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Is all pain—physical, political, existential, romantic, traumatic—just a different shade of the same thing? Local poet and professor Kyle Dargan’s new book, Honest Engine, suggests as much. The author’s note at the beginning of the collection, Dargan’s fourth, acknowledges the deaths of five people close to him within just a few years, experiences he says exceeded his previous “thresholds of pain.” The ensuing poems look head-on at an end that stretches out beyond our imaginations, at the middle spaces between life, memory, and death. But they also address the pain of racial hatred and the pain that masculinity can confer when bravado goes unchecked.
A number of poems in the first section, entitled “Equity,” look at two Americas, our split racial reality. “A House Divided” riffs on Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech to paint contrasting pictures of white and black America: “In your America,/a clay-colored colt stomps, its hooves/cursing the barn’s chronic lean.” And later: “In my America, my father/awakens again thankful that my face/is not the face returning his glare/from above eleven o’clock news/murder headlines.” While poking holes in the whitewashed imagination of pastoral poetry (a tradition that looks romantically at rural life), this poem also insists that both racial worlds have a shared pain. In the original speech, Lincoln said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” In Dargan’s poetic reimagining, the house is already crumbling, with references to leaning, leaking, and dripping.
What’s not clear is whether the voice thinks these separate Americas are real or imagined. The poem “Beastheart” comments on “dating outside of your race” with the phrase “those faux boundaries.” While the poems aren’t sure of the separateness of the two worlds, they still pulse with feverish blood. “O, Bride” questions “The Black, the White—this country’s beloved/abstractions” but still insists on the hurt of “this nation of brown/ghettos urged to eat/themselves. Riots—not indigestion/but famishment sated with fire,/cracking glass, and blood.”
A blurb on the back of the book describes Dargan as “quietly insistent” and “calm,” and the poems can sometimes verge on feeling flat or too taut. Other than the book’s two prose poems, Dargan relies on short lines. But the poems are most energized by his repetition of consonant sounds to play up hip-hop-inspired tongue twisters or place emphasis on key phrases. Dargan has been reviewed in the context of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, but it’s not an unequivocal fit. The vast majority of the epigraphs that begin Dargan’s poems are from black writers, artists, and musicians, a choice that fits him in the Black Arts tradition of cultural sovereignty. But Black Arts Movement founder Amiri Baraka was also known for writing with a kind of toxic masculinity that used homophobic slurs. Dargan’s poems instead sing to other men about their masculine myopathy, urging them to stand against their own privilege: “turn the drum mallet/upon yourself—not to batter/but to dig down and excise/whatever within your head whirs/at this pitch that will kill you.” The instrument becomes a weapon, a necessary pain to interrogate patriarchy.
There are places in these poems where the writing comes across as labored breath, sections that feel more forced than alive. I wanted to simplify or puncture lines like “Maybe some of wisdom’s/breath wafts within what he says.” But this labored writing could be a response to pain taking Dargan’s breath away. In fact, the book opens with a lyric from alt-hip-hop outfit N.E.R.D., a song that later continues: “cause God yanked the rug and holding your heart will not help you breathe.”
Dargan’s author‘s note refers to his “pain résumé,” and the book plots points and experiences onto this poetic CV. His worn maturation, reluctantly accepting the pain he’s recently accumulated, is most evident in the poem that closes the book, “Pale Blue Dot.” Dargan writes: “Though we have that photograph,/only Voyager has felt the cold/pull of witnessing all that we are/fitted on the head of a pin/pushed into a black expanse/wider than any sky we’ll ever face.” Here, instead of halted breaths, the lines breathe space into the unknown, closing out a book that considers morality and mortality with the same smart, stylized, and restrained verse.
Dargan reads May 3 at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.