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Caribbean American Poet Lauren K Alleyne
Source: Poet’s Official Website (Photo by Erica Cavanagh)

My Poetry Corner May 2023 features the poem “Horror, Too, Has a Heartbeat” from the poetry collection Honeyfish by Lauren K. Alleyne, first published by Peepal Tree Press (UK, 2019). Born in the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, the poet arrived in the USA at eighteen years old after receiving a scholarship from St. Francis College in New York City, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English. She also earned a Masters Degree in English and Creative Writing from Iowa State University (2002) and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Poetry from Cornell University (2006).

In 2022, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia recognized Alleyne with an Outstanding Faculty Award for her work at James Madison University, where she serves as a professor of English and executive director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. She currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Honeyfish, her second collection of poetry, won the 2018 New Issues Press Green Rose Prize sponsored by Western Michigan University. In the first of three untitled sections of the collection, the poet-persona bears witness to the relentless horror of white oppression and murder of black bodies: Aaron Campbell (Oregon, 2010), Trayvon Martin (Florida, 2012), Tamir Rice (Ohio, 2014), Sandra Bland (Texas, 2015), Charleston mass shootings (South Carolina, 2015), and Charlottesville white supremacist protest (Virginia, 2017). In contrast to such violence, the elegies and poems of remembrance hold no malice. Instead, we experience the tender and painful images of the innocent lost.

In the poem “How to Watch Your Son Die,” we become a witness to the peeling away of personhood from the body: Watch his skin become a coffin / for his breath. Watch // his bones rise like phantoms / to haunt the twilight of his flesh… Watch as he breaks from himself / and becomes a body so quietly / your tears thunder against his cheek.

The poet-persona observes in “Killed Boy, Beautiful World,” How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds / tumbling in streams of white… the news / of death and more death… Still, you want to hold on to it, / this life that breaks you again / and again.

We only ever wanted grace, say the nine victims of the Charleston mass shootings in the poem “Grace: A Lamentation.” We wanted to give the weird white boy / a place to rest his obvious angst…We wanted, / after all, to do right like the good / book says – to love the neighbor / and the stranger; to welcome both / greatest and least. We wanted only / the grace of our good, God-given lives.

In remembering Sandra Bland, the poet-persona asks in “Heaven?” Where / does a black girl’s love go / when her heart is snapped / shut like a cell door, the key / out of reach as any justice?  

The poet-persona struggles to reconcile with so much loss of innocence and of her own vulnerable position as a black Trinidadian-born poet in the Caribbean diaspora in America. In “Questions from the Rock” she asks: Who will sing you, wandering one, / island sprite?… Who will know your proper place / and how to number you among your ancestors? / Who will chant your passing until your spirit is safe / across the stars, drifting one – / and will you rest?

The featured poem “Horror, Too, Has a Heartbeat” comes from the book’s second section which dwells more on family and the poet’s immigrant experience. Divided into three verses, this poem is the first of three poems in the collection that fill the page from left to right margins. One gets the sense of density…like that of an impenetrable wall or barrier.

The first verse describes the portrait of the unnamed oppressor, referred to only as “they,” with whom we all, regardless of skin tone, share common spaces. As portrayed, any white individual may be a potential aggressor. Such is the horror for those living in black bodies.

They are students and pastors, doctors and teachers. They walk their dogs in parks, and plant perennials under backyard trees. They are runners, readers, car-lovers, coffee drinkers; they know how to pick a bottle of wine and the best cuts of meat… They hold the doors for us, give directions to strangers passing through town. With their broad or slender hands they touch us.

The second verse looks deeper into the (ancestral) origins and imagined realities of the oppressor. Like all humans, they, too, have hearts and dreams.

They call home the same cosmic nation of which we are all citizens; they, too, are émigrés to the countries of flesh. They are our neighbors. They are our kin. At night, they close their eyes and descend into the old country, confuse its formlessness for shadows… They wander the landscapes of mismatched realities, carrying their given or earned burdens. Sometimes the carrying kills them. Sometimes it kills us.

The third verse speaks of the horror born of centuries of anger, bitterness, despair, envy, hate, and resentment.

Love is like a language their tongues have forgotten how to move in. It lies in them, a trapped withering worm. Sometimes they pluck it out, crush its squirming under their boots… They press against the borders of us, ticking with despair or bitterness or hate. They want in. They want us to come out. With desperate and hungry hands, they reach for us.

My heart bleeds. Is there any defense against those who believe that one does not deserve to breathe the same air, or achieve more than they do, or rejoice in the simple things of life’s great goodness? May “the better angels” of our human nature prevail.

To read the complete featured poem “Horror, Too, Has a Heartbeat” and learn more about the Trinidadian-born poet Lauren K. Alleyne go to my Poetry Corner May 2023.