November 27, 2020KR Reviews

On Zoetrope by Kevin Latimer

Cleveland, OH: Grieveland, 2020. 89 pages. $20.00.

In times that seem unimaginable, the imagination can become necessary to our survival—and to our understanding of death. Kevin Latimer’s debut collection of poetry, Zoetrope, continually asserts the productive potential of imaginative transformation, while exploring the complexity of fantasy in a landscape of horrific news and disheartening labor. Its poems speak from the intersection of intense grief, ecstatic rumination, and political contention, often focusing on the lives and deaths of “boys” who are identified as variously “black,” “[black],” “[still black],” and “[black].” Each of those variations raises distinct valences of racial identity and representation, reflecting the sensibility of a poet who knows how language can affect reality. “someone yells: there is a fire / in the barn,” Latimer writes. “you think you see your barn on fire!” The book portrays rituals and customs that are comparably combustible:

so i kissed the homies, as is custom.
so i placed my lips on a dead boy’s

mouth. so now every time i kiss
the sycamore tree, i think of the first time

i kissed a boy & how we both turned
to mud & spit. surprise!

Latimer (who was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course I taught at Cleveland State University in 2018) is also a playwright, and his theatrical disposition emerges in performative moments such as that “surprise” and in poems that recall scripts, including a pageant set in “the moment after grief ends” which moves between platitudes of consolation and grief’s blunt recursion (“a dead mother is thrown on stage”). In many poems, Latimer generates dramatic action by shifting quickly among phrases that are rambunctiously “comical, lucid, strange,” as he characterizes that which is “ridiculous to say.” Moments of deadpan swagger (“I don’t have money, only bees,” he quips in one poem) collide with rhapsodic grappling. In this passage, in which the poet imagines himself among the dead, Latimer moves from gallows jollity, to “very cool” understatement, to actual flight:

we’re at my funeral now & i must say, i have
several regrets. levity is best at death!
or levitation—flying using your mind is very cool!
          & now i’m flying away.
if you need me, you can find me here:
surfing on top of this train, catching
waves; starfizzle clenched between
my night-gapped teeth.

“Starfizzle” is a delicious compound. I picture it brighter than starlight, despite the “fizzle.” In “Originally, a space opera,” Latimer casts “black boys” as interstellar adventurers flashing with similar brightness. They ascend in a “great migration,” away from “pandemics or unplanned // arrangements or bullets.” He conjures both an afterlife and an alternative life (“Tamir sleeps and dreams wondrous things: / he drives an asteroid, a comet!”), while also suggesting a route back to ongoing experience in the world; resurrection, to be continually brought back from death, to continually bring ourselves and others back, is necessary to live at all, whether in memory or life, the poem suggests. Its vision, thus, is of perpetual restoration, which nevertheless is perpetually interrupted by protest (“NO JUSTICE! / NO PEACE!”) and the insult of political stagecraft that cares more for “bad optics” than the “livinglivingliving.” The poem also revises the mediated language through which one often learns about the deaths of Black children and young men, replacing the spectacle of death with a speculative fiction of tenderness and rage:

[black] boy in space is all the rage
on the evening news.

. . .

/there has/      /been/   /a recent/      /!UPTICK/
/of [black boys]/
/donning/   /astronaut suits.

The poem memorializes those lost and also has heartbreaking implications for those who remain. It suggests that there might not be a place on earth where “no one / is shooting,” where “arrangements” aren’t funerary, where “black boys” don’t keep “filling up the grave keeper’s holes.” The poem’s fantastical elements make it all the more stark when “suddenly, / his mother screams”; five pages with no words except “those shots” interrupt the text’s searing, fanciful masque. The words repeat, in varied graphic configurations, “ONEHUNDRED / THIRTYSEVEN” times, the number of rounds that police shot into a car in East Cleveland in 2012, killing Timothy Russel and Malissa Williams.

In the end, after Tamir Rice and other “spaceboys ascend into the sky,” the poet salutes them by raising a “fist in triumph,” yet as the “end credits roll,” he’s brought back to a world marked by the “profiteers of this tragedy.” The speaker of the poem, very much still on earth, is also imbued with powers that resemble those of the spaceboys: “here, in this theater, i become magic. / i’ve been magical since the day i was born, enchanted / in the womb.” This magic includes the ability to “see / ghosts become human among me.” Throughout Zoetrope, Latimer performs related conversions, from the ghostly to the human, by focusing on grief that ranges from the collective mourning for Black lives to the pain of a mother who “learns about her [DEAD!] boy from the evening news,” from the sorrow of work that turns one into an “agent of the state” to the devastation of a parent’s death. “i have gotten rather good at this,” Latimer wryly notes in a poem set on a “tinytiny boat” traveling “rudderless” on a “pitchblack lake,” perhaps referring to both the magic and the mourning. And yet Latimer finds possibility even in those conditions, which he extends to others (“let them / dance a little jig”), while also highlighting extremity and hardship. “i use my oar as my water cup,” Latimer writes, in one fancifully pragmatic instance of making-do. Zoetrope keeps finding its way to another fresh sip and rowing us further.