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Raising King; poems by Joseph Ross, (Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2020)
As a poet who has turned to Civil Rights history to interrogate the persistence of racism and anti-black violence in our country, I was intrigued by Joseph Ross’s new collection Raising King ̶ its ambitious project of transposing Dr. King’s writings into our own time in original verse. Ross is a fine poet and a dedicated teacher, but could he enter what felt to me like perilous waters, diving into nearly iconic historical events and a cannon of sermons and public oratory that we think we know… in poetry? I have not been as gutsy in my own work, mostly choosing to enter this terrain through lesser known historical figures or finding a side entry into well-known events, like the Birmingham church bombing, or the murder of Emmett Till. In dedicating an entire collection to Martin Luther King’s life and work, this poet has gone in through the front door.
Ross has immersed himself in Dr. King’s writings for more than thirty years, from teaching a Freshman Seminar on King’s life at Notre Dame to a composition course at American University based on his speeches, and it shows. Here he has wrung 2-3 dozen poems from each of MLK’s three political autobiographies: Stride toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here? The poems speak in varied voices including the author’s own voice, voices connected to specific events, and the voice of Dr. King, risky as that may seem. I heard the poet read from this collection when it was published this past fall, and found the poems ̶ and the heart with which he animates pivotal events, and King’s moral crises ̶ compelling enough to buy and immerse myself in the collection. The poet’s ability to inhabit the events, and actors, with King himself center stage, contribute to the power of this collection. Moreover, the questions these poems raise could not be more timely. I found myself repeatedly catching my breath wondering: have we not learned anything? Or, could this poet have imagined the whirlwind into which these spare, quiet poems would be speaking?
The Poets’ Choices
Not only are the poems carefully organized into sections tied to the three selected works of Dr. King, but each poem begins with an epigraph, most often a quote from that book. I thought this might become tedious, but in the end, these epigraphs function as both historical anchors and echoes of King’s actual voice, and cadence. Thus, the poems do not need to do that. Each section of poems functions as an ensemble ̶ with occasional virtuosic moments ̶ inviting us to intimately, and often poignantly, experience through these events, the arc of King’s moral universe, and his place in history.
Ross’s choice of mostly lean, unrhymed couplets is counter intuitive, given the oratory of King and the movement preachers. But though spare, the lines have lyric power. They memorialize rather than narrating, for example in the first section (set during Montgomery bus boycott era) in the poem “Be Broken” these lines: “a lunch counter//becomes an altar.” “The blood streaming//from a human head// consecrates the plates//and coffee cups onto which it//spills.” A heartbreaking poem in the Why We Can’t Wait section addresses “The Waning Crescent” moon: “You should have been//a warning to us all//on such a lightless night//in 1963.” The night in which the bombs were placed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The poems transform familiar events into sacred history, often naming the lesser known “saints” and martyrs in these stories, like Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, killed the same day in Birmingham as the four victims of the bombing at the church.
Some of the poems vividly convey the violent voices and actions of the white supremacists who threatened King and bombed the homes of Black preachers, and in the face of it, the resolute non-violence of those in the movement. These were some of the hardest poems to read (and re-read in the chilling early days of 2021). In the Montgomery section, the poem “Inheritance,” dramatizing one of many late night calls to King, imagines behind “That angry voice on the phone”…a “beautiful little boy” who “sings out a hatred he has learned.// A song his country handed him.” And King’s resolve: “I will not//destroy him just because//someone taught him//to destroy me.”
The sections derived from each season in King’s public life were long, and demand patient attention of a reader. Yet, each section has its shimmering moments, and the poems taken together make the argument that seem to have launched the poet into this project: if only, we could revisit the moral force of King’s “… prophetic and compassionate life,” especially the moments in which King’s words and actions were honed, might we be inspired to take on (sadly) the same injustices in our own day?
Each section ends with a poem in the voice of Coretta Scott King, a recognition on the poet’s part of her “sacrifices that made Dr. King’s work possible.” One of the moments that most spoke to the searing imperative (and timeliness) of this work comes from one of those poems “Coretta Scott King, 1963,” in which she speaks as a mother about the murdered girls, but adds:
This is also the year of learning
a civics lesson I thought
I already knew: that Black
bodies mean nothing.
That Black bodies mean
everything. That Black
bodies still do not count
I have not mentioned that Ross is, as I am, white. ̶ another incentive for me to look closely at his undertaking: first studying, (discipling, King might say) and then crafting a vessel in which to offer King’s life-work to us as exhortation. Wondering how this effort would be received at this moment in history, I recalled a conversation with the poet Lucille Clifton about one of my early efforts (as a longtime community organizer and aspiring poet) to delve into this past. She charged me to take the risk: This is your history too! In that spirit, I welcome Ross’s offering of Raising King, and am grateful that the poet set his hand to this plough.
I hope that others will find their way, not just to this book, but to the invocation of its final lines:
“This is how we raise him// This is how// we rise.”
Kathleen O’Toole is the author of This Far, new from Paraclete Press.
Copyright 2021 Kathleen O’Toole