Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016), Alan King’s second full-length poetry collection, embodies what could be interpreted as essential poetics—the artist’s search for authentic voice combined with the imaginative power of the mind resulting in aesthetic harmony. King’s work is devoted to the art of language and personal narrative; he is practiced in good poetic technique, using a variety of elements that create a work of solid craftsmanship. Voice, image, language, pop culture, history and politics converse well here. King is especially good with the senses; this book is full of scent, taste, touch, and vision. However, the assertion of self through storytelling is the primary focus of Point Blank, and it is an honest self, as the speaker testifies: “…my battle scars came from climbing trees and / playing with fire.”
“Sure, You Can Ask Me about Hip Hop” is a perfect example of the poet’s unapologetic honesty. This is a standout poem because King succeeds in combining a clever narrative voice through skillful poetic means. The lines are built strategically. For example, the speaker says:
No, I never had a record deal.
I did get invited to read at a poetry festival
in San Francisco. No, I’m not a studio gangster
brainstorming street beef scenarios with an agent,
or rhyming in the booth about imaginary riches.
The speaker of this poem calls attention to the relationship between hip hop and poetry in terms of race—the assumption that hip hop would necessarily be the speaker’s primary career dream rather than writing poetic verse. However, these lines work well in terms of momentum; the speaker makes an additional comparison a few lines down: “No, I never had dreams of ballin’ in the NBA. / I dream all the time about one of my collections / winning the National Book Award.” These lines hit the core of the poem, but speak to the larger idea of Point Blank, which represents poetic ambition in the midst of racial inequality. The speaker proclaims: “I never inhaled marijuana shotguns blown / from Death’s lips. Never wrote a love song to a firearm. / I did write a love poem for an aunt I lost to cancer.” Here, poetry is set up as an alternative to an environment glossed over by racial stereotypes, of what it means to be black and male in contemporary American society. Poetry becomes a truth-telling device, a way for the speaker to assert personhood in the face of racial oppression.
For a book like Point Blank, which is so rooted in narrative styles and tight line arrangements, areas of interest are the places where poetic transcendence occurs. These are places where the reader gets to witness a poet begin to poke through the other side to a newly-conscious voice that swells with the buds of maturity and depth. The poem, “Inner Weather” is an example of a different kind of aesthetic that has more lyrical undertones as well as a good structure. The poem is essentially built into two parts. The first two stanzas showcase darker, more complex emotions:
Don’t you know
when you’re gone,
rain fills sink holes.
Thunder startles the silence.
The weather vane
is a confused compass
in a schizophrenic storm.
Images and sounds such as “rain,” “thunder,” “weather vane,” and “schizophrenic storm” are different territory for King in this collection; the book is primarily concerned with food, music, comic books, pop culture and people. These new images come as a surprise. Additionally, it is the way in which the poem shifts that creates a wonderful, different kind of tension:
I wonder if I’m destined
to wait forever.
Your smile is a hot spring
bubbling in the Colorado mountains,
a bright villa illuminating
the Austria Alps.
It’s a star, arriving blazing
despite the blizzard. The light of it
glittering ice patches cracking
under a feverish weight.
The power of those last two stanzas contains beautiful poetic clarity. It is a complete departure from narrative voice. This lyrical voice represents a deeper emotional intensity that flows beneath the surface of this collection. Like the first two stanzas, the poem continues to explore different images and sensations; the last stanza ventures well into metaphorical meaning: “It’s a star, arriving blazing / despite the blizzard.”
“The Exchange” is another poem that shows signs of the lyrical voice. It is also a love poem addressed to a beloved. The speaker says: “I look for you in a blur of blue jays.” This is a uniquely imagistic/romantic line, and probably the most skillfully written line in the collection. There is also a strong sense of rhythm in these verses combined with a passionate voice that delves bravely into intimacy: “I listen for you in the sounds of trees / brushing their crowns against a cold wind / hard and flat as cymbals.” Again, the images and sounds are different here, and the lines are bright and musical. The speaker continues to address the beloved further along in the poem with even more lyrical clarity: “Your locks coil / like coral, your eyes bright as dawn above water. / I give you my mouth, flying to the light / in your dusk-colored skin.” These lines are incredibly simple and intimate, which shows the speaker’s authentic expression of desire for the beloved.
Point Blank is a good second effort for King. The poems discussed above are places where the poet enacts a desire to shift into new poetic territory. This book shows that King has mastered narrative voice, and that he is capable of more, including the lyric.
November 12, 2018