Telepathologies by Cortney Lamar Charleston
Saturnalia Books, 2017; 128 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Social media has made poetry more readily available, but I’m embarrassed to admit that often I don’t see the reason why some poems go viral. Too easy, I think. Too impressed with itself, I snarkily lament. Too different for the sake of being different to matter, I declare as scorn and (probably a bit too much) jealousy succumb my better poetry angels.
But sometimes a poem comes along Facebook or Twitter that cannot be denied, one that proves art can, does, and must move us to make the world better. Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” is a poem for today and every other day. It’s brutal and hopeful, truthful and sad. And more important, the poem invites us to all the other raw, necessary, and commanding work in Charleston’s debut, Telepathologies, winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize.
The book’s three sections each begin with a particular part of the definition for telepathology, or “a subliminally transmitted belief espousing the sub-humanity of certain groups of people and deviating from healthy emotional and social cognition.” Section one tells of how the African-American experience in general and in specific—like for Dajerria Becton (“Pool Party”), Sandra Bland (“Facing the Music”), Eric Garner (“Meditation on the Casual Use of Hands”), and Freddie Gray (“Meditation on Black Death Ending with an X-Ray”)—is filtered through the Media. Section two’s poems consider the sociological aspect of how human lives are devalued, often examining how African-Americans need to adopt certain behaviors in order to fit in or not appear threatening, as in “White, As Told By Black,” which opens:
White: when asked for the umpteenth time why
my hairs curl into bolls, I will tell the half-curious
it is because of the cotton in my blood, waiting
to see if they recognize the fist they just spoke.
Charleston meditates on issues such as affirmative action (“Artfully Dodging the Subliminal and Obvious”) and cultural appropriation (“Miley Cyrus Presides Over the Funeral for the Twerk”) before coming to a head in section three where he turns personal. He reflects on fears—of women, of sameness, of self, of water—anger, and love in the hope of making sense how, as Evie Shockley notes in her blurb, “even in the face of fatal violence, the black body lives and breathes, mourns and survives.”
Which isn’t to say that this book is strictly an academic exercise; the diversity of formal choices—from concrete poem to ghazal to elegiac meditation—and the precision of language speak to Charleston’s considerable artistry. But even so, the book’s structure remains an important consideration because we must understand the myriad challenges faced by African-Americans if we hope to change our world. This book is not an instruction manual for racial healing; there is no quick, easy fix, not at least until we see the absurdity of the title of the collection’s final poem, “In Theory, We Are All Human” and work to prove it truly is the fundamental law we like to think it is.