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Portraits of Poets

JOHN MURILLO: AN EYE ON KONTEMORARY AMERIKAN POETRY [by John Hennessy]

Today we turn to John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry as we continue looking at several books that came out early in the pandemic:

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 “Well, there is the pandemic, certainly. But I believe this current moment to be equally defined by the worldwide protests against anti-Black violence. One thing that’s occurred to me—and, to be frank, saddened me to no end—is that there has never been, and may never be, a moment in which it is passé to write about black suffering. There is a poem in my first book that I would dedicate, when I read it to an audience, to Sean Bell. A couple years later, I added Oscar Grant to the dedication. Now, I can dedicate that same poem to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and it will read as if I wrote it specifically for this moment. Next year, the poem will be relevant because of another Black body dropped. And it’s not because I was at all prescient when I wrote that poem, or any of the poems in my new collection. It’s because the conditions that give rise to these poems have not changed, and—all recent public proclamations of organizational solidarity notwithstanding—show no signs of truly changing any time soon. All to say, the current moment is not just the current moment, it’s tradition.”

--John Murillo, in an interview with Dora Malech, July 2020

Born in Los Angeles, John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections Up Jump the Boogie, finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (2020), winner of the 2021 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  His many honors include the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Times, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.  He teaches at Wesleyan University and in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

Murillo’s poems appear in multiple issues of Best American Poetry and in the anthology Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of African-American Poetry. Here’s “On Confessionalism,” from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, first published in The Common and reprinted in Best American Poetry 2019.

On Confessionalism

Not sleepwalking, but waking still,

with my hand on a gun, and the gun

in a mouth, and the mouth

on the face of a man on his knees. 

Autumn of ’89, and I’m standing

in a section 8 apartment parking lot,

pistol cocked, and staring down

at this man, then up into the mug

of an old woman staring, watering

the single sad flower to the left

of her stoop, the flower also staring,

my engine idling behind me, a slow

moaning bassline and the bark

of a dead rapper nudging me on. 

All to say, someone’s brokenhearted. 

And this man with the gun in his mouth—

this man who, like me, is really little

more than a boy—may or may not

have something to do with it. 

May or may not have said a thing

or two, betrayed a secret, say,

that walked my love away.  And why

not say it:  She adored me.  And I,

her.  More than anyone, anything

in life, up to then, and then still,

for two decades after.  And, therefore,

went for broke.  Blacked out and woke

having gutted my piggy and pawned

all my gold to buy what a homeboy

said was a Beretta.  Blacked out

and woke, my hand on a gun, the gun

in a mouth, a man, who was really

a boy, on his knees. And because

I loved the girl, I actually paused

before I pulled the trigger—once,

twice, three times—then panicked

not just because the gun jammed,

but because what if it hadn’t,

because who did I almost become,

there, that afternoon, in a section 8

apartment parking lot, pistol cocked,

with the sad flower staring, because

I knew the girl I loved—no matter

how this all played out—would never

have me back.  Day of damaged ammo,

or grime that clogged the chamber.

Day of faulty rods, or springs come

loose in my fist.  Day nobody died,

so why not hallelujah?  Say amen or

Thank you?  My mother sang for years

of God, babes and fools.  My father, 

lymph node masses fading from

his x-rays, said surviving one thing

means another comes and kills you.

He’s dead, and so, I trust him.  Dead,

and so I’d wonder, years, about the work

I left undone—boy on his knees

a man now, risen, and likely plotting

his long way back to me.  Fuck it.

I tucked my tool like the movie gangsters

do, and jumped back in my bucket.

Cold enough day to make a young man

weep, afternoon when everything,

or nothing, changed forever.  The dead

rapper grunted, the bassline faded,

my spirits whispered something

from the trees.  I left then lost the pistol

in a storm drain, somewhere between

that life and this.  Left the pistol

in a storm drain, but can’t remember

ever wiping away my prints.

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In an interview, when asked about the collective purpose writers have, Murillo answered:

“I believe literature has the potential to make us more human. Poetry, drama, literary fiction, creative nonfiction—when done right—can show us exactly who we are and who we still might become. For better or worse. So, yes, I do believe we have a collective purpose. Not necessarily as individuals, or in our individual works, but as a whole, I think we’re here to help us—humanity—do and be better.”

This humanitarian center to his project, his poems, his person, is immediately apparent when you read Murillo, and it’s clearly in evidence in “On Confessionalism.”

In the same interview he was asked: What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

The answer: “A seventh grade love letter.”

So he’s funny, too, and that humor that also occasionally appears in his poems highlights their deep seriousness. This is especially in evidence in his linked sonnet sequence, “Renegades of Funk,” from Up Jump the Boogie. Murillo is a virtuoso when it comes to the sonnet, and at the heart of Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is the magnificent “broken” crown, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn,” some of the most challenging work to appear in this reader’s lifetime.

These poems illustrate what Murillo has said in another Q and A: “I write, first of all, in the tradition of the witness.” His work as a witness is concentrated, full of clarity, invention, and a humanity made stronger by its vulnerability.

On Negative Capability

      Whitewalls  Mudflaps

Late night howling down

   a dark dirt road   Headlights

killed and so the world gone

   black but for the two blunts

lit  illuminating Jojo’s fake gold

   grin    One girl each  screaming

from the backseat  we raced

   the red moon  rawdogged

the stars   His mama’s car

   my daddy’s gun   Public Enemy

Number One   Seventeen and

   simple  we wannabe hard-

rocks threw rudeboy fingers

   and gang signs at the sky

Blinded by the hot smoke

   rising like the sirens

in the subwoofers   blinded

   by the crotchfunk rising

from all our eager selves   We

   mashed in perfect murk   a city

block’s length  at least

   toward God   toward God

knows what  when  or why  

   neither Jojo nor I  not our

two dates screaming   had a clue

   or even care   what the dark

ahead held       Come road

   come night   come blackness

and the cold   Come havoc

   come mayhem   Come down

God   and see us   Come

   bloodshot moon running

alongside the ride  as if

   to warn us away from  as if

to run us straight into   some

   jagged tooth and jackal throated

roadside ditch     When Jojo

   gunned the gas  we pushed into

that night like a nest of sleeping

   jaybirds  shaken loose and

plunging    Between our screams

   a hush so heavy   we could

almost hear what was waiting

   in the dark

(from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, first published in The Common)


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