(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018)
How far do we look back when we see how far we’ve come? How far is too far, or is it ever far enough? And how long must we continue to look, if only to look at ourselves the way we would wish to be looked by others? Julian Randall’s debut collection, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press), is both the abnegation and elegy of its title, but it is also an avowal: an unabashed testament to existence, to being alive, to survival in the face of a world that would wish to ignore you, reduce you, or stamp you out.
Refuse, which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2017, begins on this renunciation-through-reimagination: the utopic possibilities of re-collection. Randall confronts myth in order to rethink it and “Icarus Imposter Syndrome” becomes both origin story and a fast-forward fable for 2018, the reckoning with the artist’s ambition and inheritance, “the kind of obsession that nearly drowns us.” Yet, the insistence is that we no longer need to accept anything we’ve been given or forced to take; a formal assertion of redaction that recurs throughout the book and forces the reader, too, to confront their own complacency with the status quo. The speaker—here as in so many poems to follow—can only ever recount life by desiring the death that precedes any form of sacrifice, so much so that “[f]or the longest time I could not make it out of a poem alive.”
It’s impossible for me to read Refuse without thinking of Édouard Glissant, especially the right to a shared obscurity that métissage—the inherent meeting and synthesis of divergent cultures, languages, and identities—offers us in its collective refusal to be singular and unilateral “the inability to settle for a common way of writing…” as Glissant writes in “An Exploded Discourse” and earlier: “the instinctive denial that has not yet been structured into a conscious and collective refusal.” Randall’s endeavor to articulate his refusal is the composition of this collection, in which his feelings of exile and uprooting manifest in his continual disappearing acts; in which his disappearance becomes a counterpoetics; in which his language is not only “a burden in every mouth” (“Biracial Ghazal: Why Everything Ends In Blood”), but also the creation of a self-expression that reorients how we hear and read that language. Randall’s biracial, queer identity becomes is not only a personal statement, but also a statement of purpose, in which the poet moves from couplets to letters to lists to palimpsests and often, even, abstracts: a poetics of ©leaving in which we are forced to consider “the question of whether trauma and pain are inherent and, by extension, inherently linked” (“The Spook Who Sat By the Once Bombed City: Psychological Explorations of Ancestral Memory Through the Lens of Racial Battle Trauma”).
In this role as both “a stenographer of elegies for the still living” (“Zealots of Stockholm or Elegy For the Still Living”) and “a refuge for secrets” (“On the Night I Consider Coming Out To My Parents”), Randall is always moving through the translations of self across space and time, and this book is as much about sacrifice as it is about lineage and as much about lineage as it is about forgiveness, and ultimately, as much about stasis and the arrestment of grief as it is about migration and Randall’s own adage: “If I know anything it is this/any good survival/tries not to be anywhere twice” (“Chicago*”). The nature of sacrifice is recursive, as Randall so often elucidates in fractured lyrical poetry and the spare meditations of prose, and yet, in spite of this repetition or exactly because of it, this is a collection that is indebted to the generation passages that conceived the author, he who is continually mislabeled, ignored, rejected, and yet “exist(s) in a space between letters”: as he affirms in “The Academy of Acceptable Loss:” “… without me the whole thing is illegible.” Randall, as poet-producer, is not just code-switcher but the code itself: the social and political exigency of the hybrid discourse locates itself in the body that gives birth to such a discourse, and even and especially if the author himself has no language for the often-asked question what are you, his “skin parts/eager to answer” (“The Space Between Skins is Called a Wound”). Not having ever fully learned the language of either of my parents I can only identify and identify with Randall’s assertion of the scab-as-progress; a progress which is a protest: to evade the logocentrism of linguistics for something else, something pre-verbal and perhaps even pre-facial—“… maybe it is hard to/leave because I have never/had a face before …” he writes in “Narcissus Imposter Syndrome”—that plea for a becoming that Deleuze and Guattari argued could only happen when one becomes totally imperceptible; in that obscurity one becomes both less and more of themselves.
And yet the perpetual struggle to articulate this. to come to terms with this, to find a terminology for what one is:
A body gets silent
and is named after the silence
to forget it was ever a boy
Silence inundates my throat
there is more than one way
to have a boy in your mouth
(“The Search for Frank Ocean or A Brief History of Disappearing”)
And to place this individual experience into the collective consciousness of lineage, ancestry, history:
Thus, this poem is concerned with the question of whether what has been done can ever be undone; perhaps still more appropriately, whether what has been done has ever stopped happening? Concurrently, this is a poem that preoccupies itself with the question of what constitutes “the beginning” of ancestral memory?
(“The Spook Who Sat By the Once Bombed City: Psychological Explorations of Ancestral Memory Through the Lens of Racial Battle Trauma”)
Randall is not just intent on exploring the past but in exploding the present and re-envisioning the future, the possibilities for other young black and brown women and men and children, re-membering an adolescence in which “there are only four Black boys in the photo including my own perpetually blurry face” (“The Academy of Acceptable Loss”) amid the news bytes of Obama’s “once in a generation” ascension to the Presidency: “I understand this to mean/there can only be one of us/and he already is and often/things are lost for a reason” (“The Author is Often Mistaken For Obama’s Long Lost Son”). Refuse, again and again, moves past requiem to become a return and a response, an attestation to the world that was, that is, and the world that can be—the nation underneath the nation the poet sees as a child, in class, after a lesson on slavery (“This Land Is Where We Buried Everything that Came Before You: African American History and Concepts of Ownership in Early Elementary Education”). It’s not the pain and grief that will disappear us, it’s what will provide our refusal to disappear.