When Rap Spoke Straight to God

Image of When Rap Spoke Straight to God
Release Date: 
September 18, 2018
Tin House Books
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“perhaps Dawson is a gardener, gently lifting away weeds and leaving the reader ready for the seeds she will sow.”

Like a painter seeing the finality of expressionist language within yet to be applied paints, the title of Erica Dawson’s long poem, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, pushes and pulls to expand a reader’s sense of language before the poet has written her first line. Such is the power of six simple words carefully placed to open this 46-page poem.

Or perhaps Dawson is a gardener, gently lifting away weeds and leaving the reader ready for the seeds she will sow. As fertilizer, Dawson broadcasts an opening quote from Deuteronomy. But then she breaks right through the crust and turns over the hardpan of the poem’s beginning:

“When U-God from Wu-Tang said, you ain’t heard

us in a minute, rap spoke straight to God.

“When I broke bread, it was a syrup sandwich.

I licked all the body off my nails.”

The cold, hard truth of the poem begins to reach to anchor its tendrils. Dawson pulls the reader in with them; she compels a dirt-beneath-the-fingernails kind of relationship with her terra firma. Tractors and mechanization need not apply here. Instead, the reader will take both knees to the earth, the reader will inhale the deep must of the fresh loam and the ground will grow its crop and not a lean one. But the evidence of any such assertion is easily discovered as a reader penetrates the poem to find all of its healing nutrients. Dawson writes:

“Hallelujah. I’m ready

to go searching for that mysterious dark

when nightfall proves to be empty before

the heavens turn red from fire.”

The poem unwinds itself slowly yet will all the pent-up energy of a roll of baling wire finding freedom once the tie that binds it is flung away. It feels as if the spring of Dawson’s words searches the ground for a place to land, then finds a home and creates its own sanctity, though not a predictable one:

“Then the pitch of my skin sang at a vagrant spark

lighting up one spot on my thigh. A good

scar. I can go a week and not touch it.

“But when I do, it’s like my finger’s not

fit for feeling. Like everything’s too hot.”

It’s the weave that Dawson plows into her use of language that has the poet one step ahead of any reader, fully a mile down a dirt road ahead of the plow pulled by two mules and the sweat of what she gets for her work is what makes the poem move in syncopation to the easy steps that crush clods of earth in their wake. The whole shebang as one, with just a little sense of mystery. She writes:

“I bet Mary Magdalene, devout

down on her knees, had a thing for her hot palms

on someone else’s tepid feet: the grip,

grit in her nails. The murky basin—alms

for sun-cracked cuticles. A hangnail’s clip.”

This is where the reader starts chanting beneath her breath. This is where the reader squeezes the book’s spine like any good mystery, and presses on. This is where the reader begins to see the dirt, begins to smell the mist in the air, and inhales. This is why this poem—all 46 pages of it—is worth deep-reading and reading again. This is why poets are poets.

Long poems, while not the expected norm, are not rare by any estimation. Other poets have pushed the weeds from the path before Erica Dawson. Think Philip Shultz’s, The Wherewithal, at 178 pages, represented by Schultz as “a novel in verse,” or even Claudia Rankine’s acclaimed book, Citizen, which uses a method akin to cinema verité to create a dimensionality and a continuous though moving focus. Dawson’s work shares a commonality with Rankin’s Citizen, in that both books bring forward the concept that people—every person, regardless of race or gender—shares an innate curiosity into the living of others’ lives. We all want to know something of every other person’s nitty-gritty everyday struggles and successes, the tint of their boundaries, the sense of their days and nights. This is supported by the fact that newspapers are still read, news programs are daily watched, news and gossip magazines are found everywhere and it seems everyone has some insight into current events in both a macro and micro level.

Rankine incorporates a reporter’s view or a memoirist’s sensibility to achieve her end, whereas Dawson’s approach is far more guttural, embedding itself in the shared sense of feelings within the human experience, the knowing what we don’t know and the suspecting that we share not just something, but everything. It is her structuring and the flowing shift that sifts throughout her manuscript that makes Dawson’s take on the long poem such an effective, compelling and necessary read.

“Let there

be black never absorbing white. Let there

be skin born back on every scar and tear.

“Let there be no oceans or weapon-wear

of tides raking the shores.           Sister, stand there.

“I see the exodus of light.

“Let there

be not afraid, for you are with the fair

and mighty god of your body.                Stare.”

In between the covers, bared to the scorching sun, Dawson has found a way to reveal and to question, to run the earth into bold furrows and flatten it into a crumbly mass ready for more, ready for the reader and the seeding of her work. By the end of it, she opens what must be a beginning to springboard another reading, another session of sweat and sorrow and some kind of joy. The accomplishment of doing all that in her 46-page poem is what makes When Rap Spoke Straight to God so remarkable an achievement.