Just a quick hello, everyone, from the state that brought you Fighting Bob and the Populist Party and set the national standard for collective bargaining for public employees. While we’re still picking up the pieces from the latest state budget battle here, I’ve been receiving some really intriguing books for review recently, and the first one that jumped out at me is this upcoming collection of poems from Kevin Coval. It’s a fairly stunning, and very personal, piece of literary work that should be required reading in every high school in America. More record reviews coming soon, so until then, thanks for reading and keep on keepin’ on…
L-VIS LIVES! Racemusic Poems, by Kevin Coval (Haymarket Books) 128 pages $16
Chicago poet Kevin Coval has been praised by luminaries like Studs Terkel and Mos Def, and he has the blurbs on the back of his book to prove it. His brave and brutally honest writing is one obvious reason he’s riding with that kind of company. He puts himself in the socio-center of the circle of semiotic iconography, deconstructing the function of the human-cultural phenomenon that he has named L-vis, an “imagined persona” that represents the use and misuse of Black music by artists like Elvis Presley, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, Vanilla Ice and so on. In Coval’s words, it’s one who “blurs the line and crosses it carelessly.”
In the preface he writes, “L-vis is a sincere artist and a thief. L-vis loves the music and covets the cool.” The poems in this book give a voice to what was referred to by some unimaginative 90s pundits as a “wigger,” a term coined to describe White kids embracing Black music to the point of undergoing a personal cultural-identity shift themselves. Norman Mailer’s meta-iconoclastic White Negro is a literary point of reference for the work of Coval. The book is divided into four distinct sections: “life side”, “quarters in the don’t play arcade”, “death side”, “broke/////////beat/////////intermezzo,” along with a suite of poems at the end for American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh entitled, “whiteboy I could have been.”
Stylistically, he opts for almost all lowercase type-face and utilizes a few different templates, from a quasi-prose poem to a short blast, with words jabbing at the air. Some titles are revealing in their directness: Jealous of the Black Boys (a love song); and many are exculpatory in some way: L-vis imagines if Tupac had read Etheridge Knight’s for black poets who think of suicide. His writing is lean and mostly clear-headed, and he does a fine job of explicating what it means, and feels like, to be an outsider, a free radical, a stray cat in a straight White world.
The idea that some White kids are so disenchanted with, and become so disenfranchised from, mainstream White culture that they choose to identify with the “other” is a force that needs to be explained to many White people. Feeling so estranged from your own kind that you remove yourself completely from their world is a political act, something beyond the bounds of normalcy to most people’s minds. To think outside the box in conservative America is a sin, on some level, and to live outside the box is the ultimate sin. Coval goes inside himself and tries to describe the subjective experience, as opposed to rationalizing the act itself. He pushes at the walls from within. Check this opening stanza from the first poem in part one, L-vis is a baby in the wilderness (after Frida Kahlo’s Girl with Death Mask): “I was born a skeleton taught to wear the wolf mask/i stand on the prairie and retreat into the mountains/i am a baby bearing flowers/i wear a pink dress but/i am a skeleton taught to wear the wolf mask.”
Nearing the end of the book, here’s the opening of a poem entitled, national anthem: “i have been so many versions of the minstrel/my law suit is at the cleaners/the sample i’ve been sued for/birthed death/row, i am a gangster/incarnate, responsible for murder/many times over.” We’ve travelled the entire of chronology of L-vis the semiotic icon by the time we get here, but the final scene remains to be played out.
The fascinating John Walker Lindh is certainly a lightning rod as artistic subject matter goes, and it was only a matter of time before artists tried to explain him to the masses. The first poem in the suite, entitled, desire for the cipher, tries to sum up Lindh’s confounding response to his situation, in minimal verbiage, and it humanizes the monster in the process: “marin county/california/suburbs, usa/parents break up/white liberals lie/fairy tale lives/border patrol/fictions of the Other/here i am/isolated/i dream/a space, to be/where Others/see hypocrisy/and i can be/who i be.” That’s some seriously heavy shit he’s throwing down there. Just take a breath, and let that sink in for a moment.
Coval is one of the few popular writers, along with some political journalists I’ve read, to attempt the difficult task of explaining to people that John Walker Lindh, when he went to fight for the Taliban against the U.S., thought he was going to fight against terrorism. His view of the world from his little window in Marin County, California taught him that the United States was the biggest terrorist on the planet. He was repulsed by what his country was doing all over the world. The only thing to do, therefore, was to fight against it. John Walker Lindh is the whiteboy Coval could have been. This little book is a hammer to beat down the wall between the one and the other. It’s also a compelling confession, and a living text of alienation born of the schizophrenic American cultural mind.
Kevin Coval teaches in Chicago, is a contributor to Chicago Public Radio, an HBO Def Poet and he is a co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival. He was also an ALA Book of the Year finalist. AMH