CORTNEY LAMAR CHARLESTON | Two Poems
IT’S IMPORTANT I REMEMBER THAT HISTORY DOESN’T REPEAT, IT RHYMES―
for example, President Abraham Lincoln
had a secretary named Kennedy
and President John F. Kennedy
had a secretary named Lincoln.
that hasn’t ever been verified on Abe’s end,
but that’s not the rhyme anyway.
You already know the bullet is the rhyme
between those two, the opening it made
in the mind for grieving that is both unique
and reminiscent. Rhyme, in essence,
is the repetition of one root sound,
potting it in new grammar.
A fresh rhyme refreshes the spirit,
tickles the lips into an upturn,
but history is, like, the laziest rapper ever, I swear.
History rhymes violence with violins and calls it a fucking day.
History rhymes nigga with nigga except
does it using the o.g. version
of that word which anchors
the ole lynching tree to stolen land.
Here’s the slant heard in the timeline:
it’s September 23, 2020 and that same damn word reverberates
through the happenings of the afternoon news―a black woman
shot to death in her own home by Louisville police six months ago
and the single charge the grand jury brought forward against only
one officer out of the group is first-degree wanton endangerment
clicking three times off the judge’s tongue. Lazy. Lacking
any allusion to the extinguishment of Breonna’s beautiful life,
finding more concern for her white neighbors next door and the holes
in their wall needing spackling paste. And the reference history pulls
into its tired rap isn’t pop as in crossover, it’s pompous, a gloat
nothing less than grotesque: If we hadn't stopped to drink pop,
it wouldn't have taken that long. That was also September 23rd
but back in 1955, when a jury in Mississippi acquitted murderers
and clanged glass bottles of Coke over Emmett Till’s mangled body,
a boy, black and mild, who got lied on by somebody’s white neighbor.
Look: today is our first time here,
but we’ve been here before.
I’ve been here before.
I hear it with my heart, yes―
and it sounds―
so devastatingly wack.
It’s Important I Remember That Twista Can Make You a Celebrity Overnight—
if you rub him right, hand to belly, “wax on, wax off” motions.
His velour jumpsuit will turn blue; he's a friend you've never had
the likes of before. Twista will make you famous by snapping a finger.
Twista will fill mouths with your name from the left molars to the right.
Twista will play something the people like; will pick the right whip for you
he knows they'll like; will give you ice to give out like Kobe gave his wife.
Twista will make you a prince or the local equivalent. America doesn't
have a throne yet, so the closest thing is the Resolute desk; Twista
will make you the president against all pundit predictions. Twista
will make you somebody all those little somebodies out there
can't trust but no doubt will, even a few of the black men—
third eyes open—who profess to never trust a damn thing.
A few good words with Cortney
PDS: What does it mean to you to be Black and creating?
CLC: To be Black and creating is to be Black and alive and to be Black and alive is to be Black and
creating. This world, in many respects, was built by us but it wasn’t built for us. To endure
immeasurable suffering and violence, we’ve had to conjure joy like a signal flare against
unimpeachable darkness, to furnish our lives with artifacts of imagination when materially we
lacked, largely because we’d been stolen from (if our bodies themselves had not been seized by
slavers or the state). We’ve had to make our own way, and thus, creation is our means to survival
in the most hostile conditions and, eventually, to liberation. That’s what being Black and creating
means to me: breathing, letting the blood flow from the heart to the extremities and back again
without interruption, without intervention.
PDS: What moves you/holds you/sets you on fire about Black Writing?
CLC: Being an English speaker, I believe the thing that really gets me about Black writing is how it
underscores that language is not built of definition and grammar and syntax, but emotional
intimacy and the preservation of cultural memory. What I mean is that Black folks and white
folks can use the same exact words but they will carry entirely different meanings, and they are
spoken from entirely different contexts. What Black writing provides, to me, is something that I
can own a piece of in conjunction with my kin that cannot be infringed on; it is malleable and
unruly and brilliant. Black writing is the 40 acres and a mule we’ve given ourselves because
other promises were broken. Black writing is the point of origin for the transformation of the
world as we know it. In Black writing, there seems to never be an end to the ingenuity, to the
insight and to the spirit, which, despite everything, has not been beaten out of us, though it’s
been tried. Black writing empowers me, though it doesn’t make me wish to be powerful, if that
makes sense, because it ultimately is a humble enterprise, an act of devotion to the village.
PDS: We talk a lot about Black History back in February, but I also like to talk about Black
Futures―what forthcoming Black-created art (lit, film, music, etc.) are you most
looking forward to?
CLC: I’ve got an interesting (but ultimately incomplete) list here, I hope! In no particular order:
Poetry releases from Donika Kelly (The Renunciations) and Aurielle Marie (Gumbo Ya Ya). I’m
also jazzed for my sis Camonghne Felix’s next collection, Dyscalculia, but I’m perhaps even more
excited for her upcoming essay collection, Let the Poets Govern. I can’t wait for that.
I'm down for whatever SZA and Kendrick Lamar are dropping next. And that Megan Thee
Stallion/Q-Tip link-up. And give me any good R&B release from a capable vocalist, and it'll put
me in good place.
Let there be new Kara Walker exhibitions in the future, you know, for when I feel safe going
outside and living again. I wanna watch Barry Jenkin’s limited series adapting Colson Whitehead’s, The Underground Railroad. Horror isn’t really my thing, but I feel I gotta check out the new Candyman on principle. The return of Atlanta and Pose from FX can't come soon enough.
Oh, and whatever it occurs to me to write, I'm looking forward to. Ain’t nothing more fun than playing on a page to me!
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017)
and Doppelgangbanger (Haymarket Books, 2021). He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and
Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received
fellowships from Cave Canem and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Winner of a
Pushcart Prize, his poems have appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon
Review, Granta, The Nation and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus and on
the editorial board at Alice James Books.