Backlit by Love
“how many of us have them?” is an ode to friendship—and to friendly roasting. “o loves, / y’all ugly asses have crowned me the worst names,” writes Danez Smith, from “wayne brady” to “gay wiz khalifa” to “mark of buddha that year acne / scored my forehead with its bumpy faith.” The speaker returns the favor, dubbing pals “y’all booty-faced // weird-ass ole mojo-jojo-looking asses.” It’s a compliment, in a way: “all of us have looked / like something off when backlit by love.”
The stuff of that love, Smith suggests, is “shit- / talk”; it’s “a river i wade . . . . could be / a baptism from the inside out.” In the “inside out” world of the poem, disparagement means devotion and name-calling serves as a precious kind of christening—into a society of friends.
The one friend whose real name Smith provides, Andrew, has died. Yet he remains with the speaker: “the dust on the fan calls me a bum, / says my hairline looks like it’s thinking / about retirement.” In naming Andrew, the speaker both mourns and baptizes him—as if, in this poem, his life can begin again.
In the March issue of Poetry, Martín Espada addresses his father: “When I was a boy, you were God. I watched from the seventh floor / of the projects as you walked down into the street to stop a public / execution.” Yet his father taught him that God did not exist—and as a result, he knows that his now-deceased father cannot hear him. “Letter to My Father” suggests both the urgent need for a savior and the suspicion that none will come. These intertwined sentiments are juxtaposed with the urgency of the poem’s occasion: Hurricane Maria, which has ravaged his father’s homeland, Puerto Rico. Throughout, Espada hints at the inadequacy of religion: “a rolling wall of mud” smothered three Pentecostal sisters, “leaving the fourth / sister to stagger into the street, screaming like an unheeded prophet / about the end of the world.”
Neither father nor Father will rescue Puerto Rico. Instead, “the president flips rolls of paper towels to a crowd / at a church in Guaynabo, Zeus lobbing thunderbolts on the locked ward / of his delusions.” In a holy place, the president performs an unholy act; Espada prays for his father to come and—like the Zeus he once was—“thunder Spanish obscenities” in the face of injustice.
“I have no horse in this race of people against people,” writes Cortney Lamar Charleston. In “Hate Is a Strong Word,” multiple meanings ride on every term. “Race,” for instance, refers both to a competitive run and a group of people. “Pedigree” indicates fine breeding in animals—and in humans. And “Woe!” isn’t just a cry of pain: it’s also a homophone with “Whoa,” the command that signals a horse to slow down. In building this analogy between horses and people, the poet alludes to slavery’s horrific equation of animals and humans.
The speaker’s ancestors were “forced to cut out their own tongues to keep food on the table,” Charleston writes. Then their tongues grew back, more sharply, “needing to cut against something, / anything, to be purposeful given their new forms.” Those tongues are an echo of—and rebuttal to—the whips that tortured his forebears’ skin. Tongues can cut, too, and Charleston’s chisels a “new form” with each poem he writes.
In Lani O’Hanlon’s “Back Up Quick They’re Hippies,” a girl glimpses a commune during a family drive. The “long-haired men and women / curled around each other like babies,” plus “the babies themselves,” inspire dreams of rebirth. In contrast with the hippies’ gentle embrace, the girl must contend with her sister’s “aggressive thighs” and her father’s “slapping hands”—and after seeing the tents with “flaps open,” the girl yearns to “open” her car door, too, and escape into a new, more liberated life.
Later, she pursues her plan: at home, in a market, “I unlearnt the steps my mother taught, / bought a headband, an afghan coat, / a fringed skirt — leather skin. // Barefoot on common grass I lay down with kin.” She walks back her baby steps, dons a new skin, and settles down with a fresh family.