Testify  by Simone John   Octopus Books , 101 pages, August 15, 2017


by Simone John

Octopus Books, 101 pages, August 15, 2017


reviewed by tyler flynn dorholt


Now testify
It's right outside our door
Now testify
Yes testify
It's right outside our door
—Rage Against the Machine, Testify
And / sometimes my poems need to say some shit
—Simone John, "Unbecoming Language"


It is hard to think about documentary poetics without thinking about collage; however, unlike collage, docu-poetics make the poet responsible for facts, and I’d argue that successful docu-poetics lyrically utilize the power of the fact to cross audiences. This is why, perhaps, Simone John opens her debut book Testify with a poem called “Order of Events,” which begins with a statement made by Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Martin moments before he was killed:


We started talking about the All-Star Game,

Him tellin me to go check for him if it’s on.


So begin the facts. Docu-poetics work well when the poems that surround the facts make them strange. That Trayvon Martin and his friend Rachel Jeantel were talking about the bromidic All-Star game, and that John chooses to begin the book with this, reminds readers of the immediacy of threat; that it is always close-by, that it’s right outside the door, and that it threatens the future of black and brown bodies: “We wonder out loud about lives we’ll lead if / we grow up, not when we grow up.”

Testify weaves in and out of transcripts (from Sandra Bland’s arrest) and testimonies (from the case of Trayvon Martin) with lyric and prose poems infused with references to Kendrick Lamar songs and personal narrative. John splices these sources into lyrics so a reader can think through the material while she delivers poems enriched by her own voice.


                                             Recite his middle name

until it sounds like a chant. When his favorite cereal

goes on sale buy a box for every song

you’ll never dance to at his wedding.

(“Mourning Rites (Or: How We Bury Your Son)")


Moments like these are a call to not only remember but actively remember, to sing and repeat. They are both elegiac and prayer-slung. When John hits this tone, placing her own narratives within these docu-poetics, she is closest to the content of the poem, and there is a steadfast sense of control.

There is admirable thoughtfulness in the arc of this book. In the section titled “Collateral,” John becomes both reporter and reported-upon. “Collateral” elasticizes the mundanity of the documents to reveal how easily and minutely facts gather around the horrors of each researched incident. “Collateral” is all the more moving because, in earlier poems like “Tally of Interruptions,” John excavates the poetry from the harrowing documents and observations that follow from Jeantel’s testimony:


In the first fifteen minutes

Rachel is stopped mid

sentence sixteen times.

I’m frustrated with the pauses

requests for repetition.

The typists’ audible huff

takes the place of punctuation:

I didn’t hear the answer.

Can you repeat that?

I didn’t hear you.

Mild comments delivered

With a chiding tone.


John has an ear for these tones. Testify not only takes up the mourning, rage, and catastrophic residuum of the bodies that are gone, but haloes the names in these bodies—Martin, Bland, Harrison, twenty black transwomen murdered in the U.S, and others (the gut-punch is that there are always others). She assembles, zooms in, and pins down her line breaks and turns of phrase to keep the names known and reveal the brutality of their absence. Visibility is not enough, and John highlights this in “A Brief History of Murder”:


The last black girl they killed wore beads in her hair

On picture day. Her name is swallowed instead of spoken.

Her hash tag—trending until they kill the next black boy.


John intensifies the reality and fear in this poem with the final line, when she turns self-reflexive: “The next black girl they’ll kill is writing this poem.”

The poems that deal with childhood and play—calling the speaker’s growth and innocence into vantage—are intensified by poems like “A Brief History of Murder.” In order to testify, in order to even speak about and address the brutal truths in these poems, one has to be part of them and John does this by understanding herself as a part of the violence they expose. The result is a form of despairing fear for the reader, that these snapshots of innocence have been loaded into the long stark reel of injustice and heartache.

The melding success of this book breaks through when the docu-poetics accept what they unearth and take it into deeper examination of poetry’s potential to affect change. The poems heighten awareness and invoke, acknowledge, and declare work to be done:


There is no redeeming nature metaphor here.

No plot twist to leave you feeling lighter.


Just more names

you have already forgotten.

Just more bodies.   

(“Things I Don’t Say to the White Audience at the Poetry Reading”)


But just as the poems seem to reconcile with a sense of futility, they also provide surefire bursts against it. Only by being reminded of the names behind dead bodies can the names and bodies surface again. Much of these poems thus draw our attention to the very thing Sandra Bland says to Officer Encinia when he pulls her over, which is quoted in the poem “Inciting Incident: What’s Wrong?”:


—Are you done?

—You asked me what’s wrong, now I told you.


Impossibility hums about this book, and it is the impossibility of the oppressed to answer questions in the way oppressors want. Never mind being given the time to even answer the question, as that’s the undergirding fact of these atrocities. Bland was asked what was wrong and before she could even speak she was already, in the officer’s mind, wrong. Lift this fact up higher, and the point is that we are often already not seeing what is wrong—the profiling, the killing, the forgetting—and when we’re reminded of it, we’re not listening.

In Testify Simone John is already ahead of the thinking she allows the readers of the poems to stew in, as just as the significance of these questions are emphasized the poem “Unanswered Questions” arrives. The poem is a list of 28 questions Sandra Bland asks Officer Encinia, all of which go unanswered. The repetition serves as documentation that the officer—and this culture as well—cannot answer questions that call attention to systemic racism carelessly masked by lawful order.


Tyler Flynn Dorholt is the author of American Flowers (Dock Street Press), and co-editor and publisher of the journal and press, Tammy. He writes, makes art, and lives with his wife and son in Syracuse, NY.