Few poets can navigate the personal and the public. Sarah Browning is one of those rare poets. Her new collection, KILLING SUMMER, from Sibling Rivalry Press, makes its way beautifully through these rich and challenging waters. These poems think, they remember, they push, they lament. I will be reading and thinking over these poems for a long time.
In the interest of honesty, I have to say that Sarah Browning is my friend. I cherish this friendship that reaches back to 2003, when she first arrived in Washington, D.C. We became friends as she started D.C. Poets Against the War and I’m grateful to say I was an early participant. I should also say that my third book, Ache, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press. Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington are my friends too. I’m delighted they chose to publish Sarah’s book.
The beauty of this book begins at its cover. Esther Iverem, another Washington, D.C. poet and activist, created They Hate Us for Our Freedom, a fabric and mixed media work that graces the cover. Seth Pennington, of Sibling Rivalry, designed the cover. The flag, patched, wounded, and worn, makes for a perfect door to this collection.
Sarah Browning is able to navigate the personal and the public in her poems because she navigates them in her life. A writer and activist of many years, she knows the necessary connection between our homes and families– and our country and its ideals. She is the political person writing poems– just what America needs in 2017.
The book opens with a poem of neighborhood and fear– the precise meeting of the personal and the public. “Petworth, Early Evening” is a meditative poem that unfolds in couplets.
A man is stabbing women in my neighborhood.
Most poor people in my city are Black
and because of the warnings of 400 years
I assume the man stabbing women
She goes on to reflect on seeing a young Black man on her sidewalk, thinking about crossing the street, and not doing so. She remembers her son in their home perhaps texting his friends. She ponders who this Black man might actually be– or love. She concludes with the line that grounds all the poems that will follow:
It is June in the 21st century.
The book’s title poem, “Killing Summer, is one of its strongest. This three-part poem takes us on a slow walk to its important closing questions. It asks who we are and how we are. The opening recalls the Washington Post Local Section telling us of young men killed in the summer’s heat:
another boy dead, and another —
Down the block.
In the alley.
In his car.
A few feet from a middle school.
The poem’s second section reads like a litany of context:
City of split heads, city of gun shops threatening,
city of playing the dozens cross the steaming streets.
Streets of rain and fast anger, streets
of whistling, streets of mourning.
These descriptions take us to the hard questions:
Shake out the newspaper.
Shake death from the bus shelter.
What city are we?
How do we call ourselves neighbors?
At the center of this beautiful book, are two poems who speak to us in very different voices. “When the sun returns” faces “In Guantanamo” on the opposite page. For a long time I wondered if these poems spoke opposing languages. Now I might be seeing them as speaking the same tongue. Regardless, they dance and provoke.
“When the sun returns” rejoices. It captures that optimism that can come as the world lightens following a storm or a winter or a loss.
it is hallelujah time,
the swallows tracing an arc
of praise just off our balcony,
the mountains snow-sparkling
This poem observes and delights. It speaks of faith and hope. It lifts the reader before we move into one of our country’s deepest shames.
“In Guantanamo” praises the prisoner who writes a poem by
pressing his thumbnail
into the white permanence
of his Styrofoam cup–
This poem lauds the poet for surviving American brutality. This poem reminds us to
Hail the poet’s nail, thumb,
muscle, and hail his nerve.
Some of Browning’s poems dive back into her youth as she recalls “Kissing Girls.” One recalls a road trip conversation with poet Fred Joiner, “This Is the Poem.” In this poem, as in many others, she speaks directly and honestly about whiteness and privilege. This poem recalls the brutality often brought down on Black men as a result of their perceived “talking with a white woman.” One of the elements of Browning’s poems I most admire is her ability to elegantly and smoothly discuss her own whiteness. She confronts this artfully and thoughtfully.
One of this collection’s most tender poems is “London Holds Its Breath.” This poem, dedicated to her mother, Ann Hutt Browning, recalls a moment in her mother’s childhood when she embarked to the United States during the Blitz. She recalls her mother, as a girl, being taken out of London, by her own mother:
Your mother is dreaming of the sailing
you will make together. She tells
you tales of New York, big cars
crossing the vast cornfield, the ocean
dancing on the other side, California,
the golden hillsides, your new home.
The collection’s closing poem is as public as its opening poem is personal. “Flag of No Walls” reflects upon the shameful walls of our time: the US / Mexico border, the wall separating Palestinians from Israelis, the Berlin Wall. This poem hungers for “orange groves.” This poem celebrates men who wait for work “in the morning chill.” This poem yearns for
the flag of talking
of sitting on the disintegrating
wall and gabbing, gossiping,
These poems are beautiful, accessible, rich, and layered. They name and explore the injustices with which our world abounds. Yet they also rejoice with the possibility that comes with every human encounter. These poems not only chronicle those encounters, they invite us to create more such encounters. This book deserves a wide reading. I am grateful it is in the world. We need its depth, its gentleness, and its urgency.