I’ve come to discover over the last few years that I, rather unintentionally, tend to read books that speak to one another. Perhaps I seek out these connections; perhaps all books speak to one another. 100 words doesn’t seem nearly enough to do justice to the profoundness and beauty of what I’ve recently been reading, but I’ll try. Writers especially have little hesitation in pronouncing to anyone who will listen that they should immediately read and will be changed by book selections. At my core, I’m no different from anyone else, and I advocate here for five books I think everyone should read. We live in a time where we all should be seeking deeper connections with ourselves and others, and I believe these are books of great healing and self-discovery.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon (Scribner, 2018)
Kiese Laymon’s Heavy is a book that earns its title. It’s the story of a Black man in America discovering and struggling with what it means to inhabit that identity. Reading Laymon has made me meditate on my own relationships: with blackness and black masculinity, with my mother, with my students and my own teachers and professors, with people of different races, black identity, and what Laymon calls “black abundance.” Heavy is filled with an honesty, openness, vulnerability and self-reflection I find refreshing—a self-acceptance I find liberating in this time of resistance, obstruction, and otherness. His relationship with his mother is a deep, complex, and sometimes co-dependent one; his grandmother’s words are measured and wise. So much could be quoted, but most impactful to my own writing is Laymon’s revelation that “…telling the truth was way different from finding the truth, and finding the truth had everything to do with revisiting and rearranging words. Revisiting and rearranging words didn’t only require vocabulary; it required will, and maybe courage. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns.”
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk (Penguin, 2015)
Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is an eye-opening experience from start to finish. It’s not just about the healing of trauma, but about the scientific and very human journey to understand how we experience and re-experience trauma, and where it resides, like a ghost, in our bodies. The book is scientific but plain-spoken and revelatory in its pronouncements about the human experience. I found myself captivated by the particulars of learned helplessness and the effects of low serotonin levels on social dominance in monkeys, but also delighted and perplexed by small historical details (Van Der Kolk notes that “Ironically, the hospital was started as an ‘asylum,’ a word meaning ‘sanctuary’ that gradually took on a sinister connotation.”) that reinforce, in my mind, the connectedness of language and experience. For me, this book is a kind of extended meditation—each time I finished a chapter I learned something new about myself, often to such a degree that what I’d absorbed only made complete sense days, or weeks later. Read this book. It’s a touchstone for people who want to better understand themselves, but also want to extend the reach of their compassion for others.
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon (Grove Press, 2008)
I’m really fond of Frantz Fanon, and I often feel that every emotion I have about being Black in America can be summed up, already has been summed up, by something he wrote some forty or fifty years before I was born. Currently, I find myself daily rereading chapters from Black Skin, White Masks (translated to English by Richard Philcox), which seeks to understand the psyche of a Black person living in a White world. At the moment, I’m circling the first chapter, “The Black Man and Language,” with its focus on the social and verbal relationships between Blacks and Whites. Fanon’s words build a bridge that connect colonialism to its present effects on both the colonizer and and the colonized, a way to understand present relations as a direct product of the past. Being a poet, I believe deeply in the power of language and speech and this is ever present in Fanon’s work.
“To speak means to be able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language,” he says, “but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization.”
The Black Automaton by Douglas Kearney (Fence Books, 2009)
Speaking of language, I’ve also been reading Douglas Kearney’s 2008 National Poetry Series winning collection The Black Automaton. Kearney’s poems fuse Blues, Jazz, Hip-hop, slang, race, history and typography into a rich stew of puns and political confrontation. This book is a feast for the eyes (The Black Automaton in Tag: Refugee) and the ears (Despair of Existence #3: How Can I Be Down?, Floodsong 2: Water moccasin’s spiritual), and like the above books, it highlights the power and flaws inherent in words—the simultaneity of their fluidity and impreciseness, their ability to mean everything and yet nothing at all when it comes to expressing the complexities of the human experience. On top of this, Kearney’s work has a lot to say about appropriation and the ownership of language, which is also the appropriation and ownership of a body—of sound. I’ll stop gushing here so you can check his work out for yourself if you haven’t.
Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness by Bob Kaufman (New Directions, 1965)
Lastly, Bob Kaufman is one of the unsung heroes of the Beat movement. Jazzy, political, and surreal, he seems, to me, to be held back from greater fame only by his blackness. Why else would his name be left out of the conversation that so frequently includes Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti—all of whom he was friends with? In France, Kaufman was referred to as “the Black American Rimbaud.” What else does a poet need to write to garner attention than the melancholy, yet ironic, “I hope Rimbaud bleeds all over my stolen pants”? Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness is a book that every lover of Beat poetry should read and more people should be familiar with. I could say more, but I think it’s best put in his own words from his 1959 broadside poem Second April, which are uncanny, dreamlike, and eerily relevant right now:
The holy man is pimpy to our whore, out of America by God, stunned stallion, he, with Einstein on carbuncled feet, is it stopped, illusionary motion, do we go on, they watch last night’s angels aborted, the sky shot up, death packed up her old kit bag, they watch, man, everything is even now, the president has translucent worms in his brain…