Santee Frazier “roam[s] / the uncitied dirt between the streets and yards” to collect the images and voices that populate the poems of Dark Thirty (18). Frazier’s strength is his ability to render characters. His poems are stories, and his storytelling thrives in the details, the diction, and the visual forms he chooses for each voice. Writing in free verse, Frazier uses eclectic and organic forms, ranging from unrhymed couplets and blocked prose poems to simple fragments and phrases cascading down the page. As there is no single voice across the collection, there is no single structure of representing the fractured and desperate communities so necessary to the lives of his characters.
In early poems such as “Chauncey,” “Joe Bunch,” and “Nick Cheater,” the community is constructed through each speaker’s voice as he relates individual anecdotes, gossip, and commentary. Chauncey shares matter-of-fact observations about community members:
They said ol Caroline was moppin the floor, usin gas, guess she caught farer, burned her leags good. [End Page 84] Calvin can barely keep them dentures in is jaw, every time he talks, he’s ah chewing like a horse.(8)
Joe Bunch, a bit more cantankerous, concerns himself with his lunch, his “heart’s actin up,” and protecting his “smell-good” from Chauncey’s thirst (12). As the resident mechanic, Nick Cheater talks cars, work, and possible deals on “that Buick up dah road” (14). Individually these poems are best described as local color, but as part of the collection they function to populate Frazier’s poetic community and remind us that the images of violence and addiction in later poems are not individual events and instances but part of the experiences of the community.
Being witness to violence and abuse is common in Frazier’s poems. The voice of the witness is often that of a child like the speaker in “Hunter’s Moon,” who watches his grandfather beat his grandmother while he and his mother hide in the trees. Describing the scene with clarity, the speaker recognizes that escape is possible, but he neither condemns nor condones the violence. He merely catalogs it as part of his family:
It has been going on for years, my mother, her mother, sisters, whoever was left born into this rage who did not run into the night as we have. Still we plan to return,(10)
After his grandparents fall asleep, they do return, and the speaker notes in closing that “when they wake, [he] will forget about leaving” (11). In several poems, Frazier questions the notion of violence as an inevitable part of life. Though his speakers clearly see all sides of violence, they rarely escape it. In “Ornament,” the fourth-grader goes to school with an “eye / fat, red like / an ornament, / heavy as sleep” and reflects that the beatings he gets are the result of “learn[ing] / the stress” of his father (55–56). If these are the lessons learned from generation to generation, then the ex-lover’s rhetorical question to the woman he has just stabbed in “Pickax” becomes [End Page 85] quite meaningful: “How else could you have ended up?” (26). This question lingers throughout the collection, and it becomes a fundamental concern of the poems featuring Mangled.
The subject of a third of the poems in the collection, Mangled is neither folk hero nor everyman. He is the son of a “plank-floor seductress” (18) and a “[p]aper-bagged glue / huffer . . . bean juiced and ashy” (20) who joins the circus to “[toss] daggers at full gallop” (17), goes to jail for cutting a man, has odd jobs, drinks, and ends up alone in a wheelchair with a “footless leg, stroke-face sagging off / his skull” (49). Mangled gets through life by wielding the power of violence with his knife as both performance and defense. But when this ability falters, so does he. Using Mangled as a metaphor for concerns of race, exploitation, despair, desire, and isolation from the community, Frazier...