Much contemporary ‘political’ literature exists to appease bourgeois guilt. It commonly does so by presenting a soft radicalism that is easily assented to (with minimum cost to the reader’s own sense of self). In contrast to this Jasmine Gibson’s first full-length collection, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This, is ardent and unrestrained. Learning to write outside the finishing schools of sanctioned vers libre, Gibson’s poetry enacts an emphatic opposition to the racial oppression that grounds the United States. It does by placing her incendiary desire at the centre of the work. Growing up in Philadelphia, the poet is now based in Brooklyn where she works as a psychotherapist; in her late teens she was politicised through activism just before the Occupy movement. Caught up amongst what it means to live within the world’s prevailing settler-colony, the power of this poetry is the energy that swells and bursts across its lines. The book asks, in a world of racialised state violence, how to navigate death, how to escape the ends that foreclose desire?
In “Electric Wizard,” the voice of the poem compels its impulses forward. The lines traverse dream and reality:
Everyone is in crisis and we just fell into the trap
We just wanted to experience death without it being mortal
We wanted to fail and believe there was a hereafter
And that there is something beyond blood and cum
Something beyond being a vampire
Something beyond dead
Even beyond that because then
There isn’t even infinity and if there is, math couldn’t count it
We lit a fire and everyone saw
The world ended and we still chose to live in it
Immediacy is an important facet of Gibson’s poetry. Each line unfolds to recalibrate the last. The work feels excited by this switching of attention. Whilst death is the consequence of “the trap,” it is also the transcendent experience of “blood and cum,” as the fluidity of desire’s own endpoint. In this poem an orgasm is a death against death. It outmanoeuvres capitalism as a vampiric social form. Tracing the proximity between desire and liberation, across this book the lines continually runs up against obliteration. Against this, the poems hold space for how to live within and after the end. A lit fuse, they cling to the utopian immediacy just prior to the moment of explosion, the lingering seconds before it all breaks out.
Gibson’s poetry not only traces social death in the present but also as a continual precedent. The poem “Henrietta Lacks” interrogates the history of black women as breeding stock. It also works through their subsequent abuses within scientific discovery: “bondage slavery | think of it as an inheritance | the kind that runs by blood’” (15). These glances backward are made over the shoulder as the past weighs entangled in the present. The poem “Primitive Accumulation” opens “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical” (42), stressing the importance of the womb for the reproduction of capital’s stock. It explores how capitalism produces gendered pathologies of madness, in a world where black women are viewed as: “Sweet and full of darkness | Demons” (42). Where others are marked as irrational, Gibson’s poetry traces how capitalism’s civilising mission depends on a rationality that masks its own rule of violence:
Imagine all of the stories slaves would have written
If they didn’t die writing with their flesh
Instead their flesh was for a sadistic master
and our |Age of Enlightenment|
Tell me when it hurts, I’ll keep going (42).
The book stresses how human bondage is carried out in the name of progress. Primitive accumulation is the term Karl Marx gave to capitalism’s brutal rule of violence by dispossession. In the context of the United States, industrial wealth was built off the backs of the enslaved. In B. Fowkes’ translation of Capital, Marx’s capitalism’s is “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (875). His point is a literary one; the records of so called capitalist progress—from the screeds of bourgeois philosophers to the handiwork of ledgers and accounts—is figuratively written in the blood of the dispossessed (This is not merely figurative: the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher John Locke owned stock in slave trading companies). As Gibson writes in “Atlantic:” “I could reach into the back of my throat and pull a gold ring” (44). Here, the poet figures the interrelations between language and exploitative production through poetic alchemy. Across the book, the blood and toil of the oppressed foreshadows our language as it runs through the printer’s ink and turns into gold or settles in PayPal accounts.
One way of reading the continual transitions across the historical and the present in Don’t Let Them See Me Like This is through what Saidiya Hartman terms a “history of the present.” Hartman writes about how in her archival research on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, she encounters the lives of black women in name only. There is no sense of what the lives of these women were truly like beyond their pain. She writes in the essay, “Venus in Two Acts” that “We only know what can be extrapolated from an analysis of the ledger or borrowed from the world of her captors and masters and applied to her” (2). She hopes that by writing from the standpoint of present experience might open up some minimal possibility of giving a fully realisable life to the dead. This is what Gibson does in her employment of the lyric mode, where “Spanish is clumsy on my tongue like Angolan slaves | breaking their tools in Puerto Rico, Barbados and Nevis” (22).
One of the concerns of Gibson’s poetry is how, in conditions of continual atrocity, there is still the possibility of relational intimacy. In the last of the book’s five poems titled “Stop Texting Me,” the blackness of the lyric ‘I’ discomfits the language of blood and fire:
I open up open up open open up open up
Until the walls sweat my name
Haunting isn’t enough
I want to merge, live inside, split into your cells
Until flesh itself is only thought of as contextual (77)
There is a common misunderstanding that the problem with capitalism is that it produces an ever-increasing array of abstractions. Against this, Gibson’s poetry articulates that racial-capital’s domination over life depends on its subjection of black flesh. In the repetition of “open” the lyric I is rendered asunder and split. However, the word “open” also intimates the externalisation of a self in language as well as the internment of flesh in the carceral system: “o pen[itentiary].” This is reminiscent of Pusha T’s “Hold On,” where withheld access to literacy in the aftermath of slavery is articulated as a legacy of racial oppression: “They tipping the scale for these crackers to win | No reading, no writing, made us savage of men | They praying for jail but I mastered the pen.” In Gibson’s poem, the lyric I strains against the white neutralisation of language as it “sweat[s] my name’ and ‘split[s] into your cells.” It does so by attempting to steal something back. The repetition of “open up” has an incantatory character to it, like necromancy in verse. Through opening up, the flesh of the ‘I’s language reveals that, amongst the exhaustion and death that service accumulation, there is still “something beyond dead.” It is from this rupture or split within the cell of the self that the capacity for something else must emerge.
The demand for an explosion against the set is laid out most clearly in the final two stanzas of the book. The poem “Hollow Delta” ends:
If Black Lives Matter, then that means the destruction of America.
The entirety. That vibrates deep down in the core of the earth, to emerge and
Destroy Europe and the imaginings of it.
I’m the angel knocking on yr door
To let disease in
The place that I fit in doesn’t exist,
Until I destroy it (80).
In Don’t Let Them See Me Like, the poetic “history of the present” emerges from out of a continually pressurised immediacy. The poetry attempts to stake out a space to live within the storm that drives us into the future. It may perhaps be a question this book alone cannot answer, but it does beg to be asked: if the world is to be inverted so that the subjected and racialised lyric “I” be made to fit, from where does that turning inside out start? When does the angel arrive and on whose door does it knock?
Well, your door. As the title of the book indicates, the voice of this poetry is never ready, yet always rendered out. Gibson’s work implicitly critiques the conditions of reflection, the risks taken in the time spent looking backwards. It does so whilst also demanding that space be found to mourn the dead and fight for the living. It stresses that the starting points to inverting the world are always under duress. This work of mourning, as the celebration of something beyond dead, must be enacted on the run.
Ed Luker is a poet, writer, and academic working in London. He has recently completed a PhD from Northumbria University on the poetry of J. H. Prynne. He runs the poetry reading series and radio show Rivet. His fifth collection of poetry Heavy Waters is forthcoming on The 87 Press in 2019.