Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us by Trace DePass (PANK Books, 2018)
REVIEWED BY MARY MCLAUGHLIN SLECHTA
Space. Black matter. The mysterious shifting stuff of the universe. This powerful debut collection by Trace DePass asks what kind of self/selves are constructed in that liminal space between the self and various others. It's a question complicated by racism and the feelings of abandonment a child endures with the loss of a parent. Who/What am I?
To explore this question, DePass positions us in the timeless region of the here. It's not an easy position or a comfortable one and the getting us there requires intense, sustained vision supported by serious and purposeful craftsmanship. We turn back a moment to the cover. The photo of a young father cradling his child. The image is placed vertically under the horizontal lines of the title. Now, as we flip through, we realize several of the poems are larger than the page and must be fit sideways as well. There are holes inside of lines, punctuation to nowhere/somewhere/ everywhere and stanzas structured to pull the eye in various directions at once.
There is tremendous activity in this collection in what is written and how it demands effort to be read. A sense of urgency. The poet scratching out words we continue to read through the lines. The result is a disruption of equilibrium and a break from tired expectations. In the title poem, the result is a look, just a glimpse really, at the white world through the black lens of double-consciousness. How it feels to be pushed from center stage of one's own life. The poet makes clear that “the space between us,” where the self takes shape from the invisible motion of invisible particles, is not safe . One doesn't survive it without “band-aids and other temporary healings.”
Here. 13.8 billion years ago. A second before The Big Bang. And this night. The speaker of “silence,” ruminating on bills, the death of black boys, college applications, dialysis...a poem. In the concluding lines, DePass guts us with an astonishing collision of these events:
and it sound like everything had-happened all at once,
from the heavens, yet/ from space.
it was as if nothing was vibrating loud enough.
nothing, in all this here silence, / not a thing
knew what / kept you up tonight.
you know, / it might have been you,
truthfully. we, here, only know
that whatever it was, was black.
Here. The exact date is also irrelevant to the “carefree black/ghosts peering beyond the masks.” Their claim is wonderfully audacious: to be black is not only to have been here from the beginning but also to have sovereignty over time.
white men don't know i'm only soft spoken
for now. they don't understand how i could
still take my time, since they ain't kno
time is mine.
At times it's hard to match the youth of this poet beside the depth of his feelings, the clarity of his vision, the confidence of his lines and transformation of the personal into art. Barely twenty, he's an old soul already dedicated to his craft and being recognized with awards. In 2015 his portfolio “Black Boyhood” was selected by judges Nikki Giovanni and Terrance Hayes to receive the National Gold Medal from Scholastic, and in 2016 he was Teen Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens, New York. Now, barely twenty, his references to history, mathematics, and quantum physics feel as naturally conceived and deeply explored in relation to his subject as his references to pop music, jazz and even Pokemon trainer Red. He also pays homage to poetry elders, re-using their imagery, riffing off their beat and sampling lines. There are nods to Haye's and Jorie Graham, while the influence of Ishmael Reed seems to strut in lines like the preceding one that echo of “I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.” And there's music. “open letter to Dymel” includes lines lush with Diana Ross' voice and range: “ain't no mountain high enough” and “My love is alive...it's a seed.”
That love, that seed, grows throughout the collection. The opening poem, “[requiem] for the boy telling of the time his body was not his,” presents a strong and loving voice urging a traumatized boy to claim agency over his body: “i try to make him feel that we are too young to be/unmade here”. A few pages later, the speaker of “open letter to Dymel” also tenderly reaches out, this time to a boy trying to ascend to some place higher and finding that “the higher we go, harder it is to truly breathe.”
Going up and down is a familiar trope for describing aspirations and dreams and the ways in which they can be foiled. But while the trope is familiar, DePass' verbal facility is fresh and engaging with the upper and lower bunks evoking the first fumblings of love in the dark, unabashed innocence. Another idea emerges that will be important in appreciating the progression of the poems to their finale: the speaker's tenuous relationship to faith:
i knew the night be too good to be true.
but, I remember the sunset.
although she may not admit it,
i loved God better when I was mad young.
There's a shift in the middle of the book to a broader description of the other and increasing empathy for the shared pain in the space between. A fine example is “when to k(not)” in which a conventional-sounding love poem slowly reveals traumatized black folks loving each other, needing each other; needing physical closeness sometimes and sometimes needing space alone. The voice in the final line balances strength and gentleness: “Will we be okay?”
Poems in the second half delve deeper into the speaker's loss of self in the absence of a father. The idea of being unmade reappears in actual skin conditions aggravated by stress: eczema and pityriasis are incorporated into meditations on the loss of body/self. An exception is “Mike Brown is eighteen.” This emotionally devastating poem constructs a resurrection by imagining what the legal age would mean to the teen if he were still alive. The irony, of course, is that “legal” for an African-male is problematic in America where it was legal for a police officer to shoot him in the first place. There is no gentle voice at the end, but the image of a confident, swaggering teen...the boy Mike Brown was, the eighteen-year-old he should be...conjured by the poet through the skillful rhythm of the lines and the spot-on inner dialogue of a typical teenager who thought he was indestructible:
but, he's legal now,
old enough to be
declared...'nough of that.
and withstand it all.]
might as well...
The final poem, “(ALARM TIME:) [once after, I hope,...]/I learn to/[love] / process....,” returns to the subject of faith with a provokative question: If God is in all of us, what happens as God comes to full consciousness and reflects on the fragmented and traumatized self? The voice of hope we have come to expect delivers a blunt truth: “you are/born dead” (52). And instead of answers, we are left with another question:
“this” which means to ask:
is this love [enough] ? is it [here]?
These complex and elegant poems reveal their layers of meaning through multiple readings. DePass' exploration of the personal, the self-portrait as the space between us, is an invitation to the rest of us. The discerning reader will hope to hear more soon from this gifted and important new voice.
Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us, Trace DePass
PANK Books, 2018