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A Note on Alison C. Rollins' Poem "Why Is We Americans"

41I4Oqt6eLL._SX331_BO1 204 203 200_Alison C. Rollins' debut collection, Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), is one of the most spectacular first books I have ever read. The first poem I read from her, "Why Is We Americans," was published in Poetry magazine several years ago. The poem can be found in full here.

The following is an entry from a reading notebook that I keep, in which I respond to poems and passages of prose. Here is what I wrote about "Why Is We Americans" several years ago. If this interests you, pick up a copy of her amazing first book and prepare to be amazed. 

Alison C. Rollins’ “Why Is We Americans” begins as a riff on a line (and title) from the late work of Amiri Baraka; Rollins extrapolates the Baraka line into an anaphora-patterned meditation on notions of national belonging particular to the African American experience. The poet interweaves images from canonical western literature (“Walden pond,” “Jesus,” “Whitman,” “Orpheus,” “Darwin”) with images from the African American church (“the Pastor’s chattering chicklets,” “Psalm 23,” “mouths / washed out with the blood of the lamb”), and allusions to jazz music (“Roach and Mingus at Birdland,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamned,” and the concluding couplet, which references Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and raises the specter of lynching in a powerful way). The poem is as triumphant as it is incantatory, elevating sometimes mundane and sometimes extraordinary tropes into a profound celebration of Blackness. The vibrant surprising diction and the regular deployment of AAVE syntax imbue the poem with an astonishing energy at every turn: “We is clubbin’ woolly mammoths/ upside the head, jammin’ fingers in / Darwin’s white beard”; lines like these drive the poem forward with their sonic textures while continuing a critique of the exploitative and oppressive practices that vertebrae American life and American history. I love this poem. I feel like I could live in it forever—the explosive musicality of it, the joy of it, the strangeness of it. It is everything I look for in a poem: it is canny and subversive in its metapoetic view of American literature and culture, and it is infused with a hard earned duende that renders it unforgettable.


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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