Cotton by Derrick Harriell, Aquarius Press, 2010. $14.95
Reviewed by Sarah Busse
In Cotton, Milwaukee poet Derrick Harriell channels the cadences of his friends and his family, who, as he admits in his Acknowledgments, were “a muse even when [they] didn’t recognize it.” It’s tricky business for a poet to write about people he’s close to, as he creates or recreates a family and invites the reader up to the table. I’m sure Harriell has stretched some truths and elided others, as all writers do in portraying real people. Maybe he’s made up composites, further fictionalizing the folks he knows. I’m not going to guess whether there “really” is an Aunt Rose or Uncle Pete, but read this poem:
Aunt Rose Baptizes the Greens
Your uncle Pete done been gone for couple days now,
Sister May say Brother Jenkins seen him shooting pool
down where them fast women suck bankruptcy
out weak men. Brother Jenkins was down that way
preaching the word, but swear Pete was preaching
a black dream to a red bone. This morning I made catfish,
expecting him to bust the door down,
complaining how Evelyn can’t cook an egg
how her coffee stale as her morning loving.
I even left the back door unlocked.
But I spoke to Sister Mitchell on the prayer line
and she say sometimes you got to help a man
find his way home. Cook his favorite thing, crack
a few windows. Put on his favorite dress, play
some Otis Redding. Go head and line the table
with pecan pie and Black Label. And if his ass still gone
drop some salt pork in them greens, unlock the front door.
How easy it is for Harriell to write in a spoken vernacular, a voice that sounds at once familiar and specific, and not particularly spare. And yet, he incorporates, at his best, a taut and subtle lyricism into the language in lines like “Brother Jenkins was down that way / preaching the word, but swear Pete was preaching / a black dream to a red bone.” What strikes me about this poem—one of my favorites in the book—every time I read it, is the pitch perfect emotional registers Harriell is capable of working in. We can at once feel a fondness for, a sympathy with, and a gentle amusement at, the people he writes of. This is a difficult balance to pull off. When he does, he’s at his best.
Cotton is not a book “about” race. But race informs the poems, and provides the cultural textures and texts out of which the poems are written. Interwoven with the intimate voices of aunts, uncles and cousins are the excerpted or echoed voices of other Blacks through the generations: Sterling Brown, Billie Holliday, Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, right up to LL Cool J. These added voices expand the overtones of the book, become a larger chorus, a more extended family that Harriell claims even as they claim him. Harriell chooses not to write in strict poetic forms, whether iambic pentameter or blues stanza, but he knows how to riff off traditional prosody. See the opening of “Uncle Danny Returns from the Halfway House”:
Grandma lined us up single file,
licked her hands, then wiped crust off our morning faces.
Uncle Danny was coming home and she wanted us pretty,
like flowers. My cousins and I ran one tub of water,
dipping ourselves in turns, knowing we’d have to comb our afros….
The narrative voice here is a voice of memory, moderated by experience, an adult speaker, remembering childhood. While not strictly iambic, there is a relation to that rhythm that underlies the lines. Being able to utilize different modes of rhetoric allows Harriell to manipulate the fact(s) of distance, and make use of it. Distances between Wisconsin and Alabama, between cultures, between generations, or between two sides of a divided heart. He can distance himself when he wants to, or draw up real close, or sometimes, illuminate the fact of distance itself as the real subject. How far do we travel? How close do we get?
Distance plays a very real part at the heart of this book. Harriell hails from Milwaukee, but his paternal grandfather, the titular Dock Cotton, lived in Tuscaloosa. It was Harriell’s father Floyd who made the move north, and the motivations for that decision, the complex interweave of intimate family history, are the heart of this book. While the stories of uncles and aunts pour forth easily, this particular story comes out in pieces, over time. Identity is the gristle this book chews over.
The complex interweave of family history…told in stories. Cotton’s full of stories. Some true, some tall tales, some repeated so often they pass into legend. Some never told, secrets waiting to be discovered at the wrong time. Stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we can or can’t become. “The Evolution of Red and Spoon” is a longer poem:
They were made in the 70s,
after a generation of Civil Rights saints,
black militants, Nam residue.
Uncle Red and Spoon flipped off guidance counselors
who told them they were good with numbers
and should pursue engineering.
Numbers were natural,
each time dice bounced off brick walls
black hands handed over green dollars.
Poetry was natural too,
and when delivered in falsetto
grown women beamed like little girls.
In Sly We Trust
Owning twelve square blocks is not difficult to do
when your blue Lincoln smiles as wide as this one,
and when your hair falls down your neck
like a mare without a trim, you pocket those jaws
on the asphalt.
Red and Spoon governed 8th Street to 20th,
never once receiving a late rent.
Each night before clocking out,
they'd do victory laps inside the 19th Street tavern,
allow women who looked like Diana Ross
to feel the hem of rabbit coats,
beg for some overtime.
In my mother’s backyard
I burned ribs with Red and Spoon,
the load of forty five brutal years
weighing down like military gear.
We lit fresh Kools with dying ones
beneath an aggressive sun,
a wading pool of malt liquor in our bellies.
The men exchanged pounds
at the mention of angelic whores
who disappeared somewhere between 10th and 11th
sometime between my 2nd and 3rd birthday.
I watched the ground in silence,
noticed a hole in Red’s Converse.
This is a coming-of-age story for two generations, first Red and Spoon, then the speaker, growing up one generation later, who moves from hero worship to fellow adult. We infer different choices were made by the different generations, due at least in part to historical/cultural circumstances. And we see, by poem’s end, how those choices play out. Later in the book, we find the poem “Spaceships” which remembers those same uncles from a child’s perspective, as the speaker and his cousins waited “behind bushes” for their arrival to a family event:
None had large heads
or oval shaped eyes.
They weren’t eight feet tall
with iron claws,
But they were out of this world.
When they landed their Chevys
we'd rub our eyes
making sure it was bona fide,
that these flying saucers
had discos inside.
Harriell clearly has mined and mastered this particular material. It is a narrow but rich seam of ore. If I have to mention a weakness in the book, I would say that the poems which deal with the present are less gripping than the poems that deal with the past. Harriell is at his strongest when history is his muse. I’ll look forward to seeing how this poet stretches himself into new work, what new stories he finds to tell. At heart, I believe he is a narrative poet.
What stories do we tell ourselves about Wisconsin poetry? What stories have we inherited? Harriell is native to the state and I promise you there’s not one red, round barn in the whole book. There are no cranes flying in these skies, no shivering lakes. I think we need books like Cotton and need to read them for many reasons, but partly to trouble the waters of our own thinking, our own identity as Wisconsin writers. What is it we know? What do we think we know? What do others think they know about us? These are the same questions Harriell asks himself about his own story, interpreting and reinterpreting, framing and reframing, page by page. We’re lucky to have him.
Sarah Busse is a co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. She was awarded a Pushcart Prize and the WFOP Chapbook Prize in 2011. Her third chapbook, Gauguin in California, is forthcoming from Desperado Press and her full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, will be published by Mayapple Press.