Jonathan Moody’s second full-length collection of poems, Olympic Butter Gold (winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize), overflows with music, image and pop culture. The speaker is a natural storyteller, fusing lyric and narrative with a voice that walks the line between youth and experience, playfulness and seriousness. Olympic Butter Gold is delightfully nostalgic, but also realistic and complex; this collection chronicles what it meant to grow up in the flourishing hip-hop culture of the 80s, and what it means to live in the present—a world that has stripped the value of a poetic art that defined black culture and reduced it to a marketable commodity that reinforces systemic oppression.
Moody’s most impressive strength is the way he uses hip-hop to accentuate voice and infiltrate form in innovative ways. For Moody, hip-hop is poetry, art, political resistance and cultural identity all rolled into one; it’s a medium for black artists to assert themselves into a form that appropriately articulates their experience independent of a mainstream creative culture that fails to be inclusive or recognize the full spectrum of racial oppression. For example, in “Son of a,” Moody works all the above elements into tightly-compacted, musical couplets:
Son of a B-Girl’s
neon acrylic fingernail
Son of a milk crate loaded
with nickel bags of funk
Son of the soap suds
making-out on stoop steps
Son of the Afro pick
with the black fist handle grip
Son of the MAC-11, 32-round
mag & sound suppressor
Son of a wire tap
Son of a billy club
Son of blunt force trauma
to the back of the skull
Son of the steam iron drying out
blood money tossed in the toilet
Son of an unlocked fire hydrant
cooling off scorching crime waves
These couplets have everything in them: music, image, and nuanced diction, but what makes them strong is the building tension that erupts at “Son of a wire tap / blunt force trauma.” What starts out as a celebration of hip-hop culture turns into racial violence; the great argument of the poem is about the relationship between art and oppression, about the destruction of an art form practiced in an environment where crime is the primary means of survival and police brutality is the consequence. Form and hip-hop go hand-in-hand in all of Moody’s poems. He revitalizes the sonnet and the pantoum in “OutKast Crown” and “2Pac Pantoum,” and he is a natural talent with couplets that are a perfect match for his musicality and sharp use of image.
Perspective is another surprising element of Olympic Butter Gold. Moody has the rare ability to construct poems from the most unexpected voices. He does this well with “Paper Shredding Blues” where the speaker is a paper shredder. The voice is fully self-aware, but also highly intelligent, and has a keen understanding about the nature of political corruption. But, the paper shredder is also a poet:
My power cord
is a tail longing to trip his secretary:
so hard that when she hits the floor, face down,
her purple pumps pop off & reveal gaping holes
at the bottom of her stockings—gaping holes mirroring
what our Society sorely lacks: support.
“Houston” is another surprising example. Moody brings in all the various elements that make Houston a perplexing but dynamic city. He mixes DJ Screw with purple drank, hitchhikers, Enron, and political corruption. The images are vibrant and astute: “Where cookies & cream custom-painted Impalas / sit on full-moon-inch rims…Where cats clock / relief-pitcher speed on interstates…Where local rap stars / refuse to explode & become supernova sellouts.”
Another wonderful aspect of Olympic Butter Gold: the characters. These poems are interested in the richness of humanity: German students learning the art of B-Boying, the complex relationship between the speaker and his parents contrasted with the loving relationship between the speaker and his wife and son, as well as the affectionate homage for hip-hop artists, comic book characters and pop-culture icons.
The most compelling moments of character occur in “Okaloosa County” and “Dear 2Pac” where the characters live in a tense environment of displacement. In “Okaloosa County” the speaker notes:
At Mr. J’s
Barbershop, the baby boomers
could care less about voting
but sport star-spangled
doo rags & take pride
in “Air” Jordan’s Olympic
butter gold dunk
courtesy of Magic’s
apple pie dish.
The tension in the poem is the speaker’s acknowledgment of the older generation’s apathy toward the political system that has marginalized them and their sense of pride toward basketball athletes who embody superhuman talents.
Contrast the above poem with “Dear 2Pac” which focuses on high school students who are disconnected from any artistic or cultural support. The speaker is a teacher writing a letter to 2Pac: “Dear 2Pac, this generation that needs Ritalin / & iPods to focus holds their ears of glass / against your poems & eavesdrops.” The speaker is concerned but hopeful that he can ignite artistic passion for students through poetic hip-hop: “Dear 2Pac, Daniel, who yesterday refused / to copy notes on enjambment / & end-stopped lines, handwrites your longest poem word for word.” It’s fitting that this poem appears toward the end of the book; the reader is encouraged by the speaker’s resilient desire to pass the torch on to a younger generation that has been cheated out of strong voices due to corporate corruption and systemic racism.
Olympic Butter Gold is an excellent collection; it’s expansive, intricately nuanced, and affectionately humanistic. It would’ve been nice to see a few more poems like “Lovelust A La Mode” that delve into the intimate moments of a relationship through the senses (the speaker in “Lovelust” uses food and the sense of taste to describe how he loves his wife). More poems like that dispersed throughout the book would’ve been a nice contrast to the overarching hip-hop theme. Moody’s voice and poetic technique are mature and tight, musical and sharp, and maintain an enduring spirit that proclaims: “The streets are death row. / It ain’t easy. / The good die young. / You must survive against all odds.”