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Reviewed by:
  • Red Summer, and: Tokyo Butter
  • Jacquelyn Pope (bio)
Johnson, Amaud Jamaul . Red Summer. Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2006. Paper. 55 pp.
Moss, Thylias . Tokyo Butter. New York: Persea Books, 2006. Paper. Cloth. 112 pp.

Selected by Carl Phillips for the Dorset Prize, Red Summer is Amaud Jamaul Johnson's first collection of poems. The book's title refers to the race riots that broke out around the United States in the summer and fall of 1919, provoked by attacks on blacks by whites. Many of these spare poems, both narrative and lyric, are based on or refer to historical events, though often in an indirect, evocative way. Violence is off-stage in these works, just over or just about to begin, but its presence and repercussions are unmistakable.

Lynching is the specific crime that haunts this book—the act itself is left undescribed, but the terror it instills is evident throughout the book. In "Elaine, 1919"—its title taken from the town in Arkansas that was the site of one of the longest and most violent of the riots—Johnson recounts events cinematically, in jump cuts and shreds of newspaper headlines, writing "[. . .] only stumps and stubble / of men remain; works done, wishes / undone all lay waste among the rubble" (13). The presence of trees as mute witnesses, of the charred remains of history and hope, is evoked throughout the book. The multiple voices at work here create a choral effect, and while the identities of the speakers are not always clear, this doesn't detract from the overall effect; the poems work well together, their tensions and situations alternating in intensity, coloring and expanding one another. "On Loving Red," written from the perspective of a young child who witnesses the passions and casual cruelties of adults, also touches on the way U.S. culture sexualizes and glorifies violence. "Big City" continues this sense of ominousness, though here the danger is entirely unnamed: what happens is bad, but what happens? The poem slaps the hope and promise of the North (and the future) against details of human fragility with a sudden force that has the graphic punch of a crime-scene photograph. Violence is so pervasive that, in many cases, it is destiny. And in "Burlesque," a relentless propulsion combines with the quiet precision of its terrible details to create a powerful combination of sensuality and terror:

Watch the fire undress him, how flame fingers each button, rolls back his collar, unzips him without sweet talk or mystery. See how the skin begins to gather at his ankles, how it slips into the embers, how it shimmers beneath him, unshapen, iridescent as candlelight on a dark negligee.

(18) [End Page 1110]

Other poems hint at the strain and swagger of violence as a continuing arc of American culture, and as a particularly defining power in the lives of African American men. Such violence is manifested in ways that are physical, and criminal, but it also exacts a psychological toll, the result of hard labor and limited resources, as in "Buffalo Creek":

What does it mean to wake to the roar of shadows, to watch your life bubble up beneath you and wait to see it seep underneath your bedroom door?


A great deal of bodily ruin runs through the book. Some of it is natural, not necessarily the result of violence, though certainly shaped by hardship, such as the grandfather's face in "Stones River," whose pupil hangs "listless, snarled in the barbed-white of his iris," whose cheek and jaw are "jumbled like sandbags." While the details of his aging, infirm body remain vivid, the grandfather himself is a mystery; he cannot be recollected, or reconstructed: "I'd try, but I just couldn't remember him whole" (20). Faces recur throughout the book: in mirrors, peering from windows, getting punched across a boxing ring. Rodney King's bruised and battered face in "Getting Along" is equated directly with the bloated, scarred face of Emmett Till, a nightmare vision of a Black Everyman, at least as recounted by the speaker of the poem, a spectator just at the edge of a vortex of violence.

Red Summer concludes with...


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pp. 1110-1113
Launched on MUSE
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