Threat Come Close    by Aaron Coleman,   Four Way Books , 72 pages, March 6, 2018

Threat Come Close

by Aaron Coleman,

Four Way Books, 72 pages, March 6, 2018

 

reviewed by Brian Fanelli

Against the backdrop of the NFL protests, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Trump administration’s erosion of civil liberties and encouragement of racial profiling through the travel ban, Aaron Coleman’s debut full-length collection, Threat Come Close, feels urgent. The book is an exploration of African American history, black masculinity, and violence inflicted upon black bodies by white police officers, the criminal justice system, and slave catchers. His poems have an intellectual depth that explores African American experience and the American literary tradition, with references to Whitman, Dickinson, and Baldwin, among others.

While several of the poems contain blood-fueled images that speak of the violence inherent in American history, the book is not one of despair. Rather, the poems have a meditative, historical consciousness. In the preface poem, “Very Many Hands,” the speaker confesses, “I am made of what I am afraid to remember.” In that regard, the book serves as an act of remembrance, one that describes runaway slaves seeking freedom in hot summer nights and a modern young black man who confronts a white police officer eager to wield power.

The voices of the past, including ex-lovers, runaway slaves, and siblings, echo throughout the book. “Very Many Hands” is rooted in African American history. The poem begins, “You remind me of the Underground Railroad. I’ve learned to watch/for the kerosene lamps aglare in the distance.” The second half of the poem adds, “Come tell me more about what I was—about the brothers, mind-ancient now, fleeing/Mississippi with spilled moon ready in their eyes.” Though the poem begins by invoking the 19th Century slave trade and the Underground Railroad, the end shifts to the present. Coleman, whose personal roots are the Detroit-Metro area, weaves the past with the present with impressive ease. “Very Many Hands” concludes, “Tell me why I’m afraid for and of/Detroit. Tell me Desire can’t mean what it meant anymore. And I/can’t mean what I mean anymore. Am I lovesick with amnesia or/nostalgia?”

The “you” addresses personal desire and historical longing. On the one hand, it is a beloved (“I could lie still forever in/that part of you”), but it is also ancestral, and this duality sets the tone the book.

Other poems Coleman ties to historical narratives, drawing connections to the present, such as in “The Great Dismal Swamp,” where we traverse a marshland in the Coastal Plain Region said to have harbored people who fled enslavement during the 17th and 18th Centuries. The poem begins:

 

We were born in here. With this kindling I hold, dry crumble

from the wind of my mouth, I make a cradle

of these made-criminal hands: black, escaped, free, native, rare

 

white, sweat-riddled ghosts, sacrifice

secreted along abandoned canals. Find me, find us

hidden, cleaved to low high ground surrounded

in sulfur gas, elemental. Born in here.

 

The image “these made-criminal hands” in the first stanza calls to mind mass incarceration and the multitude of imprisoned black men. The poem links slavery and the industrialized prison system, but it also acknowledges resistance, especially in the lines, “Worn down, we are thankful;/those who hunt us end always raptured/in mosquito gospel,” before concluding, “Go/back where you came from white man, contract, bloodhound,/we’ll camp in the grease-mud, the humid underside of silence.”

Other poems are set strictly against a contemporary background. “On Acquiescence” spins a story about a basketball team and issues of race under the surface, the “perennial black versus white school rivalry.” The speaker, one of the black basketball players, juggles issues from stanza to stanza: flirtation with a white girl, racial slurs hollered by parents of the opposing team, and feeling unsafe once off the bus, left to confront a part of town that feels foreign. In some ways, basketball gives the team power, especially when the speaker compares them to midnight peacocks ready to show off their skills, their toes “clenched like talons.” However, like “Very Many Hands,” the poem ends with questioning, “But what if we are made of this violence?” and the speaker later compares polished hardwood to a cage. When the team bus crosses into the all-white part of town, we are reminded of a principle way that segregation still exists. 

One of the most haunting poems, “Surrender,” echoes a dream journal turned nightmare. Coleman writes, “the soft dark rope of prayer and dream,/its weight, what I pull, and am pulled by/into night,” before shifting to the scene of a 24-hour McDonald’s, where the speaker is surrounded by the only police officer he’s ever trusted and white people badmouthing Detroit. An image of military drones gunning at the speaker and a lover resonates with the motif of black bodies hunted down. The speaker’s lover doesn’t seem to survive after they try to hide in a cupboard, and in the concluding stanza, “Went back again/and pressed my hand on the glass/exit, took in the sudden emptiness, and felt the toll/stir my body, full, with no need for hope.”

Coleman’s debut is expansive in its variety of forms, from fragmented lines, to multi-page narratives, to the dictionary borrowing from A. Van Jordan’s collection M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. In all forms, though, Coleman peels back decades and centuries to confront black experience, illustrating how acts of resistance, as well as poetic creation, can write new histories as well as recount them.

 

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.