Some People Say
In Fatimah Asghar’s excerpt from “Oil,” the speaker starts off by sounding off: “I think we // are at war! I yelled to my sister / knapsacks ringing // against our backs.” She’s trying to explain a mystery—why students have been “sent home” in the middle of the school day. That day happens to be September 11, 2001, and the poem describes how local reactions to the terrorist attacks reduce the chatty speaker to stillness.
Twice she notes: “I collect words where I find them.” Yet she discovers that her background—her family “might / be Afghani”—means she shouldn’t draw on her collection as freely as her white classmates draw on theirs. “I can’t say blow out loud or everyone will hate me. / They all make English their own say that’s the bomb & / I know that word’s not meant for me.”
Forced into silence, she turns to silent—or at least very quiet—protest. “I practice at night, the crater / it makes of my mouth,” she writes, “I whisper it to my sheets, / bombbombbombbombbombbombbombombbombbombbombbombbomb // a little symphony.” The crater her “bomb” makes is strictly metaphorical and she crafts from the forbidden word something creative, not destructive—a piece of music. (“Bombbombbomb…” approximates the “bum-bum-bum” we hum.) Like a musician, she’s practicing, preparing for the day she might pronounce something beautiful out of any words she chooses—something, perhaps, like a poem.
Natalie Shapero’s “Sunshower” highlights a peculiar American regionalism: “the devil is beating his wife,” which hypothesizes a cause for rainstorms on sunny days. (According to a national dialect survey, the most common expression for this phenomenon is “sun shower,” but several inspired options exist, from “pineapple rain” to “monkey’s wedding.”)
Shapero begins each sentence of this anaphoric poem with “Some people say,” a construction whose meaning swiftly shifts. At first the phrase indicates simply that only some speakers favor the diabolical idiom. Then the refrain turns into a term of gossip—one that introduces a variety of opinions about the devil. These responses fall into categories familiar from reactions to terrestrial abuse: criticism (he’s a hypocrite), rationalization (“this is commonplace”), and denial (“the sun is washing her face”). Comprising solely chatter, the poem suggests the prevalence of mere talk in the wake of mistreatment.
In “Sunshower,” Shapero literalizes a metaphorical expression; hence the excited pronouncements of her commentators. In so doing, she alerts us to just how troubling that expression truly is—metaphor or not.
“What is a brand?” asks Rae Armantrout in “Piece.” Her poem goes on to explore a piece of clothing—more precisely, a piece of a piece. The poem delves into the meaning of underwear labels: “The hopeful tag // on the tan underpants / that reads ‘Metaphor’ // leaves everything / to the imagination,” she writes. (Underwear itself, by contrast, leaves relatively little.)
“Piece” proceeds in brief, tag-like patches of text. Meanwhile, underwear tags come off rather like poems—mysterious ones, at that. They’re “flapping tongues, / dropping hints // about a foreign designer, / himself largely a cover story.” They speak, but only through suggestion, and if they reveal anything, it’s more concealment. They’re laden with metaphor—yet “metaphor” is in quotation marks. Does Armantrout mean that the tags offer metaphors, or words pretending to be metaphors? What is this poem covering up? The reader can only imagine.
In “When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Martyr,” Cortney Lamar Charleston provides an uncommon response to a common question. For young black men, his poem suggests, the career options are limited: basketball, if you have “the height and hops,” or else football, if you have “the bulk and burst to break through the / defensive line like a bullet.” But his speaker feels destined for bullets themselves: early death is “the only frame for greatness I seem to find for boys my shade.” “Shade” calls to mind not just skin tone, but also ghosts; the specters of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and countless others—including the speaker himself—haunt this poem.
The theme of crosses haunts the poem, too: the speaker is a “crossbreed,” and Jesus, he predicts, will be “dying on a cross to meet [him].” Malcolm appears without his cross-like X—it’s been crossed-out—and the speaker draws “an X on [his] undeveloped chest” like a target. Charleston’s “X” is complex, and it offers hints of hope: if it symbolizes erasure and death, it also alludes to faith, and to expression—it’s a letter, a building block of lines like these.