Joshua Bennett Reads “The Book of Mycah”
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of January 22nd, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Joshua Bennett is currently a junior fellow at Harvard’s society of fellows. Bennett says his debut collection, The Sobbing School, is about being young in American when young men are being killed by police.
Joshua Bennett: Those people felt like my cousins. Mike Brown felt like he was related to me. I never met him. On some level, that doesn’t make sense. But I think a lot of Black folks that I’ve talked to about it, it’s like yeah, that’s the sense. You see Trayvon Martin, you see Renisha McBride dead, and you feel like that’s your family.
Lindsay Garbutt: Bennett’s poem in the January issue is called, “The Book of Micah”. He told us it’s the beginning of a larger work about the communities where this violence happens, communities that remind him of the people and places where he grew up in New York.
Joshua Bennett: You know, the girls with hip length braids and white Air Forces that shine, they’re so clean they shine, those were the summers I grew up with. I want to see that in American poetry. I want to see a reflection not just of the very real terror of black life in America, but the incredible beauty.
Lindsay Garbutt: Beauty as well as hope and joy, Bennett said.
Joshua Bennett: I wanted almost to use poetry, to use the craft to give a different ending to this story, to actually imagine a world where the slain Black person rises, where death is not the end.
Don Share: It’s a prose poem in four parts. Here are the firs two parts.
Joshua Bennett: Son of Man. Son of Marvin & Tallulah. Son of Flatbush & roti & dollar vans bolting down the avenue after six. The boy grew like a debt, & beautified every meter of the pockmarked, jet black asphalt which held him aloft on days he sped from much larger men along its skin. Godfathers & hustlers, Division 1 scholarship forfeiters, alchemists, liars, lasagna connoisseurs, Internet mixtape DJs & baby mama conflict consultants, each one appearing as if from the smoke of our collective imagination, Jordans laced, drawstrings taut, all of them gathered one by one to race the gangly, mop-top prodigy from the front of Superior Market to the block’s endarkened terminus, the same corner where Man Man got jumped so bad at the back end of last summer, neighborhood residents came to regard the place as a kind of memorial & it was like this every other afternoon, you know, from June through the final days leading up to the book drives & raucous cookouts which signaled our school year’s inauspicious return, this was the manner by which Mycah Dudley first gained his fame, dusting grown men without so much as the faintest scintillation of sweat to make the performance ethical. It was damn near unsportsmanlike, his effortlessness, mass cruelty in a New York City dreamscape, the laughter of girls with hip-length, straight-back braids & baby powder Forces making every contest an event worth leaving the perch of your bunk bed, stepping out into the record-breaking swelter that summer held like a trap door for kids with broken box fans & no mother home for at least four more hours to fill the quiet with discipline.
We gathered in swarms to gawk at our boy before takeoff. His flesh maroon-clad from head to foot like an homage to blood, black plastic afro pick with a fist for a handle jutting from the left side of his high-top fade, his high-top Chuck Taylors, size 12, sounding like ox hooves once he entered the groove of a good run & the distinction was basically moot at that point is what I am saying, the line between him & any other mystical creature, any worthwhile myth, any god of prey or waning life.
Don Share: It’s so vivid. To me, it seems as if most prose poems are languid, so right away this is engaging. The mixture of moods and tone and just the rush of the poem is so cinematic, it puts you right there where things are.
Christina Pugh: That really struck me as well, the movement and velocity of this poem even as it’s working with the block format of being basically left justified / right justified on the page. A lot of times as you were saying that format can really deaden a poem, and in this case it’s just the opposite. It seems to me it’s really just full of life, movement, sound, rhythmic, wonderful language even as it’s being constrained by this format. I think it was also a good choice because “Book of Mycah” implies it’s almost a myth or something like that, and in fact, around the end of the second section we hear that …
Joshua Bennett: & the distinction was basically moot at that point is what I am saying, the line between him & any other mystical creature, any worthwhile myth, any god of prey or waning life.
Christina Pugh: It’s almost like there’s something about this that’s like a creation myth, even at the same time that it’s the story of Micah’s death and resurrection. I think that the formal choice here was really smart and really positive for this poem.
Don Share: And not least because he says himself that Micah was in rare form early that evening, which obligates the poem to be in rare form too.
Lindsay Garbutt: I did some research and there is a book of Micah but it’s spelled with an “i” instead of a “y”, and it’s an abbreviation for the name Micah Yahoo, which means who is like Yahweh or who is like God. So it’s a very appropriate title for this poem, and I agree with you Christina, it feels like you’re reading a myth or a book of the testament or something like that, especially the way it opens …
Joshua Bennett: Son of Man. Son of Marvin & Tallulah. Son of Flatbush & roti & dollar vans bolting down the avenue after six.
Lindsay Garbutt: It places you in a very specific place. It enumerates a history, an ancestry, especially with all the people he outran listed in that first stanza or block paragraph. And then there are all these sort of ominous foreshadowing moments throughout these first two sections, where even if you didn’t know from Joshua’s introduction, you get the sense that something’s about to happen. The way he describes his outfit —
Joshua Bennett: His flesh maroon-clad from head to foot like an homage to blood.
Lindsay Garbutt:— You know that something is about to happen.
Don Share: And he talks about threshing the crowd for signs of the conflicts center, so what’s really striking is that it reminds us again, vividly, that a kind of mythology rises from reality. We tend to think of myth as being an abstraction or a story, but they arise from true conflict, real conflict, that’s what’s at the centre of life as well as death.
Lindsay Garbutt: And the way this poem is written, it’s so easy to imagine a kind of communal telling. That there’s a speaker in front of an audience telling this story. There’s this moment in the first section where he says —
Joshua Bennett: … & it was like this every other afternoon, you know, from June through the final days leading up to the book drives & raucous cookouts which signaled our school year’s inauspicious return
Lindsay Garbutt:— you’re brought into this story, and you’re very much engaged throughout the entire telling of it. At the end, it’s emphasized when he says hear me…
Joshua Bennett:… Hear me. I heard the gunman’s greeting. Saw hollow points etch
apertures into the boy’s clothes. They shot Mycah Dudley, quite legally. He died that night. He rose.
Don Share: Well there’s an amazing intersection of view points here, where the poem is continually accountable to what this poem calls “the general consensus”. In mythology, we have that where there’s a shared story but there’s a particular person. The poet’s job is to be the spokesperson for that consensus around which there’s so much to describe. So it’s like poetry is a kind of community building in it’s formal construction and in it’s duty not only to readers, but it’s dutiful to a sense of what has happened. It allows people to draw their own conclusions too. There is a sort of biblical obligation to say morality, but it’s also called into question, it’s left as an open question because the answer to it depends on who is judging whom.
Christina Pugh: The kind of chronicling that the epic poems did, the kind of encyclopedic sort of function that they had, you can see that in the listing that you were just talking about Lindsay earlier on in the poem. Also, the moment of —
Joshua Bennett: & we stared at our champion felled by an outcome so common we don’t even have a special name for it.
Christina Pugh: It seems like it’s this sort of confluence of the creation of myth and also the calling things by their names. The way I interpreted the ending is that the gunmen is the police, so the idea that the gunman is usually in the news, and in the common parlance we think of the gunman as someone who commits the crime. there’s the gunman and then there’s the police. In this case, the gunman is the police. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. So it’s a kind of calling of the crime, the crime, the gunman, the police was who shot and killed Mycah, this champion, this superhero sort of character. I think that it’s doing that interesting work of trying to judge what happened.
Don Share: You can read “The Book of Mycah” and in the January 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four January episodes at once on the full length episode on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this poem comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.