‘What We Are Not For’ by Tommye Blount
What Are We Not For
by Tommye Blount
Bull City Press, $12.00 paperback, 40 pp.
Even from the cover and title, it’s apparent that this chapbook is about race, desire, and from the first instant of picking it up, I see almost a challenge directed to the reader. The title reads as a question that dares the limits of human potential, human usefulness, and even our sometimes propensity for destruction. On the left side of the front cover, wrapping slightly to the back, there’s a muscular, shirtless black man. His figure is presented in black-and-white with overhead lighting that makes him shine as two other masculine hands climb reach from behind to climb his torso. Around his waist is a belt of rope, wrapped around him what looks to be at least three or four times. His arms are stretched out to his sides, and from his left hand a noose hangs like a violent question mark. Now, this may be a book review, rather than a critique of cover art, but this is a book whose cover does an excellent job of setting the stage for the letters within. Tommye Blount’s debut chapbook is an arresting series of poems that explores one’s own desire and alienation, conflicting worlds between black masculinity and the speaker’s sexuality as persecution comes from both externally and internally. Images of the mongrel longing to break free of constraints or Pinocchio’s desire to be a real human come back in regular measure to pair with poems of carnality, breaking taboo, and the possible consequences of fidelity to one’s own heart. And it’s not an outward disapproval or persecution that ends up being the most compelling and devastating—though the speaker’s relationship to his father are indispensable—but rather the internal conflicts that sometimes lead the speaker to seek violence just to reaffirm his own existence.
Considering some of the social complications of being male, homosexual, and black, the poems which contain lovers or intimacy don’t simply serve as simple romantic refuges; they’re dangerous, ill-at-ease, and the relationships themselves are often slyly derided. In “The Bug,” a Ladybug (or its Asian imitator, the speaker is uncertain) lands on the speaker’s lover only to be killed without much consideration:
[...] My man swat [sic] it
without waking, as if he’s dreaming of an enemy,
or me. When my pretty man isn’t asleep
he’s got a temper.
Apparently sleep may calm some of the temper, but clearly the sleeping body is ready to lash out. Perhaps it’s lashed out at the speaker before as the line break before “or me” sets up in a manner both arresting, but seemingly off-the-cuff casual. There’s a little hesitation before it, as if the speaker is whispering to us and doesn’t want the lover to wake; there could be consequences.
This continues forth in many poems where the basic humanity of our speaker feels questioned, as if his desires are seen as so abnormal as to exclude him from the rest of the human race. Geppetto, the woodcarver and an obvious father figure, complains in “Geppetto’s Lament” that his (son) Pinocchio’s “got a // sissy’s nose, a daughter’s lips. Not the boy / I wished for. It was all my fault. All my //math and all my measurements were off” denying Pinocchio masculinity before adding one final insult in twangy slang: “And ain’t even enough room in him for a heart.” Not only is his son not bearing resemblance to a man, but he doesn’t have the organs to be one or, to explore the obvious symbol, the capacity to even feel love properly.
In a later poem “Pine,” Pinocchio is slowly turning into a human, but it seems unbelievable even to him: “Nights, he’d tweeze new splinters // where he’d missed before. Sometimes the splinters / were not splinters, but new sprigs of hair.” The marionette is polishing himself, grooming himself, but during the process “takes his father’s whittling knife // to the inside of his thighs. Only the tiniest incisions / to make sure he bleeds.” The once-wooden boy is desperate for proof that he’s real, that his feelings are real and justifiable. These are acts done in secret; acts for which there might not be a way to translate them for another.
In poems such as “Lycanthropy” there are explicit examples of failed communication as the speaker takes on animal qualities, losing his ability to speak. Villagers hunt the werewolf speaker:
[...] Each man armed
with a hot muzzle, a mouth
full of scripture and no to aim
onto my back—now bent
over a prayer they mistake
for a growl. In this place,
there is no common tongue,
I can’t understand them,
so I can’t follow the order
that follows each leash,
so they beat me
until skin becomes wound
then scab and hide.
Blount’s poem “The Tongue” carries the title into the first lines so as to read: “The Tongue // in my mouth is as fat as a cow’s tongue,” eventually causing the speaker to be unintelligible: “I have the tongue / of some endangered animal. No one can understand me // anymore. I’m the animal on my plate / that eventually mumbles in my stomach. Speak up!” The final poem of the chapbook, “The Runts,” displays the speaker in bed with a lover in the figure of a dog, one “not using his words, / not responding to my name” before the speaker himself turns into a dog later and the lover bites and both howl, “sinking in the hold / of whatever is willing to hold us.”
While these poems seek acceptance and companionship, there’s an edginess about the speaker that shows his reluctance or uncertainty towards his own identity. In the wonderful ekphrastic poem “The Lynching of Frank Embree” written after the Without Sanctuary photographs that detail a history of lynching in America (many are postcards) we weave through six numbered sections that sometimes pick up in the middle of the previous section’s final sentence before a final, simple accusation: “6. This is all your fault. You should have run faster.” The irony of this heavy-handed victim-blaming is not lost, but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of the cruelty, the severity of the judgement.
It is when the poems forgo heavy figuration or fairy-tale transformations of characters into the other that we get some of the context behind a conflict of identity. Even in the act of being fitted for a suit as a boy, our speaker is “boot-black careful” in front of his father, a man “as quiet / as tripwire.” This evokes a father like the one in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” where the speaker recalls how “slowly [he] would rise and dress / fearing the chronic angers of that house,” in a poem oddly absent of a mother figure. This seems to be the case for Blount’s speaker as well, as he reveals his mother’s aneurysm and subsequently being left with “my last parent— / my dad and his fear-wrung visor” in the remarkable “‘Then Practice Losing Farther; Losing Faster” which expands upon the famous Elizabeth Bishop villanelle “One Art” to create a poem that maintains the ghost of that form, being written in tercets with a final quatrain while holding onto many of the ending words from the classic Bishop refrains. It also belies some of the wryness that Bishop uses to underplay the true severity of her subject.
Eventually, we get to that titular question: “What Are We Not For” which once again continues into the first line of its poem: “but to be broken / like the deer resting on the side of the highway, / in a bed made of // its insides?” This is a poem where the speaker runs from the concerned voice telling warning him “to listen // to my body or I won’t last long.” Identity circles back to a type of survival. Our speaker may feel that he is “a broken animal,” but the breaking isn’t such a damning sentence as it is for that deer. The reader knows that human potential and agency are greater than this. He feels this breaking, but still reaches out to “whatever is willing to hold us” and I think this also means what makes us whole. What Are We Not For may not end up being so directly about human functionality, purpose, or capability as the title in isolation might suggest, but it works to recognize the human fragility in our longing. In practice, it pauses or hesitates as anyone might, but certainly does not wither or collapse broken. It may not end in flag-waving triumph or self-celebration, but certainly contains a measure of resilience and perseverance. I hope this debut will present a challenge that readers will choose to encounter for themselves.