The Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney

posted Feb 26, 2010, 9:31 PM by Jeff Brandt   [ updated Feb 26, 2010, 10:51 PM ]
Los Angeles-based poet Douglas Kearney -- winner of the 2007 Whiting Writers' Award and the 2008 National Poetry Series -- is back with a new book of poems that sustains the level of raw power seen in his debut, Fear, Some. An intimidating concoction of stinging, clever wordplay and bold experimentation makes The Black Automaton (published by Fence Books, list price $16) a must-read for would-be poets seeking inspiration.

But "must-read" is a vast understatement. Kearney's work is also "must-hear" and "must-see." As in, you need to hear him recite it, preferably in person, and you need to see the wonderful inventions that are his visual poems, such as the one below (posted with permission from Mr. Kearney and from the editor of Chaparral, the literary journal that printed it online first). Click on the image to read the poem.


And that's a tame one, visually speaking.

Kearney often leaves us guessing about the order in which to read his lines, empowering us to define his work for ourselves. His mish-mash of social commentary -- focused mainly on racial injustice, packed with apt puns, best read aloud -- and humorous pop and folk references -- everything from the Voltron to John Henry to Flavor Flav -- creates a wonderfully ambivalent reading experience. You don't know whether to laugh, to fume, to cry, or to be just plain shocked. Probably all of those reactions are correct, which is the beauty of The Black Automaton.

Take "Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk," where Kearney laments the fate of Katrina victims drowning . . . and then plugs in a line from Sebastian the (stereotypically black) Crab singing "Under the Sea." Or "Floodsong 3: Alligator's Quiet Storm," a little ironic love song to the hurricane.

'Trina she my long leg woman.
my long leg woman she love me.
she love me and she pour the water.
she pour the water o my 'Trina.

...

'Trina she strong arm woeman.
stwrong woman, she love me!
love me and set the table.
uh set the table, o my 'Trina.

You may be familiar with spoken word poetry, like in the Def Poetry Jam documentaries. Say what you will about the amateur "poets" spewing trite lyrics on YouTube, and the suburban wannabes you see at college-town open mics, but Kearney is a master performer. Here he is reading from Fear, Some.

Kearney in Downtown LA, March 2009


Simply put, if you want to know what's going on in poetry today, you need to read Kearney's work. It's entertaining without being vacuous. It's smart without being stuffy.

It's painful . . . yet addictive.


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