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African-American poet Lucille Clifton wrote in 1991, “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”
Trouble Sleeping, the debut book of poems by local poet Abdul Ali, is the contemporary answer to Clifton’s call. It’s the sleepless night spent thinking of things that failed to kill but still torment. Thoughts of death, mental illness, a New York City childhood, family, silence, pop culture, and racialized violence all haunt Ali’s sleepless poems. The collection, which won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize, is punctuated by black pages with only “(blink)” printed on them, and these serve as brief yet potent pauses between dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks.
There is a blink page even before the first poem, indicating that we’re already in the middle of a tumultuous night. “How to Begin a Short Film” a vivid snapshot of New York City life, hints at the heartbreak of 9/11, the urban routines of family, and noisy commutes up and downtown. But “next thing you know,” writes Ali, there’s “the slurred speech of your mother/after an argument: I should have aborted you.”
While the speaker’s voice is tired of these emotional storms, it’s unable to rest. Two poems in the first section deal directly with insomnia through halting fragments. The stream of unconsciousness reads: “dear God can I have one hour one hour an hour of peace/silence this violent river in my head.” At its best, this pleading voice conjures a real panic, but parts of the free verse poem rely on repetition that has less impact (“my mind’s on fire/ there’s a fire truck tossin’ & turnin’turnin’ & tossin’”).
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In the second batch of poems, night horrors turn to daylight and the stuff of dreams becomes reality. This is the most powerful string of poems in the collection, and the one most haunted by the specter of death. “Elegy” is dedicated to Troy Davis, the black Georgia man convicted of murdering a police officer and executed despite significant public doubts about his guilt. In the string of five poems, Ali dreams of this injustice being sung out loud instead of confined to the page, wishing “to teach [his] daughter/that black doesn’t equal death.” The voice in this section is not resigned to violence; the speaker comes across as trembling and commanding. But despite this underlying hope, there’s the sense that with every blink, another black man is lost: “Always, they begin/as units of prayer/in sleep/watery images/then I wake/seeing them/crowded together in a headline/Officers in Bronx Fire 41 Shots,/And an Unarmed Man is Killed.”
Another blink is the gateway to a different set of dreams. The poems in the middle of the collection are about childhood, with references to Def Jam, Michael Jackson, Double Dare, Run–D.M.C., and ’90s fashion. For Ali, these enjambments of pop and politics are all part of the same sleepless night.
While for much of the book, blinks are like breaths before waking up to the same horrors, they are also the unit of measurement for other things. In one poem, a young daughter changes before the speaker’s eyes (“with each blink you grow an inch taller”) and in another, the speaker notices the silence between children and parents (“each blink is a ten-minute film”). Whether between poems or inside them, the blinks represent the starting and stopping of the passage of time, making the book feel paced at the speed of life.
Clifton imbued her work with a sense of hope and a then-radical use of idiomatic and black vernacular. Ali’s poems also display a kind of resilience, but through culture and music: He references jazz, George Gershwin, and the subway conductor “who wishes he were a DJ,/announcing each stop like he’s Isaac Hayes.” The book’s foreword by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis refers to this as Ali’s “serious cultural catalog of looking as a form of activism.” By turning his lens to urban neighborhoods sometimes referred to as the “inner city,” Ali designates these locations and cultures as the sites of full black lives rather than places that only contain social problems.
The collection ends with a prayer: “this body is too tired from unsleep, please, Lord, let me down… way down, a little bit, easy. Let me down easy. Amen.” It could be a wish for death or for sleep, and either is a resolution that allows the poet to rest in peace. It’s a satisfying and breathy ending, something tangible for a collection that constantly wonders whether it has impact beyond the page. Here Ali has certainly achieved it: I found myself closing my eyes after this last line to savor the hymn.
Ali reads at Busboys and Poets 14th & V on May 17.