The Dirty Wars:
New Poems by Robert Chrisman
San Francisco: The Black Scholar Press
The late Robert Chrisman was the co-founder and for many years the Editor-in-Chief of THE BLACK SCHOLAR. He held an M.A. from San Francisco State College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. He retired from a Professorship and Chair of Black Studies at University of Nebraska, Omaha in 2005. His previous teaching included Michigan, Williams, UC Berkeley, University of Vermont, and Wayne State University.
Robert Chrisman’s latest volume of poems, The Dirty Wars: New Poems by Robert Chrisman, continues and expands upon the themes of his first two volumes, Children of Empire (1981) and Minor Casualties (1993). Chrisman perceives a universe in which the U.S. thrust for total global hegemony has resulted not only in global havoc for various peoples, but also corrupts individual relationships and psyches with its strain.
In such a world, “There is no sleep but pain/ There is no victory, nor valedictory/ There is no peace. There is no forgiveness/ There is no chamber music.” On the other hand, Chrisman finds consolation in individual efforts of fraternity, such as the building of a housing collective in Cuba: “We have planted the seeds of our lives, / They grow beyond us, / Large, vast, fragrant, / Like the ceiba, that large tree/ That guided your labor seven years ago, / And still sways, much larger, / Over the fruits of Los Naranjos.” He also celebrates the endurance and strength that can be found within when facing oppression, such as that of ANC President Nelson Mandela during his incarceration: “He was constant as Orion, / A broad-shouldered winter clock/ who shoulders time and betrayal,/ spray of doves and spears.”
Chrisman also observes closely the reverberations caused by different assaults to the human psyche. He comments on the limited lives of single parent women in “Mother of the Movement:” “She fight in the chains of child care, / baby sitters, no car, short money/ and the daily double commute to baby sitter and work,” or grieves for a partner stricken with terminal cancer in recalling their summer together, “I share these memories as my comfort in your hard time,/ Much as helpless people offer their finest gifts/ To capricious gods,” and probes the duplicities forced upon women by patriarchy in “Procne is Among the Slaves:” “Theirs is an epic spun in coded nocturnes/ among sisters of ravished silence:/ it does not celebrate/ a glittering sword nor homebound sails.” The foibles of the new black bourgeoisie, the talented tenth, are satirized in “Lexus Blues:” “Did you ever wake up one morning’ / and find yo’ Lexus gone? Ever wake up one mornin’ / And find yo’ Lexus gone? / My baby stole it and all my Dom Perignon.” Chrisman resolves his vision with an image of memory and rebirth: “You stand naked on your wash tub/ your family rinses your body with rain water/ your inner and outer skin are one: / The Baja breeze irradiates your groin.”
The Dirty Wars is organized into 4 parts: “The Dirty Wars,” “Letter to a Feminist,” “Letter of Reference,” and “My Father’s Mittens,” respectively. Each section commences with an eponymous elegy, in which Chrisman examines themes that filter into the accompanying poems in the section. In this respect, Chrisman draws upon the classical use of the elegy as a poem of serious meditation. The subsequent poems extend these ideas, in which Chrisman is equally at home with classical allusions, blues idiom, and song lyrics enveloped in an accentual verse that maneuvers through his subjects with astonishing meter and symmetry. Chrisman’s crafted imagery is matched by his intimate attention to detail in poems that address at once a broad and very personal audience.
As poet Melba Joyce Boyd writes, “Robert Chrisman’s cosmic vision harbors profound insight derived from the mystery of human frailties and our uncanny, liberating pursuits in love and war. The Dirty Wars evinces Chrisman’s mastery of poetics in a collection expertly crafted to convey harsh demographic and global truths in a vocabulary that is hauntingly beautiful and strangely gentle, even when posed in confrontation. His poetry lingers in the mind’s eye like ‘a wraith of light,’ ‘a spray of doves and spears,’ warning us about ‘rat-eyed maggot men,’ and ‘the incoherent hum and curse of something inside,’ as he challenges us to explore ‘deeper channels/ than the wounds of memory.’”
To purchase copies or obtain review copies contact:
Shannon Hanks Mackey, Managing Editor
hanks [at] theblackscholar [dot] org