When I was a freshly out gay kid and still-closeted poet, I scoured the stacks of my hicktown library for whatever poems I could get my hands on. My favorites were Angels of the Lyre (Gay Sunshine Press, 1978) and The Black Poets (Bantam, 1985). I would hide in a private reading room away from the afternoon bullies and pore over work by Nikki Giovanni, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, and scores of other poets whose work managed to be political without sacrificing, well, the poetry. Bless the deviant librarian who secreted these books in, and forgive the 16-year-old who pinched them.
Few young poets today write with the lacerating chutzpah of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother,” or Ginsberg’s “Please Master,” so imagine my delight when I picked up a copy of Kevin Simmonds’ first solo collection (he’s edited several anthologies, including Collective Brightness from Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011). Here is an artist and activist for our generation, weaned on the academia that today’s waning poetry audiences demand, but grounded in the Stonewall generation’s ethos of political and sexual liberation.
In this way, Simmonds is more like James Broughton, Essex Hemphill, and the lesser-known Richard Ronan than any poet who’s emerged in the last twenty years. But while Simmonds spends a fair share of Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) feeling his roots, he spends as much time tending the flowers they produce, gorgeous poems that are a hybrid of the old and new.
Simmonds, who grew up in New Orleans, spent part of his youth in Asia, and now lives in the Bay Area, covers extensive terrain in Mad for Meat, both geographically and culturally. New Orleans, Charleston, Japan, Saigon, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, and Napa Valley all make appearances here, as do Dolly Parton, Billie Holiday, Leontyne Price, Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham, and a dozen others. Religion also figures prominently, from Pentecostals and Catholic priests to Buddhists and Watchtower-waving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There’s so much there, in fact, that it can be daunting at first. As Simmonds says in the poem “Rent” (yes, thatRent), “it’s hard to keep track at first…but the story [is] rightfully complicated.” Simmonds doesn’t hesitate in risking being complicated any more than he hesitates in slaying theatrical sacred-cows; and since he’s also an accomplished composer who wrote the music for the Emmy Award-winning documentary HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, it’s a good bet that he knows whereof he speaks.
Musicality, in fact, is what holds Mad for Meat’s divergent themes together. “Witchcraft,” for instance, boils with incantatory lines:
A woman came out of me
Black and undisturbed
A readheaded boy child
Pale as potato chip
A Chinese man
Lips pink as an eardum […]
The prose poem “Sermon” rescues a tale of queer boyhood from the familiar pitfall of martyrdom: “Take the cliché of a child whose need for an absent father unearths an appetite for damage [….] Before he had hair on his balls, he’d pled for deliverance.” Tellingly, it’s music that leads the speaker to epiphany: “Not every two bodies will create children. It’s not that they are without string, key or hammer. Some are woodwinds, their music of erotic conclusions. Let the breath pass through them. You do not control the wind.”
As much as Simmonds avoids the cliché in his own work, he’s not afraid to confront stereotypes about African Americans head-on. Poems like “Basketball” (“I’ve played only once…”) and “Aunt Jemima” (“Tell me something sweet, something that’ll stick and undo the knots I’ve known”) use fresh imagery to repurpose the stalest of tropes.
In “Eartha Kitt,” one of several persona poems in the collection, the speaker purrs, “I’ll spare you the chronology but I know the distance between dirt and diamonds. Darling, I’ve traveled it.” You can’t walk away from Mad for Meat without feeling that Simmonds could have said almost the same thing about himself; luckily for us, though, he hasn’t left out any of the details—chronological or otherwise.
Mad for Meat
by Kevin Simmonds Salmon Poetry
Paperback, 9781907056826, 87pp