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JUSTIN DAVIS | The ? Remains & Other Poems

Justin, a Black person, looks at the camera. He wears a black button-up shirt with white lion pattern, a Prince symbol necklace and brown glasses. His hair is pulled back and he has a beard and mustache.

The first and the penultimate sentences of the poem are blacked out, leaving only a question mark. They have been marked as “CENSORED” in this text.  [CENSORED]? / the question blooming open for others to water / out of three million surveyed, one said / there’s whiteness in the word “finesse” / another said / I feel like a fly in white milk / every answer had a whiteness lurking under it / a rich lobster waiting under it / some billionaire billionairing / ancient / armor bulging / instead / I’d rather talk about my brief stint as a counterfeiter / second grade / short haired / sticking $5 bills on the copier / crumpling the notes in my fists for extra realism / I was a numismatist / copping buffalo nickels at the antique store / eyeing watermarks on an eggshell-colored Compaq / wanting my momma’s pockets fat / I asked her about the bills every month / Laclede Gas / Ameren / house payments / student loans / I still remember the day I passed her in the dining room and all my presidents spilled out / the way I really thought they could help / the way she asked me / [CENSORED]? / while she stuffed Lincoln’s face in the shredder

This poem contains several mixtape tags: they are lines of text in all caps that are placed around and across the poem, diagonally and horizontally. The poem is almost entirely legible, but one mixtape tag slightly overlaps with the first stanza; another slightly overlaps with the fifth stanza and obscures the beginning of the 6th stanza. One way of reading the poem is as follows:  [REAL. TRAP. SHIT. REAL. TRAP. SHIT.]  1) In a bubbling field of cornrows. Or more specifically, on the little path between the fourth and fifth cornrow, where an old man walks up to me and begins to talk about time. We take a seat on a tight black knot. He asks me how much silence I think a decade really holds. He quotes a rapper from Buffalo, says, Ayo, I was in my cell, I clicked my heels three times. I quote a rapper from Brooklyn, tell him to stand in the sun and get as black as he wants, point out the banana trees in the humid South, how there’s a place called Soulsville where I saw three churches on a single block. When we part, he drops it, and I yell after him. Keep it, he says. I hurry home to beat the coming night.  2) I glance down at my pockets and they swell like lymph nodes, like there’s an ailment I’m choosing to ignore. Maybe, like Kanye, I suffer from realness. Maybe I never had good credit or karma to begin with.  [DAMN, SON, WHERE’D YOU FIND THIS?]  3) On the corner of Goodfellow and Maple.  4) In the attic of the house that’s burning right now. It’s licking up ash as we speak. That’s why I don’t have time for your shit right now, why I don’t care about your Robespierre coupe with the top off.   [TRAP-A-HOLICS MIXTAPES TRAP-A-HOLICS MIXTAPES]  5) Buried in a Twitter thread about 40,000 Africanized bees, after the picture of a honeybee in a kufi, after Drake in a kufi, Lebron in a kufi, after someone says, Watch the property values go down, just before a Guy Fawkes mask says, You’ve outwoked yourself.  [THIS IS A CERTIFIED HOOD CLASSIC]  6) Oh, this? Where anyone gets anything these days—I bought it. I’m not at liberty to give addresses or names, but I can tell you that night had cracked over me like a breaking lamp. There was a place, and a person, but that’s almost any transaction. And from a myriad of options for payment, I chose a flock of deer. Naming the deer would still be off-limits, but I’m telling you, they nodded in a quiet approval.

I heard the shape of the poem’s imperceptible / I heard its legs shrivel up when they see sunlight / someone told me they saw it running off the margins / I even heard it was running with Tekashi / yes your honor that poem right there / the one that keeps saying “Karen” is a racial slur / that keeps saying BBQ Becky made solid points / like dripping joy out your black mouth at the park is a felony / a cop for every nigga with a charcoal grill / allegedly / the poem has too much bathos by the third stanza / allegedly / it’s sponsored by Lockheed Martin / Nestlé / Eli Lilly / the poem might hit me with some Prozac and a drone strike / yeah / I heard the poem stays preparing for disaster / I saw it at Kroger hoarding milk and eggs and Wonder Bread / now all I have to make ends meet is that powdered shit / all I have is some lines about a drought / the quiet lingering under my quiet

The landfills always end up in my neighborhood and the power always goes out in my neighborhood and the bus stops running at six in my neighborhood and the state says we can’t raise the minimum wage and the state says no one can forgive us if we sell weed and the city’s fingers grasp at every scrap of gold light and the frat boy tells me if I go to Orange Mound I’ll die and the night I was at Graceland, the rain came down in blankets and the riot police were clotting together like ants and I was so close to them, I could see a cop’s breath behind his visor and an armored truck was revving up to remind us of its power and drones were cutting lines through the sky and I wondered if I would end up in jail and dear hegemony: I hope you slip on this slick pond, skid down the boardwalk, lose your wallet on the dock.

A few good words with Justin

BVS: "Damn Son, Where'd You Find This?" makes exciting plays with the text on the page--echoing, shouting, cross-talk--and reminds me of Douglas Kearney's work. Can you talk a little bit about what you hoped to communicate with this form?

JD: When I wrote this one, I was thinking a lot about my favorite mixtapes from the 2000s and early 2010s and some of the DJs who hosted them: DJ Drama, DJ Skee, DJ Whoo Kid, and Trap-A-Holics. The DJ tags on those tapes always added this energy and chaos to the sounds of those tapes—they fill in these tiny gaps between the rappers' lines, overlap with their voices, and cut or move whole sections of songs—and I liked the idea of trying to bottle some of that energy in my own work. So the poem ended up with these competing voices and competing perspectives, which made it feel as crowded as my thoughts were when I wrote it.

I'm glad you mention Douglas Kearney, too, as he's one of my favorite poets working right now. I love how his poems are packed with political subtext through his aesthetic choices—a big influence on me, for sure.

BVS: I know that you're a poet and a cultural field shifter--how do you see your role as an artist intersect with your role as a labor organizer? Where do your politics plug into your poetry?

JD: I feel really strongly that my art isn't a political practice in and of itself, but I hope that my art and my political practice can complement each other. My poems have always been a way of working through questions that I don’t feel fully equipped to answer yet. They help me work through the messy process of fighting back in a country that runs on our deaths. And without organizing, I can’t do any of that. Organizing grounds me and my writing; it always reminds me who my political commitments are for: my family and community. I want a better world for them, and for all of us.

I also think it's important to say that the literary poetry scene (as I've experienced it, anyway) often obscures our relationship to political practice. So many writers are going through MFA programs where we're underpaid and denied benefits while we keep our departments functioning. We're going to universities that are helping gentrify and surveil their neighborhoods. We’re working for nonprofits and presses that are partnering with major corporations or repressive state institutions. So get out of the classroom and onto the street when you can. Talk to your fellow writers about how much you get paid, how you're being treated at work, and where the money for your writing is coming from. Fight for transformative, material change with the people around you—especially when they’re not in the academy, especially when you’re not writing about it.

BVS: What poet are you most excited about right now? Whose work feels extra juicy?

JD: It's so hard to choose just one! Lately, I’ve been really inspired by folks like Darius Simpson, Joselia Rebekah Hughes, Tarik Dobbs, Fargo Tbakhi, Zefyr Lisowski, and Ava Hofmann. And I gotta shout out Jo’Van O’Neal, Khaya Osborne, Prince Bush, Mauricio Novoa, Daphne DiFazio, and Ellie Black. They’re putting out incredible work right now and they deserve all the flowers.

Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems have appeared in places like Breakwater Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published essays with Scalawag, Science for the People, and Labor Notes. He's been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.


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