Reviewed by William Aarnes
One of the shortcomings of the recently published Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry is its failure to include poems by Frank X Walker. Perhaps the reason that a sampling of Walker’s poems does not appear is the kind of poems he writes. The editor of the anthology, Charles Henry Powell, argues that “the progressive achievements of both the Black Power movement and the Civil Rights Movement” have meant that young African writers, who are now “free of outside political dicta” and are thus “free to create as they wish,” are asserting “the right to commit themselves to their art, rather than commit themselves to Black America’s political, social, and economic struggles.” Powell tends to favor poets who “set out as individual poets in their own individual directions.” Angles of Ascent does include poems by representatives of the Black Arts Movement like Amiri Baraka (who has a scathing review of the anthology in the May 2013 issue of Poetry), but Powell uses the anthology to define contemporary African Poetry as poetry that emphasizes the individual, apolitical lyric as universal experience.
The work of Frank X Walker does not fit this definition of poetry. He can certainly write lyric poems that focus on his own experience (see Affrilachia  and Black Box ); he acknowledges that he is “the kind of poet / who likes to cuddle / after penning a piece.” But even his lyric poems are informed by his concern with “our / ever present racial baggage.” He worries in the early poem “Violins or Violen … ce” about “children” who “claim their manhood early” but have
of medgar evers
a family man
shot in the back
in his own driveway
Besides focusing on racial concerns, Walker’s strongest work is collaborative. Revealing his sense that a poem is not simply the work of one individual, he acknowledges his indebtedness to the still developing African American tradition; Turn Me Loose, for example, has poems written after the manners of A. Van Jordan, Tyehimba Jess, and Thomas Sayers Ellis. A second, significant way that Walker’s work is collaborative is in the approach he started using—with memorable success— in Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004), a poetic imagining of the experiences of York, a slave who was owned by William Clark and accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As Walker explains in the “Preface” to this sequence, he suppresses his “own twenty-first century activist voice” and serves “as a vessel for [York’s] voice.” The approach involves Walker’s imagining himself in the speaker’s circumstances and wording poems in terms of what a historical person might have said. Walker has continued to employ this approach in When Winter Came: The Ascension of York (2008), Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride (2010) and now in Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers. In her admiring and discerning forward to Turn Me Loose, Michelle S. Hite emphasizes another way that Walker‘s writing is collaborative. Hite helpfully highlights, among other things, how Walker sees both his readers and the voices he creates as sharing an awareness of the minstrel song “Dixie” and Abel Meerpoll’s “Strange Fruit.”
A primary voice Walker imagines in Turn Me Loose is that of Evers’ assassin, Byron De La Beckwith. Largely sharing the white supremacist attitude of the Beckwith voice are the voices of his two wives, Willie and Thelma. Walker uses these voices to give expression to the morass of feelings that motivate the assassin. “Anatomy of Hate” has Beckwith explain,
I hated how clean he kept his car. I hated
his always-pressed clothes and shiny shoes. I hated
that he parked in front of his own house. I hated
the sound of the north and schools of books . . . .
The resentful Beckwith imagined in Turn Me Loose enjoys “the sheer joy of causing . . . pain,” engages in what Willie describes as fiery, explosive sex that confuses “hatred with desire,” has “nightmares /about the end of whiteness,” and believes only fools own guns with no intent to use them. Beckwith calls the four whites who made up part of the jury that convicted him at his third trial in 1994 “Judases.” As Walker conceives it, Beckwith’s voice may cause some readers to recall the voice that Eudora Welty imagined in the story she wrote the day Evers was killed, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”* In this chilling story, immediately after downing his victim, the assassin says,
There was one way left, for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. Now I’m alive and you ain’t. We ain’t never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead.
Walker has Beckwith recall the moment of the shooting in a poem called “Afterbirth,” which has an epigraph quoting Beckwith as saying that the killing of Evers “gave [him] no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to children.” Walker has his Beckwith voice say,
I must admit, like any proud parent
I was afraid at first, afraid he’d live,
afraid he’d die too soon.
For Walker’s assassin, the shooting “was the most natural thing I’d ever done.”
The other primary voice in Turn Me Loose is that of Evers’ wife Myrlie. Supported twice by poems in the voice of Evers’ brother Charles and at times set in conversation with those spoken by Beckwith and his wives, the poems in Myrlie’s voice focus on living with and surviving Medgar. If for Willie De La Beckwith lovemaking meant pretending she “didn’t know / what gunpowder smelled like,” then for Myrlie it meant having the radio on, Sam Cook and Roy Charles “singing backup and Medgar’s jackhammer heart / finally slowing . . . / . . . completing the soundtrack for a perfect night.” If in Beckwith’s mind the “real music” of Johnny Cash “damn near set the stage on fire” or if in a dream he arrives at a church “where somebody is beating //the hell out of a tambourine,” then for Myrlie, “God would come in a black woman’s voice // a voice that sounded like that far away / look in Reverend Martin Luther King’s eyes.” Myrlie gives voice to the most poignant poem in the book, “When Death Moved In”:
It attached itself to our lives, first
like an unplanned pregnancy,
then like our fourth child,
We didn’t talk about its disfigured face
or its crooked limbs and spine.
We went about the people’s business
tried to pretend that it wasn’t really there,
though some nights it filled every open space
in the room, often crawling into bed with us,
making it difficult to sleep.
Every new registered voter, successful boycott,
demonstration and prime-time television minute
put fat on its face. Images of Medgar
escorting James Meredith into Ole Miss
were celebrated with new front teeth.
When it crawled to the front door, and spoke
its first cuss words
it sounded like a car backfired twice.
This poem is reason enough to own Turn Me Loose. And perhaps, political though the poem is, it is artful enough, individual and universal enough to make its way into a second edition of Angles of Ascent.
With its lines about voter registration, boycotts, and James Meredith, “When Death Moves In” briefly mentions what Turn Me Loose might have given more attention—the activities of Medgar Evers. Walker has decided not to write any of the poems in Evers’ voice. In the book’s “Introduction” Walker hopes that Evers’ “presence, like a ghost, speaks loudly throughout the poems.” It is true that the focus of Beckwith’s voice clarifies what Evers worked against, and it is true that having a poem in Myrlie’s voice end with the words “now vote” conveys something of the thrust of Evers’ life. But in a book that opens with a poem that has Myrlie worrying that some accounts of the Civil Rights Movement erase Evers’ “entire life work,” it is disappointing not to see more attention given to the detailing of that work. Having poems that imagined the circumstances of the day-to-day effort that kept Evers working late into the night would strengthen this book. In “The Assurance Man,” the voice of Charles Evers suggests that, if we knew Evers “after Alcorn [Agricultural and Mechanical College]” and World War II, “back when he was just an insurance man, // [we] would’ve known just how bull-headed he could be.” It would be helpful, as Charles’ voice suggests, if the poems in this book depicted more fully Evers’ day-to-day conversations with the beleaguered people he represented. Having a few poems spoken in Evers’ voice would help us understand how “He didn’t sell us a waiting game like a preacher.” And Walker has perhaps missed an opportunity to help Evers speak loudly by not highlighting how he, like the Beckwith in the book, enjoyed fishing (see Michael Vinson Williams’ recent biography Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr). “Rotten Fruit” depicts how Beckwith picked up his racist attitudes while fishing with his grandfather. A contrasting poem about the pleasure Evers took from fishing might have helped clarify, in the imagination, Evers’ attachment to Mississippi. Having imagined York’s voice with such success in Buffalo Dance, Walker is capable of giving us more than a silent Medgar Evers.
Turn Me Loose is a book about assassination. It thus contributes to an important, ongoing discussion about a word and concept that shapes our thinking about our volatile world. (The week that I am writing this review the U.S. Attorney General has claimed that drone attacks on U.S. citizens are not assassinations.). In her forward to Turn Me Loose, Hite quotes the claim made by historian Taylor Branch that “the murder of Medgar Evers changed the language of race in American mass culture overnight”; the change was that Evers’ murder was not called a “lynching” but an “assassination.” Calling Evers’ murder an assassination suggests the political importance of the victim. But is not the term—“assassination”—also somewhat doubled edged? Does it not also suggest that the murderer thinks that killing is justified—as Brutus must have felt or, as Walker suggests about Beckwith’s thinking in a poem spoken by the lead that killed Evers, in “sending” a bullet “to deliver a message”? To what extent does the word “assassination” suggest that murder makes sense? And how do people live in a world where murder makes sense?
Turn Me Loose includes a Time Line as an appendix. This Time Line does not end in 1994 when Beckwith was convicted for murdering Evers; instead Walker extends it to 2012 to include, among other racially motivated killings, that of Trayvon Martin. The Time Line also includes 2008, mentioning Barack Obama’s inauguration. Imagined in the voice of Thelma De La Beckwith, the poem “No One Wants to Be President” toys with the idea that Obama will be assassinated, the voice in this poem assuming that assassination is an expected and even accepted part of politics. Frank X Walker offers Turn Me Lose as an opportunity “to better understand racism”; the book is also a chance to think about those who carry out assassinations, those who sense they may be targets, and those who survive the victims.
*Thanks to the novelist Tommy Hayes for reminding me of this Welty story.
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