On “The Black Automaton” and Douglas Kearney's AWP Reading

As you can see in the video above (not from the AWP offsite reading where I saw him, but the most representative clip I could find online), Douglas Kearney’s performances are spectacular, in a strict sense. As few poets can, he literally creates a spectacle—though he does so only to bend his audience’s gaze uncomfortably back on itself, in a move nicely captured by the tentative, embarrassed way the camera follows him into the crowd in that clip. First he gets you laughing, and then you see yourself laughing, and then you wonder if you should be laughing, and then you start to feel like the butt of the joke. For a guilty, liberal white audience, at least—one that relates to Kearney’s elaborately ironic forms, but feels anxious about relating to his subject matter—it’s as if he’s acting out double consciousness in the form of passive aggression.

Somehow, miraculously, he manages to make the same poems work on the page in his book The Black Automaton, in part by giving them a visual complexity as irreproducible in speech (or on this blog) as his performances are in print. Here’s a poem without much visual fireworks, but that does give a sense of what a poem might look like that’s actually “racially complex.”

     “City with Fire and a Piece of Silver”

     how LA bound and justice lay clocked
     an intersection before that truck
     got stuck,
     I found myself alone. the church lot’s
     lines, white
     lash marks on the newly laid blacktop—
     night like
     a riot of black people crossing
     the church
     driveway, asking me, torches, street lamps,
     street lamps
     like torches, the pitchfork trees, Hill Ave.’s
     —was it voices—asking me over
     the starched
     choir, indoors, toning, tromping through
     that tune,
     “O Lawd I Wanna Be A Christian
     My Heart”—are there white people inside?
     up high
     the moon, silver coin, flips—heads, tails—and