October 30, 2020KR Reviews

On Let It Be Broke by Ed Pavlić

New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2020. 134 pages. $16.95.

Ed Pavlić is driving I-85 through South Carolina in a rainstorm when he hears the NPR report of yet another racist murder. Suddenly, the threat of tornadoes outside his window and the threat of racial violence in America fuse as he thinks about his vulnerable African American daughter whom he recently dropped off on the other side of the state. Pavlić writes:

Suci’s fourteen and terrified
of weather, I think, because she thinks
it means what happens outside happens
inside too. Or vice versa.

Pavlić then plays John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” either to soothe himself or grieve. With Coltrane’s saxophone, the two often blend.

This poem, like many others in Pavlić’s new collection, Let It Be Broke, creates an unsettling, and at times threatening, tension between the outer and inner worlds of race. In the outer realm, police murders of young black men and women scar the pages. Pavlić recounts being threatened himself. The inner story is more about racial identity in a world that tries to coerce its perceptions upon him. Pavlić is a dark-skinned white man often mistaken as Black and harassed for it, while raising two biracial children he cannot ultimately protect from racism. Even as a white man, he lives inside the disorienting psychic condition that W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” of internally holding the disparity between how a racist world perceives you and your experience of yourself.

Pavlić’s language is fierce and driving, yet also shows vulnerability, a confusion facing a world confused about how to label him: “I sit with what I can imagine about what / the world sees when it looks at me. . . .” When questioned directly, “Are you white?” he responds plainly from inside the liminal space between outer and inner. “No, I’ve never said that. Sometimes the world says that.”

Pavlić’s face itself becomes the site of conflict between white and Black America. He’s asked to leave a Black Student Union meeting in college because he supposedly does not belong, but walking Fifth Avenue in Harlem on his way to a celebration of James Baldwin’s ninetieth birthday, two separate elderly Black women at different moments ask him whether he is the reverend of a nearby Black church.

Jazz, R&B, and hip hop are the balm for easing these tensions, with Coltrane and Miles Davis as twin muses, but also including an ensemble that rounds out with Chaka Khan, Prince, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and SZA in chronological lineage. Jazz is a particularly resonant motif, being America’s quintessential Black-European hybrid form.

Let It Be Broke is musical at its core, with the central piece the sinuous and associative “All Along It Was a Fever,” which weaves back and forth across forty years and multiple mind states. It’s essentially a lineated lyrical essay inflected with Baldwin and Adrienne Rich references using the long-line, repetitive, and propulsive staccato of spoken word (some sentences exceeding sixty words) as he draws from the Black lyrical tradition that shaped his youth surrounded by African American culture growing up in the Midwest. Like a strained Coltrane solo that pushes the limits of dissonance, joy coincides with violence, where life grows “out of the polyrhythmic iridescence of human blood.”

Pavlić’s alliterative rhyme lightens some of the more sobering messages:

irrelevance is seldom hence: the synonymatic like sin and them in
the attic     like cinnamon

for an addict

Why would synonym be sin? Just as the simple binary words white and Black fail to secure Pavlić’s identity, throughout Let It Be Broke, language usually fails to resolve his existential questions:

blackness swam a thousand routes, upstream
through me, a wrong-way traffic
in everything I said and did. And I felt language
become impossible and it made everything
I had to mean invisible.

Pavlić cautions that even poetry itself can obfuscate as much as illuminate: “Simile is simply cinema / the screen upon which we watch / the language we use projected / a screen we stand behind.”

Though Pavlić is classifiably white by parentage, whiteness for him appears alien, and at times, imprisoning, both psychologically, because it constricts identity, and literally, because the American white supremacist system has incarcerated a large proportion of the Black population. In one of the most disturbing sections of “All Along It Was a Fever,” he recounts being stopped by a squad of four police cars on I-94 in Chicago while his six-year-old son sleeps in the back. Being officially white can’t save Pavlić from the trauma of being racially profiled.

This moment of entrapment inside a car takes place in 2003, twelve years before the moment navigating the rainstorm on I-85 in South Carolina when he fears for his teenage daughter, Suci. The stories appear in separate poems, but the ordeal of the first experience seems to transmit dark energy to the second, both children silent, but deeply vulnerable. Pavlić is not responsible for either violent police or violent weather’s impact on his children, yet despairs, “it’s probably / my fault that she’s as scared as she is of the sky.”

Pavlić’s mood is often severe, but he also playfully undercuts his earnestness with moments that seem to burlesque his own philosophical parsing of race. In “Boomerang and Yo-Yo and Our Own DenialWhich Might Be More a Refusalof the Inevitable Criminality of Consciousness,” he spins out a satiric, pseudo-academic treatise, evident in the title itself. The spoken word flow opens, “If we pretend criminality is a paradigm of connection / unsanctioned by institutional power,” followed by an imagined profane summation of renowned semiotics theorist Roland Barthes“I will / fuck you and nothing else.”

Let It Be Broke doesn’t quite attempt to transcend Black and white, but Pavlić universalizes his racial journey in “All Along It Was a Fever” by noting his perceived racial identity while traveling in India, Somalia, Jordan, Kenya, and Croatia, where Kolkata street kids appear to think he is Black. It is one of the most ironic moments in the text, as Pavlić is himself Croation on his father’s side. If I have any disappointment with Let It Be Broke, it’s that Pavlić rarely extends beyond the racial perceptions of others to explore his own sense of ethnicity in a land where he surely must be considering it. Would such reflection in turn lead him into a greater understanding of his whiteness? Nonetheless, walking the streets of Kolkata, Mogadishu, Amman, and Nairobi, Pavlić keenly senses how a racially confused world stumbles into constructing an oversimplified color palette.

Though this collection’s poetic lexicon draws mainly from contemporary Black music, Pavlić updates John Donne to deepen the universality: “Any black man’s death diminishes me,” he writes, alluding to Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with its unifying declaration, “For I am involved in mankind.”

During this American and global era of renewed awakening and self-reckoning around racial justice, Pavlić’s message resonates. While police are still murdering Black men and Black women in the street and in their own homes, bullets penetrate the entire human fabric.

Photo of Erik Gleiberman
Erik Gleibermann is a San Francisco journalist, literary critic, memoirist, and poet. He is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and has written for the Atlantic, New York Times, Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, Black Scholar, Florida Review, Georgia Review, and other literary magazines. He recently completed Jewfro American: An Interracial Memoir.