. Suspicion is impressionistic, not yet corroborated with hard evidence. Rather, suspicion remains a restless emotion that lands somewhere between instinct and paranoia.
A recurring theme here is not just that the white gaze sees black bodies as criminal, but that the black gaze sees white bodies as unpredictable, inconsistent, and therefore, cosmically suspect.
Charleston’s book presents the criminalization and suspicion of black men and women as a uniquely American mental disorder. In the title poem he demonstrates the way biologically deterministic ideas about race have infiltrated our screens from pornography to the nightly news. He writes, “Tell me: how does the mind host its sickness? Is it hosted anything like how a website is, the Internet just a cancer spread of ones and zeroes?” And later, “Is biology the reason Ebony pops up before all other exotics in a survey of masturbators, or is that the symptom of a sickness?” Finally he asks, “If I told you a black woman had her tubes tied tight by television signals, would you label that sickness idiocy or call it rational?” By destabilizing our idea of knowledge formation itself through a critique of scientific discourse and method, Charleston aptly observes the way viral media casts certain bodies as suspicious. His extended metaphor of contagion—“host” and “spread” and “cure”—suggests that the practices of exoticizing, sterilizing, and downloading blackness are how we can diagnose the way race, media, and American life are entangled. We watch trash and we become trash and we elect trash. Pathologies, after all, offer us a way to interpret symptoms of our social woes.
What begins on the screen becomes, as the poet suggests, “a stack of mirrors” in which bodies fall through.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.