I Have Waited for the Siren*
by Tina Boyer Brown
On the way home,
Klansmen handed out pamphlets on the corner.
At the convenience store, taxidermied alligator heads framed
red red lips, black black skin, white wild white wide eyes, and teeth grinning (gritting).
Mammy, Sambo, savages and jockeys shaped
cookie jars, figurines, gravy boats, piggy banks, and salt and pepper shakers.
I hold evidence in the shape of entrails, two scales
stuck to the side of the sink. Bodies
decapitated and soaked
in milk and butter. Breaded in crumbs. Tender,
the results of freeing the little ones.
Mount that big one there.
I have lived with the reduction of noise and the number of warnings.
I have lived under July’s blankets and February’s ill-fitting sleeves.
I have lived with the proof of the Susquehanna’s existence,
in the shadow of the shadow of the outline of a bubble’s refracted edge.
- From Poetry (September 2016)
- With her depiction of Klansmen calmly recruiting new members and a convenience store stocked with racist caricatures of blacks, Brown offers a chilling vision of a dystopian United States. Here she relies on incongruity for effect: her contrast, for example, between the everydayness of “piggy banks” and the evident wickedness of this social order. Effective, do you think?
- “I hold evidence” marks a shift. It’s the beginning of a new section of the poem, as well as a slight change in tone: “evidence” hints at law enforcement and a judicial system, and because we know that this imagined United States has institutionalized white racism, it leads us from the mere affront of Mammies and Sambos to the terror of putting state power in the service of oppressing an entire race. But evidence of what?
- The narrator is gutting and frying fish, the “little ones” that someone has caught and handed over for the meal, that is, not the “big one” which will be stuffed and mounted on the wall. “Decapitated” is quite strong, and Brown’s placed it at the center of the poem (16 lines in all, “decapitated and soaked” as the 9th). Does it work? Or does the horror of “tender” “little ones” being “decapitated” and eaten go too far?
- Taxidermy is a motif in this poem. With a perhaps obvious effect. What do you think?
- “I have lived” marks the beginning of the final section of the poem. Here Brown links this racist dystopia to climate change. How do you take the repetition (“anaphora,” it’s called) of “I have lived”? For my part, I hear mockery of sentiment like that expressed by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, where he writes about the black characters in the story “They endured.” If we believe that the endurance of suffering is ennobling, what aren’t we capable of?
- With “proof of the Susquehanna’s existence” we have one answer to the question “But evidence of what?” (see #2 above). Why does the narrator want or need proof of the existence of this river? Something about being cut off from the world, because of apartheid-like limitations on her freedom?
- The Greek poet Pindar says of us humans that we are like a “dream of a shadow.” Brown describes life for the narrator in this dystopia as being “in the shadow of the shadow of the outline of a bubble’s refracted edge.” Talk about being marginal! The successive prepositional phrases (in … of … of … of) is clearly meant to be a tour de force — do you like it?