Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a turbulent debut collection that should be on every fall reading list. His poems demonstrate skillful navigation of what it is like to see the world through queer black eyes, opening all other eyes to the alternate visibility and invisibility of this existence, the dangers of being seen by the wrong people and the heartbreak of being unseen by the right ones. With some poems anchored in the mess of real-time violence and protest, and others floating in a realm where earthliness is exchanged in favor of moral questioning, Johnson’s command of language imbues all of his poems with unforgettable staying power.
Several poems put names to hardship, and the experiences involving Alisha and Asar are sure to spark fierce feelings in even the most guarded reader. Although Harold does not recur in more than one poem, his agonizing debate over whether it is worse to be dead or to be gay leaves a lasting impression. Struggles with drugs and sexual encounters with often dubious meanings resonate throughout the pages of “Slingshot,” while each of the individual voices scream that we are different kinds of humans doing the best we can all the same.
We may not always know what we are doing on our own, and collectively, America is a relatively young country where mistakes are often being made and repeated on a large scale. Each instance of being misunderstood or treated like hunted prey is evidence of a systemic wrongness in our living space, and raises the question of whether one can truly call a place home and also want to burn it down. How passionately can you hate a place’s darkness and still appreciate its bits of light? At what point do you deem an experiment a failure and just abort the mission? When is the rate at which we are all changing considered too fast or too slow?
It sometimes seems impossible to exist at exactly the right point in history at which we would be happiest. Perhaps this is what makes many people inconsolable, and what makes others strive for a brighter future. Perhaps this is why whenever a new tree blooms, someone runs to chop it down while someone else runs to stop them. We call every step progress, whether it is forwards or backwards. We are constantly raising each other up and impeding each other. Johnson’s poems mix the personal and political in such a way that caring for other people and caring for one’s country seem inseparable. Which is valued more, and what price do we pay while trying to find a balance? It is difficult to improve someone’s life without also improving the place in which they live. Survival, honestly, can be exhausting and rarely optimal.
If something terrible must befall someone, we often grudgingly accept this, and instead of wishing to avoid tragedy we simply hope that the tragedy remains relatively small. “Slingshot” is a collection of bearing witness to atrocities, both to oneself and to others, with an admirably numb sort of grace. Dark walks of life are taken in stride and thrust into shocking, blinding sunlight. It is a privilege to be able to read some of these poems and not be able to relate, and in this distance, a closeness forms. Opening our eyes is the first step towards seeing, and this is the step that Johnson takes with his work.
BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.