“To give loss a name is homage,” Quenton Baker writes early in This Glittering Republic; “to think it only has one name is sin.” Baker’s book, his first full-length collection of poems, is a long song of loss and brutality, connection and fear, black subjecthood held strong the face of white violence and the persistent obscuring power of white ignorance.
In doing its homage, Republic gives loss many names: Damian Turner, dead in 2010 from a gunshot wound because Chicago’s violence-haunted South Side had no Level 1 trauma center to treat him; Sara Baartman, the Khoikhoi “Hottentot Venus” of the 1800s, taken from Africa and exhibited to gawking white circus audiences; Mary Turner, tortured and murdered by a white mob in 1918 after demanding arrest warrants in the lynching of her husband.
Republic also gives many names to its own voice, its “I” (that pronoun that literature’s “minor gods” call “gauche”). This “I” tends its subjectivity and its uncertainty; it keeps alive the possibilities of intimacy and recognition. In its love poems, in its words that are “my wailing/my swagger/my dictates,” in its restless self-examination of the poet caught between “[default] / and black” speech and culture, Republic dramatizes an urgent and enduring voice.
Central to Republic is the refusal of forgetting, of burial. In “Self-Portrait,” the poet has no wish to be buried: “Expect to connect to me. // Don’t let your yearning drift / inside the reasons for my casket. / Need me alive.” When it listens at all, white American consciousness often expects the black voice to be one of a noble martyr. But despite this, despite being “pressed between every brick, avenue / thoroughfare,” the poet is still breathing, still here, nobody’s martyr.
In “Mary Turner,” the exhumation of those buried is made graphic and literal. You don’t know Turner’s life and death, Baker says,
[u]ntil you lift up acres
of untilled, abandoned fields
hold them upside down
and ask the fat weeds that fall out for a story. (19)
The story Baker tells repeats, sickeningly, this very upside-down gesture. In 1918 in Georgia, an abusive white plantation owner was shot by one of his black workers; in revenge, a white mob lynched at least thirteen black people, including Turner’s husband. When Turner, who was eight months pregnant, “done provoked” a “white and sodden” crowd by calling for the killers’ arrest, she was caught, hung upside down, burned, and cut open: her murdered body made into inverted, opened ground, a “primer / on what it look like / when a black woman speak.”
When Baker addresses Sara Baartman, it’s her living presence he speaks to, in the European and colonial “Museum of Man”—a presence to which Baker makes himself a solemn companion. In this museum dwells the Eurocentric epistemology of nature, which places white intellect and cultural development at the top of an order that devalues African bodies, societies, and spirits. Baker affirms that the sexual and cultural degradation which Baartman endured affects even the supposedly neutral realities of “moon or season,” but affirms too that a resisting subject can survive and endure. “You’re more than dismemberment / aren’t you?” he asks. Believing in that endurance, Baker ends the poem with recognition and friendship: “May I sit with you? // Will you tell me about your river, / your love, // the small ways we say no?” Even in small refusals, the poet suggests, a self can endure.
Baker also gives a voice to the sick fantasies of dominance that spiritually underlie these Eurocentric epistemologies, which ultimately culminate in white rage and white violence against black bodies. In “Meet Me Down at the Square,” Baker writes in the voice of the unnamed white man holding a woman’s hand before the lynched bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. (The 1930 photograph on which Baker based the poem was also the source for Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.”) From the spectacle of the murder, the white speaker takes a libidinal, world-building charge that he directs onto his lover and on to the child he wants to put in her:
You my girl my best girl…
I wanna put as much of me as I can fit
I wanna chew up the waddling dusk
coax it down your throat.
I want your fat, perfect belly to blot out the sun.
This white spiritual condition is not just a cold, “scientific” belief in superiority. It’s a will to omnipotence that finds its form and potency in violence.
How does the poet’s voice rise against this killing dehumanization? “The song is blood,” Baker says early in Republic. The poem “I” defends the politicized first-person, one lower-case in the face of “Your I authenticated with god blood”:
i tell minor gods:
your I cast wide shadow.
i was and am that umbra.
. . .
When i sit still,
my body breaks apart —
tenderized and torn
by the I i haven’t been.
Republic resists this stillness and its implicit passivity. The poet continues: “In the worst wreck of my inner space / there is a note: go to the page. / And i return to the i’s like mine: / precious, partially crushed.”
But the first-person that the poet creates in Republic isn’t simple. It’s “Diglossic” (in the title of one poem), dwelling in multiple worlds and languages “between which lies / the dialectic of my body.” In the poem, refraining between “what I mean is” and “what you mean is,” Baker addresses a white “you” and a black one:
What I mean is: two Americas. One weight. Shaped from fear
made reasonable. Justified.
I love you like I am you, like I’ve broken in front of you and
you willed it remote. Exotic.
To have vulnerability pushed away is one kind of pain. Later in the poem, Baker unsparingly examines another kind of pain, one that he himself could cause:
I am you. But my mother is white. How close to an oppressor
do I sleep? Am I your enemy?
. . . How white? Do I love you or do I fuck you? Is it Gwendolyn
Am I extraordinary? Am I exempt? Am I negro to your nigger?
Can you trust me? Do I confuse your culture with poverty?
What you mean is: am I your enemy?
What you mean is: two Americas, one weight. Do I carry?
The repetition of the “means” and the circling sentence structures don’t do the rhetorical work of reinforcing a simple message. They instead work to circle the reader’s attention back to unresolvable contradictions — in speech, in identity, in nation — the way you try, over and over, to articulate a truth you can’t express quite right.
In “Diglossic,” the poet calls himself “Little mulatto codebreaker, identity / that jump cuts like a running back.” Baker doesn’t try to smooth over this back-and-forth and the uncertainty it forces on him. In another poem, he is a prophet doomed to be surprised by his own explosive words, “to spend my last breath saying: / oh.” And in two poems called “Transient,” the poet watches himself skeptically, in performance and on the road as a musician. The first of these, written entirely in hard double-stress lines, observes as “the trunk thump / of raw truth / we built us” moves and shakes a crowd all “white-faced,” a crowd whose “drunk dap” and fist-bumps and wrinkled cash tips can’t conceal the fact that the musical light (and the ecstasy and sweat in which it’s delivered) feels dead to the very artist who’s bringing it.
The second “Transient” is an overflowing single-stanza rush of sensations and moments from tour —
a bicycle. PCP. Prison tats. He
called me loved one. 7 AM. Still
drunk. On the road to Mam-
moth Lakes. Whiskey Wednes-
day. Steak. Pasta. Making out in
the lobby. Handle of Jameson. I
love you. Crack vial in the snow.
Tweaked-out DJ. Hiding in the
fire escape. Middle of our set.
Wrong instrumental spinning.
He sleeps on coats, hoodies.
— that circles back to a home where the poet is happy to rest, but doesn’t stay. A similar restless urgency emerges in “Revision,” where the poet positions himself in relation to a canon where he has no place, except as “prop.” “Revision” calls back to the “black wound” of Terrance Hayes’s poem “Cocktails with Orpheus.” The labor of trying to find a humanity within a wounded marginality — the marginality to which the poet is confined by the “sick and incomplete” environment of dominant literature — is his whole creative life:
All my wailing/my swagger/my dictates
on a destructive external reality
are margin notes, my nigga.
The love poems in the second half of Republic move likewise between contradictions, between shyness and spiritual hunger. Who puts us together, these poems ask, and who tears us apart? In the drumming rain and intimate darkness of “Nude Transformation,” the poet can barely face his lover as she undresses, even in his desire for her wholeness and dignity. The chance meeting in “Retrieval,” where two people are brought together “by a busy wind and lucky slope” and wind up married “at a die-in / for a thrownaway,” has its twin in “Love Letter” on the next page, where the poet flees up a “white stone building” and locks the door to keep a lover out. But then he will jump, “and on the way down, / my skin will break apart / like an autumn canopy” revealing his hidden insides. In these poems, there’s no avoiding being seen, no avoiding the risk of transformation. As one poem beautifully puts it, the lover is “a hurdle of roses: / something to be clear of, to be caught in, / to be bled by, combined with.”
And throughout Baker’s book is the intimation of a greater spiritual witness and communion. Republic opens with a brief, shared “sinkwater baptism” of “(a nigger) loved by God,” the same God whose passing presence bestows sacredness on the speaker in “Holy and Black”: “God casts a shadow on the branches / and spit stuck in my thick naps.” And the scouring vision of Republic’s final poem, “Dialectic,” takes on the voice of “the black saint of lynching” who dwells at the end of reason. This saint offers their sacramental heart to every mutilated and broken victim, and holds up an unbearable reflection of the souls of those who have inflicted such violence. This, in a much darker way, is a spiritual witness as meaningful as the sacred shadow of “Holy and Black.” “Dialectic” ends:
At the end of reason, I am locked in place . . .
I deserve the shackle
deserve the whip, the noose.
I deserve the burning, the bullets, the bars.
I deserve solitary
because if I don’t
what are you?
If there is any possibility of freedom, Republic suggests, it lies only in mutual recognition. But the brutality of racist violence seeks specifically to destroy the possibility of that recognition: “nothing made you drag the knife harder / than my face turned mirror.” In its haunting final question, “Dialectic” evokes James Baldwin on the damning question he called white Americans to reflect on: “What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
The violence, economic inequality, spiritual sickness, and will-to-power of racism is a shaping force in This Glittering Republic. But beneath and against this awful power, Baker’s uncovering of history and his restless, serious, diglossic “I” won’t give up. “I cannot be buried — / I carry the sunset in my mouth.”
Jay Aquinas Thompson is poet and critic with recent work in Fog Machine, Sprung Formal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and Berfrois. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he teaches creative writing to incarcerated women.