Doppelgangbanger, the second collection of poems by Cortney Lamar Charleston (Haymarket, £12), describes growing up Black in white suburbia. In ‘Hip-Hop Introspective’:
Kids ask what FUBU means. White girls look at me
constantly. DMX never seems to be screaming.
The underground heads north on my playlists
while an old poster peels away from the wall.
I’m beside myself almost always: A-side, B-side.
FUBU (a clothing line) means ‘For Us, By Us’. It summons up a culture of Black solidarity that Charleston associates with Chicago’s South Side, where he lived before his family moved to the outskirts of the city.
The glory days, rocking my high-top fade
I’m mesmerised by a poster on my uncle’s wall.
The black-tinted sunglasses, Jamaican dreads:
young Stevie Wonder sitting beside the
smiling Bob Marley, looking like two sides
of a DJ’s vinyl, something to be sampled, cut,
and sold like substances I’m not wise to yet.
Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley don’t make the same kind of music: their meeting is a sign of Afro-diasporic unity, the kind Charleston would come to miss in a town where he ‘finds himself having to kiss up/because he is too sun-kissed to be down/with the other boys’.
Like many poems in Doppelgangbanger, ‘Hip-Hop Introspective’ deals with the experience of what W.E.B Du Bois called ‘double consciousness’: ‘the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others’. In the company of his white peers, Charleston realises he
doesn’t use the same
words, or uses the same words differently.
Can’t figure out if he is still barking or they are.
All his old friends were his dogs, but he is boy
now, so he thinks, not completely hip to his mouth re-learning the shape of certain words.
Throughout the book, Charleston mixes standard English and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a way that mimics the internal conflict his poems describe: ‘I tongue/English with a train-track switch,/proper syntax and sin against it/separately with kin-skin.’ (‘Proper’ works as a verb here; I make it proper and then I sin.)
No one else of his generation can do as much as Charleston can with an XXL sentence or a series of puns. He revels in multiplicity, using hip-hop accelerations in one passage and gospel cadence in another (a process he describes as ‘remixing’). He is a poet of sinuous sentences and exaggerated sound-play:
How many beautiful boys have been bruised that way,
by the bleakness of being broke or the blow against it
by a brother’s balled up hand if not a black hole hollowing
a black body after a star is born inside a barrel of steel?
Such lines couldn’t exist without hip-hop, or without Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse: that’s how he combines them (the poem is called ‘Thugonomics’).
Charleston’s versatile phrasing, extended lines and branching references pay homage not just to canonised titans like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, but to contemporary Black poets: Elizabeth Alexander and Terrance Hayes; Harryette Mullen, Reginald Dwayne Betts and Evie Shockley. (He is one of the few young poets who has learned from Hayes without copying him.) But if Charleston represents a new generation of Black writers, he faces similar problems to his predecessors: his sense of himself, as a poet and man, comes from the shade cast on him by invidious stereotypes. He grew up
post-Reagan, when the big-city newspapers sell themselves with
headlines about shadow-on-shadow crime like light doesn’t factor
into the equation, by definition, like light doesn’t have a gaze upon
the world called the day. Fact of the matter is – sad as the matter is,
I can only see myself in relation to it, to the light; I can only move in
reaction to movement, my ankles shackled to dogma that dogs me and us
out from the moment of first appearance. In my case that’s June 1990.
Nobody wants to be a shadow, an Other, a marked man: nobody wants to feel secondary, let alone (as Du Bois put it) to know ‘how it feels be a problem’. But that is how Black history, Black poets and Black kids are often cast. ‘White History Month’, in Charleston’s quip, ‘formally begins on 1 February and concludes 31 January./You can always tell when it’s that time of year.’ (In the US, Black History Month is February – the shortest month.)
At school, Charleston had Black Nerd Problems (to borrow the title of a popular blog). On the one hand, he struggled to be accepted by his Black peers: ‘Please don’t get me wrong, though. I’m definitely about my/books because I’m about my collards and black-eyed peas,/but not like a will.i.am; I’m more of a Malcolm X-tra Small.’ On the other, he was tasked with negotiating white adults who found Black book smarts exotic, or worse, unbelievable. He recalls the day his teacher accused him of cheating on a test: ‘when you kicked me out of the exam for even/looking in K. Chen’s direction, I appreciate that you did/so quietly for the sake of my rep as the smartest kid in the room.’ Charleston calls this poem ‘No Weapon Formed against Me Shall Prosper’, trusting his readers to complete Isaiah 54:17: ‘And every tongue that accuses you in judgment, you shall condemn.’
Like Hayes, who strives to write ‘a poetry placing Black life at its nexus’, Charleston runs the constant risk of being misread, or misunderstood, by a non-Black audience. He isn’t writing primarily for me. He doesn’t have to, nor does any other Black writer. There is something uncomfortable, and unfair, about taking a single Black poet to represent African-American experience generally. Charleston takes up this unfairness in his title poem, a pun-filled Spenserian sonnet: ‘If I’m a stereotype,/I be branded Sony, Bose – not some shit/Zenith did.’ It’s also there in the comically titled ‘Still Life with Kendrick Lamar’s Mama’s Van’:
This ain’t the block, but we really be out here, though.
Not me, but we, because we talk like that. A force of
habit from us all looking the same to the force of law,
because we all drive through these expensive
neighbourhoods, pumping bass like base through
the speakers after mandated curfew, chasing
daughters of the well-off Wonder Breaded,
talking like the South Side, the West Side,
and that’s our story, not necessarily mine.
If we don’t hear the sarcasm in ‘we all’, we miss the feeling: the humour, the exasperation with a society that treats all Black people alike – and that generates homologous objection from all manner of Black art.
The dilemma faced by Black poets who write for Black readers, but attract a non-Black audience as well, is something that Charleston addresses. Writing of racism and anti-racism, of stigma and pride and recidivism, he tells us: ‘I have/the vocabulary my professors have given me to describe and/define it, one that white people can understand, in theory. But/racism is more their problem to bear than mine.’ In his concrete poem ‘Triggernometry’, which appears on the page as two triangles, one above the other, with a trigger-shaped coda, Charleston views racial violence in geometric terms. Here ‘the devil be a master mimic–/be a mathematician’ who brings things into catastrophic relation. During history class, the young Charleston imagines the legacy of the slave trade as a triangle ‘drawn in red, a long trail of/blood between Africa, Europe and America’. Now ‘Chicago is the angle between sides, between brothers: a tangent of death.’
Charleston’s first book, Telepathologies (2017), won praise for its technical dexterity. Doppelgangbanger is no less accomplished, incorporating everything from concrete poems and sonnets to a modern take on the ghazal – a verse form that originated in medieval Arabic. In ‘Jumpman: A Ghazal with Pivots’, Charleston shifts from praise for Michael Jordan to Air Jordans (often credited with establishing ‘sneaker culture’ in the US) to the history of anti-lynching protests. Air Jordans are ‘Gravity-defiers. Deifiers, for real. The way/he hangs crooked in the air as a hanged man’s neck. He got jumps, man!’ The silhouette of the airborne Jordan – used to promote his brand of sneakers – blurs with images of racist brutality. Later in the poem, Black kids wearing Air Jordans mark themselves out as targets on the street:
The latest pair released. Bad move: these kids
just might be jumped, man.
Tongue sticking out: how boys brashly
walk windy streets when they got
them things, three digits easy.
Die. I’m a kid, you see. I got dreams of
mansions wings. Let me jump, man!
Don’t start talking to me about sweatshops.
Wife-cheating. Rolling loaded –
another pair snatched off a body: should’ve
ducked, but he jumped, man.
Athletic joy can’t be disentangled from repeated narratives of Black trauma. Non-Black readers will probably be attuned to the poem’s strains of conflict and violence (such references are outward-facing and reactive); the danger here is that they will treat Charleston’s celebration of Black solidarity as something of only secondary importance.
‘The site of union [among Black people internationally] is not so much the wound but the dream,’ the poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley has remarked. White readers may see the wound but miss the dream, see the struggle but miss – or misunderstand – the tenderness. (Tenderness can mean gentleness and affection, but also sensitivity to pain.) When ‘the president, the mayor or any other politician’ applauds the demolition of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, Charleston demurs:
It’s a place where many people died but many, many, many more
lived. Those are the folks I identify with: I know what it’s like
to live. I have no idea what it means to die – I guess I’m not black
in that way.
For a white critic, writing about Black poetry means giving up claims to expertise: some of us might be in a position to show readers ways of thinking about a poem, but we have to recognise that we’ll never be the authority. Doppelgangbanger, unusually and brilliantly, seems to anticipate that realisation: the Black poet speaks to himself and to other Black readers about the fact that white people are listening and watching. His ambivalent relationship to these white onlookers, who assume they already know what he means to say, is one of Charleston’s most vexed subjects. White approaches to Blackness, as he writes in ‘White History Month’, are like something from the game show Jeopardy: ‘questions as answers/and answers as questions, and in such a set up the pale truth/can be lost’.
There is no one truth in these poems – but there are, always, truths only Blackness can find. Charleston’s ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ champions solidarity, but ends with a call for privacy: for readers and writers to protect their individuality from demands from any quarter. ‘Keep a journal that can never be/found, chiselled on the underside of your skull … Keep/yourself, meaning refrigerate, be cold, ice.’ In ‘Newton’s Third Law/Negritude’s First Law’, a poem in syncopated couplets, he addresses his ideal reader:
I won’t cry over spilled
blood anymore. I steady my base, build
momentum at the hips, and swing through
the me behind the me you see to get to you.