James Baldwin wrote “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Here, as he often does, Baldwin voices one of those truths that run deeply through our human condition. Donnelle McGee seems to know this truth well. His new collection of poems Naked, (2015 Unbound Content) does just this: It faces painful realities, in the hope of changing their power.
This is a beautiful book of poems. But its beauty comes in the guise of poetry can be beautiful and not pretty. These are not easy poems. I suspect they were harder to write as they sometimes are to read. They unearth truths about growing up, accepting a flawed parent, the fierce desire to protect a sibling, one’s own need for intimacy. They move, in a beautiful way, from a grasping and desperate tone, to a more peaceful, satisfied tone– that the poet will not pass on to his children, the same sorrows that were passed on to him. In this, the poems heal. They invite the reader into healing too– to consider his or her own needs, grasping and otherwise. These poems invite the reader to contemplate the place of intimacy in life– and to make certain it is vital and whole and urged by grace, not the need for power.
The collection opens with “Digging up Them Dreams” in which the poet recalls his neighborhood, 13th Avenue, Los Angeles. He recalls friends wanting to be basketball stars and rappers. He recalls the often-present violence in friendship among boys:
We sit on the porch for hours capppin’ on each other.
Reese looking at Day-Day, telling us …
‘This boy’s head is so big he can hardly keep his balance.
The poem continues:
Sometimes we fight and cry when the shit gets too real…
And them dreams keep us going.
Until life runs up in your ass / buckles hope,
Ambitions halted at crooked angles.
In “Inner City Blues” the poet recalls violence, both verbal and physical, that surrounded him as a child:
this is what i saw …
mexican boy fall against
link fence his jaw busted for five
and the crip say ‘told you i was gonna take that fool’s money.
The poet tells us in several ways, what he voices powerfully in “Riding the RTD Bus Down Crenshaw,” that
‘…i learn early on
Through a difficult childhood, the poet shares a tender love for his younger brother. The typical older brother’s intense desire to protect his younger charge from any sadness or pain. In “Blue Dumpster” he writes:
This scar of a star above my right eye
Reminds me of how easily blood
Escapes skin to meet air
And how you and I
Had to become steel
You and I wrapping our legs together in the bathtub
You and I letting our chest nipples meet
And the metallic taste of your lips absorbing
Red memories eaten by the hood
And behind this scar we are caressing each other
…locked in excitement
For the touch of flesh melts even the hunger for a mother and a father
The pain in Naked is personal and intense. These poems are brave and heartbreaking. The simple vocabulary of “In the Back Bathroom” does some serious breaking:
i do not forget how black leather welts skin
i do not forget how a beating
when it is done
breaks my brother’s spirit
i do not forget how her body twitched nose deep in caine
i do not forget her trips into the back bathroom to soothe the ache
i do not forget any of this
At the same time, one wishes we could forget the sadnesses of childhood, the wounds inflicted by those we love. But many of us have these, or similar wounds. Donnelle McGee does the hard work of remembering. He does the necessary work of facing what he remembers, enabling him to change how his life will unfold. Thank goodness he did not forget.
One of the most powerful poems about his younger brother is “Long Before the Bullet Burned Into His Head.” This poem describes his brother the night before the poet (to be) leaves for college.
In this house we can feel the
discolored walls I get to leave
McGee also explores his mixed race background. Sadly, the world doesn’t always accept what it sees. It insists on the binary that everyone is black or white. McGee names, faces, and explores this reality too. In the poem “Hey Black / Jew Boy …Welcome to Folsom Half-Breed” he takes us on a year by year middle school journey. In the middle of this poem, McGee describes a school bus conversation in which a student uses the “n” word. McGee writes ( ) where this word would be spoken. Its absence is eloquent.
A white boy on the yellow Folsom School District bus is talking about how
his confederate uncle taught his two year-old brother to say ( )
White boy say …
‘He just repeats whatever you say and he said ( )
I the Black / Jew boy two seats back hold my eyes on my chest
not a Black face anywhere
so I turn to gaze out the window
silly shit like this floods my days in Folsom
“In a Chevy Blazer in the Alley on 13th Ave” uses tragically ordinary language again to face a violence no child should have to see:
I saw my mother take a blow, a brown fist meeting the meat-flesh of her left temple.
I watched her eyes go behind themselves as her head broke glass. And then a second
second strike, a third thrust, a Boom Boom. What could I do but turn away,
sink back in the blue bucket seat and cradle my knees.
In the collection’s closing poems, we get a beautiful look into the power of memory. In “Dinosaurs” McGee writes:
My little boy is in the front yard digging up dinosaur fossils.
I watch him dig his silver hand-shovel into the black hummus.
‘Look daddy, I found a dinosaur fossil.’
Later the poem recalls:
One day he will hold this book in his hands and discover how organisms mutate,
How his daddy excavated himself from the muck.
There are a wide variety of poems in this book. Some poems in which the speaker seeks intimacy from strangers, all part of a journey. The poem “Monsters” gives us a sense of the poet’s purpose. It’s in facing difficult memories that we become human.
There are no easy poems.
Red itch, first fury —
We poets cut muck out of our bodies,
Dicing layers Break us
Thank goodness Donnelle McGee faces these memories and gives them to us in well-crafted, beautiful poems. Thank goodness he was willing to “Break us / together.”