Pressing breath / into a saxophone cannot / resuscitate polished Sunday / shoes, a blue satin dress, / a dead girl’s hand pointing / to a window.
—from “John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’”
I am reading Ache, Joseph Ross’s third collection of poetry, published earlier this year by Sibling Rivalry Press, with an immensely fractured heart. I mustn’t elaborate much concerning the antecedents of this fractured heart (for I assume we all more or else feel similarly about the last year), but only to state that a certain contemporary synthesis of political, cultural and identity crises has obliterated a kind of cultural complacency which has in turn, unfortunately, created a moral vacuum. Along with other more overtly political, artistic, and ethical gestures, we are now called to engage with collections of poetry in order to feel the acute struggle of particularly subjugated and castigated groups of people to which we apparently have grown increasingly numb. We can very much apropos, term this visceral feeling an ache, and Ross seeks to share this ache with us within this riveting collection.
It seems that everywhere in Ache there are desperately elegant beckonings—most pointedly, to bear witness to racial inequality, to pay homage to its attendant suffering, to believe in and empathize with its history and narrative. These urges (and the failure to mediate them), the reader will invariably notice, prove to be the sources of the aforementioned ache. In the poems themselves, these beckonings manifest as terse yet eloquent phrases, abrupt and dramatic line-breaks, deliberately non-heroic couplets. One of their most striking iterations comes in the form of an artful juxtaposition of jazz and tragedy in the collection’s third poem, to which the inscription above refers, “On John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’.” The speaker of the poem laments the too-early deaths surrounding the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September of 1963. Though, lamentation isn’t quite sufficient to encompass what is happening in this poem and elsewhere in the collection.
Ross does not merely lament the tragedies he fearlessly chronicles in his poems—he is reaching out a votive hand, the palm of which reads mea culpa (my fault) and the back of which reads deditionem (surrender). Surrender to biases he cannot escape but must confront, to a power structure in which he is culpable. The voices of each poem vary but most are ostensibly that of a white man struggling with redemption and identity. He is imploring the reader for forgiveness; for his people, yes, but also to help—help him elaborate upon the seemingly too-abrupt lines, assuage his visceral, inherent distance. Here reading between the lines isn’t caveat but rather communion.
This collection is a story, told in distinct narrative parts, of an entire people—an entire people united by racial oppression. Ross embraces, at every turn, the irony that his poems are in totality a chronicle of an oppressed people written by its bête noire. There is no other way of seeing it more genuinely. Or so Ross traverses the world in his poems attempting to convince us—to such places as that of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, Emmett Till’s America, Trayvon Martin’s America, Gilberto Ramos’ America, and St. Toronto Romo Gonzales’ Middle America. Categorically not at all a tale told by an idiot, yet replete with sound and fury, signifying so much to so many. A sort of rebalancing of the acrimonious nature of that Shakespearean-Faulknerian idiom.
Think of the beckoning aforementioned as the pressing of breath into a saxophone, and its melodies the dancing elegance of poetry. If you can see how Ross’s poetry is the restrained music of a broken heart, you can start to see why this collection of poetry is not only beautiful but beatific; not merely harmonious but homage to the spirit of a whole subset of silenced people; an homage perhaps, on occasion, to their fury. To my mind, Ross occupies a rare cohort of forward-thinking, speak-the-truth white advocates. He shares that space with Matt Taibbi, for instance, journalist and author of “I Can’t Breathe” (October 2017), which chronicles the life and horrific murder of Eric Garner. But Ross also brings to mind and quite often echoes Ta-Nehesi Coates, The Atlantic national correspondent, author, and a renowned public intellectual. Ross approximates the catharsis and hyper-realism of Coates’ 2015 memoir, Between The World and Me, an avant-garde, no-holds-barred telling of his experiences with and views on racial injustice in America, addressed to his 15-year-old son. In BTWM, Coates (as does Ross in Ache) invokes the sanctity and vulnerability of the black body while somehow emboldening it to adopt a defiant persistence.
Ross’s use of hyper-realism expresses itself in the poem, “George Zimmerman’s Options,” wherein the calm, seductive voice of the poem categorically breaks down the absurdity of the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin. The speaker offers no excuses and takes only one side: “Roll down your window. / Look carefully through the rain as he turns to face you. / Decide to ask him if he needs a ride. / Ask.” The imploring itself is earnest, facetious, and patently hypothetical. The speaker of the poem seems to have no room for dialogue, seems to be saying, Just do the right thing!
Another instance would have to be in the poem, “Nelson Mandela Speaks to Mamie Till,” in which Mandela is the voice of the poem and is addressing the mother of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy who was beaten, mutilated, shot in the head, and whose body was sunk in the Tallahatchie River, in Mississippi in 1955 for “offending” a white woman (the woman’s testimony about the “offense” was later recanted). Its lines are terse, as I mentioned before, but desperately elegant. The poem is desperate to leave no room for confusion: this is what happened, this is what it does to people, this is what we cannot get back. An excerpt:
On some August nights I think
every mother is a martyr.
I know you would resist that
thought. It was your son,
you would say, not you. And you
would be right […]
By the end, I knew about walls.
You knew walls too: wooden
walls of barns, where screams
could not be seen, transparent
walls of coffins, letting a country
see what it had to save.
And, despite Ross’ willingness to expose the darkest parts of our collective experience, there are some poems that are gems of pure beauty and near delight, as in “On Langston Hughes’ or ‘Theme for English B’.” Here is an example of Ross’s unapologetic voice taking the fore. It is a perfectly autobiographical account. In it, Ross relates teaching a particular creative writing course on two separate occasions, failing at his writing prompt initially and finding a miracle in the latter, from a student who died in 2004, the year I graduated high school. One of his students asks, “what is True?” to which, days later, Kevin Nelson, the student, responds: “maybe everything is true.” The care with which Ross composed those lines causes a kind of ache that is unique to that poem and perhaps only a few others. These poems remind the reader that there is hope. And, yet, a lingering dissatisfaction abides.
Immersed in the concluding segments of this book, I found myself, scuttling across the floors of silent seas. I found that there had grown in me this abovementioned sense of dissatisfaction and sadness—almost, I might say, ennui. The Latin root of the word satisfaction happens to be satis, which translates to “enough,” and so I am seeing this notion as a near-existential refusal—not-enough to live with, not-enough for catharsis. I find myself denying the attempt, at each instance, from each voice in each poem, to bridge some perceived extant gap, refusing its proffering a hand. And in becoming mindful of this refusal, I realize the message of Ross’s poems: an open hand whose spirit weeps and aches deeply, without acquiescence or quiescence. This courageous message challenges our brutal need for complacency, finding, perhaps, some humanistic afflatus. Ross asks us if we, too, so desperately feel this ache, and, if so, to speak its name.
Joseph Ross, who teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., has written two other collections of poetry, Gospel of Dust (2013) and Meeting Bone Man (2012), both published by Main Street Rag Publishing. His poems have appeared in many publications and anthologies including The Old Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quaterly, and Drumvoices Revue. He won the 2012 Pratt Library / Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. He also served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Howard County, Maryland. For more information, visit josephross.net.