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Book Review

Popular Music and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

by on March 3, 2017

Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Review by Katharine Coldiron




In the middle of writing an ekphrastic novella based on an album I loved, I discovered to my surprise that music and literature don’t cross paths much. Bob Dylan is often viewed as a poet, and Yeats has been set to music by more than one artist, but still, it’s not often that the two media reflect on one another.

However, two small-press books of poetry from 2016 prove exceptions. Popular Musi
, by Kelly Schirmann (Black Ocean), and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone) both explicitly call on musical influences to work at their subjects. In Schirmann’s case, the subject is life as a Millennial woman; for Willis-Abdurraqib, it’s life (and death) as a young black man. Both books explore multiple modes of poetry (often veering into prose), and both books boast artistic confidence and maturity well beyond debut-book status.

Schirmann’s poetry sticks largely to narrative and vignettes, but she causes small details to loom large. Most of her poems are no longer than a page, and some are even shorter. The narrative flow gives the reader the sense of sliding in and out of different parts of Schirmann’s mind.

All my friends
are moving to Los Angeles
She’s a fascist, says the Goodwill clerk
& hands me a new book
Wanting to learn a thing or two
is a dangerous position to be in
Girls just wanna have fun
says the loudspeaker
& the people swing
their brightly colored arms

As interesting as her poetry is, the prose is possibly even more effective. Popular Music is divided into six sections, alternating between prose and poetry.  The prose segments each tell a single story almost as a fable, beginning with a memory and ending with a life lesson. That sounds tedious, but in practice it’s stunning. The prose also hits as hard as the poetry, if not harder, because Schirmann brings a poet’s sensibility to both rendering detail and making thematic connections.

Schirmann varies between real-life details and this kind of spare, unadorned analysis. She really shines, though, as her prose lifts into the lyric register toward the end of each prose section. “Music makes space for us, entire continents of space,” she proposes. “It provides us with new languages and images with which to describe it to one another, new emotional esthetics with which to interpret the experience of Living. It even provides us with a person to which we can outsource the interpretation of this experience. Out of this mouth, our feelings flow.”

This is definitely a point of view to which Willis-Abdurraqib would subscribe. His book is not explicitly about music, but musical artists of all kinds are name-dropped throughout it: Jay-Z, Taking Back Sunday, Nick Drake, Kanye, many more. One poem is named “At the House Party Where We Found Out Whitney Houston was Dead”:

We, the war generation.
The only way we know how to bury our dead
is with blood, or sweat, or sex
or anything pouring from wet skin
to signify we were here, and the wooden floor
of a basement belonging to an old house on Neil Avenue
makes as good a burial ground as any
says the small boom box now playing DJ
in the center of this room,
and the Whitney CD inside,
pouring out of the speakers just loudly enough
to let everyone in this room
get a small taste of Whitney alive and young,

Music is not the only thread that ties these poems together. The poetry takes multiple forms: narrative, visual, prose, couplets, and even sideways, the words running vertically from the bottom of the page to the top. However, the book is all of a piece. Partially this unity derives from a series of refrains: dispatches from a barbershop, memories of a shooting, a dead mother’s voice. The book also holds together via its recurring themes: violence, funerals, the urban environment, poetry itself, and, most importantly, blackness.

…And child, when you take skin swollen and damp from the river and the blood, and you throw it in the heat, everything pops. You gotta cover your eyes, baby. Hold them children close. My mama’s mama said that’s how God made the south. Said there was nothing but grass and then, one day, all this wet black skin. Said it popped so loud when they set them down in the blazing stomach of the new world, them plantation fields split clean open and then there was cotton. And then idle hands for the picking, and then war, and after that, we all woke up with our skin covered in hot grease, birds following us everywhere and so at least we was eating good.

Need I say more? Willis-Abdurraqib’s words speak for themselves more powerfully than anything I could say to recommend them. Read this book; live inside this poet’s skin. His is a poetic voice as strong and impactful as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, a mourning, shouting, singing vox populi.


Popular Music is available through Black Ocean Press.

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is available through Button Poetry.

Book Review

I am a Season that Does Not Exist in The World

by on July 5, 2016

iamaseasoncoverI Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World By Kim Kyung Ju





I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is Korean poet Kim Kyung Ju’s first collection of poetry. Upon it’s original release in Korea in 2006 it sold over ten thousand copies and created a stir within the literary world. For years an English translation had been elusive. Now, nearly ten years have passed and we are graced with a wonderful English translation by Jake Levine that is devout to the original Korean. I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is a tactile and carefully constructed meditation on the essence of life itself. Ju is a master at creating rich and unique images through his poetry and in this debut poetry collection Ju’s talents are on full display.


Broken into four sections, the pieces here hover close to the absurd and the surreal, but always center on the personal. Formally, Ju explores a fairly loose, prose poem-esque style. Some pieces feel like intimate vignettes; brief dreamlike glimpses into the subconscious. More traditional poetic forms are here as well, and Ju works hard to evoke memorable feelings out of each and every line. The myriad structural forms found in I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World could be symptomatic of Ju’s multimodal interests in art forms such as theater, musicals, and independent films. In this respect, this makes Ju a very exciting and quite modern poet.


In this collection Ju meditates on loneliness, childhood, and family life. He also places a strong emphasis on nostalgia and an existential kind of lament for things that have been lost. These feelings are underscored by a strong sense and stylistic leaning towards the absurd and surreal. The five part series of poems titled “The Room That Flies To Outer Space” are emblematic of the kind of vague surrealism found within Ju’s work. The language is lush and reminiscent of Italo Calvino, who gave nature and the world around us a very human and organic touch. In Ju’s poetry, nature itself is often anthropomorphized, and the effect is to give everything around us a wonderfully tactile feel. Inanimate objects and vague abstractions such as the night seem to breathe upon every line.


In one of the more enjoyable pieces from the collection, titled “Manhole,” Ju weaves existential anxiety through the focus of a distressed spider. The spider leaves it’s home to never find home again, and the first person narrator ends up questioning existence itself as he watches the wings of a moth being slowly eaten by the spider. There is an eloquent yearning and a strong sense of angst towards life found in Ju’s pieces that is perhaps best captured through the second to last line in “Manhole” :


My life drags as if order in the world never really existed. Save Me!


“Manhole” isn’t the only poem where an existential anxiety or fear is manifested through the vantage point of a spider or small creature. In “Hear The Mackerel Cry,” weeping Mackerel are cooked and eaten to act as a metaphor for a disconnection between mother and son. Furthermore the piece is another meditation on the absurd nature of life and Ju’s feelings of angst and ennui towards it:


When life shows me its tail, I cut the body off.


In “A Life Secluded,” Ju seems to be lamenting the passage of time and comes to the realization that time is something that doesn’t only belong to him, but also belongs to inorganic objects like his clothes. Again, Ju creates a sense of sadness around something as inanimate as a set of clothes, and makes us sympathize with them by giving them almost human desires. A desire to be touched and felt. The piece evokes a certain yearning for the clothes to feel connected to his body, to feel his body’s warmth “if just for a moment.”


In a world that has become increasingly devoid of and disinterested in close, human contact and communication, Ju has given us poetry that breathes, and feels incredibly alive. As disillusioned as some of these pieces are, perhaps through the tactile nature of the language we’ll start to feel a little less achingly alone and a little more connected to things.

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is available now through Black Ocean Press.