REVIEW: "A Deliberate Debut: Reading Julian Randall’s Refuse" by Jonathan Jacob Moore

 

“It took a precise sequence of sins to make me/ and I am giving none of them back.”

 

Julian Randall, “Sad Nigga Manifesto”

 

When I opened the bubble-wrapped package containing my advance reading copy of Julian Randall’s debut collection Refuse many months ago, I was saddened to discover the text had been immersed in water thanks to a carrier’s careless toss directly into a puddle on my front porch. I sandwiched no less than fifteen pieces of paper towel throughout the book to absorb the water and keep the ink from running. Though every word remained legible and the cover unfaded, by the third day I realized that the warped pages would never return to their original condition. The book’s aquatic encounter had irrevocably altered its character, each page now resigned to turn at its own pace, the back cover seemingly still damp no matter the passage of time. How do you read a book that does not want to be read?

 

And/or, how do you read and retell a life cut by originary violence without restaging each blow? Rather than answering this question, Randall complicates it by shirking resilience in favor of something more honest and more necessary. In his eager, relevant, sensual, and NAACP Image Award- Outstanding Poetry nominated collection is the literary equivalent of the half pump-fake/half “nigga-what’s-GOOD?” gesture that Black boys learn, when young, sets the rules engagement for what’s next to come. Unlike this practice in comportment, though, the teeth of Randall’s poetics draw his blood as the first sacrifice and we are the better for it. In "Icarus Imposter Syndrome," which appears before the title page, Randall writes “For the longest time I could not make it out of a poem alive / This one is no different.” Giving up the ghost is easy but how, Refuse asks, does one live an irreparable life?

 

The poems project themselves from their respective points of origin with Randall as their guide. The frozen edge of Lake Michigan, a Minnesota prep-school, the humid hold of Mississippi, Obama’s Oval Office: these are a few of the geographies oxidized by the author’s raucous autobiographical retellings and fabled reimaginings. Randall’s inspirations range from the mythic lives of Icarus and Daedalus and Theseus to the musical meditations of Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar. The collection models a black millennial bildungsroman in its simultaneous satirization of the idea of a universal experience of adolescence or young adulthood and staying-with terror to narrate what has happened, what could have happened, what cannot happen, and what remains as yet desired.

 

In one of the most beautiful examples of this attention, “Friday Night Lights #51,” the speaker recounts a Black boy’s painfully needful decision to ignore a dislocated shoulder during a high school football game until he collapses. While Randall refuses (by writing against) the self*-destruction of the Black body (asterisked for more reasons than one), he does so with skillfully and with care. “I am not blameless here, I didn’t think to hug him then. I prayed that that would not be me. I prayed that what ails me would be invisible enough to stay in.”

 

In “The Academy of Acceptable Loss,” a five-page poem on the author’s life as a student athlete at a predominately White preparatory school, Randall offers:  “If my family has a trade, this is it: / The sacrifice of the body, the swallowing of coins in order to enter what is scared and make it briefly ours. “Here and throughout the collection, one might be surprised to find that Refuse does not divide (at least not bloodlessly) the speakers’ worlds into what harms and what heals, asserting the voices of its speakers while remaining ambivalent about the enticing and terrifying projects of belonging and believing. “Suppose only sacrifice staves off sacrifice” utters the speaker in "A Thousand Cardinals."

 

While at first glance the text is preoccupied with deadening dualisms and the toll being Black, Dominican, and Bisexual (in the world) takes on the body and soul, beneath the surface the speakers make clear the necessity, if not the desire, to reinvent the ground upon which we stand rather than approach self-identity as a series of recuperative efforts i.e. a mind recovered from suicidality, a genealogy tightly mapped across stolen and sold, a body safe from the quotidian violence that awaits Black life. This is not to say Randall’s poetics do not entertain the premise of the singular self or reunion (the evisceration of history’s anti-Black resonance) even as it undermines it. Take, for example, “Pregame Prayer With Complete Citations,” one of the collection’s many formal experiments. We find The  Lord’s Prayer is, line by line, footnoted. Here are two lines and excerpts of the corresponding footnotes:

 

“Our father who art in Heaven” : “My own father will miss pregame in the act of being a Good Son, of calling my grandmother who will accuse him of being a thief. For this small, repeated trespass, I briefly hate her.”

 

“On Earth as it is in heaven” : “There is a cabin on a lake with a name I cannot pronounce. I know that is where the white girls take the white boys and learn how to be a boardroom or family… The cabin is far Lord, it is far and I am not invited.”

 

Dionne Brand once said that good poetry “is always abstract even when it is narrative,” and in Randall this potential of abstraction is confirmed.[1] Though the poem-- which begins as prayer-- also ends in “Amen,” the footnotes express desperation and anger at life’s cruelties. The collection’s melancholia is aided by Randall’s hard-fought and necessarily indulgent craft which approaches the mundane and monotonous fist-first. He delivers a contrapuntal, elegies, ghazals, experimental forms and a (double) golden shovel to boot. At its best, Refuse practices what it preaches.

 

In Palinopsia, which appears in three iterations (two of which are erasures of the first) the speaker paints a candid picture of the disorienting experience of being a college student amidst slavery’s afterlives. ”Next to the stream of the people like me dying there were emails that read “Checking In,” “Absences,” “Graduation?” But the videos were all connected, an electric rosary, every new saint stained an iris.” This later becomes “There were absences / videos stained an iris.” Randall’s speakers are not beholden to time, nor can they rely on any spatial or temporal geography to hold them.  The deployment of erasure and strikethrough in Refuse figures as Black redaction, described by Christina Sharpe as an imaginative mode that deals with “the failure of words and concepts to hold in and on Black flesh.” She suggests that this redaction, which can “make Black life visible, if only momentarily,” as a “counter to abandonment, another effort to try to look, to try to really see.”[2]

 

Refuse surely announces Randall as a gifted poet nourished by Black expressive cultures and in command of his incisive intellect but his capacity to look back, to look again, at the violence that depraves and sustains Black life sets Randall apart from many of his peers. I press against the damp pages of Refuse and this world bleeds into another.

 

Refuse, selected by Vievee Francis as the Winner of the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018 and a 2019 finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry. You can purchase the text here.

 

 

 

[1] Dionne Brand, “The Shape of Language.” June 16, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_HdOZIFEl0

 

 

[2] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, 2017. 227.

 

Jonathan Jacob Moore

 

 

 

 

 

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