Silver Birch Press
$15.00, 102 Pages
Review by Max Heinegg
The cover of Alan King’s engaging and highly enjoyable book of poems, Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2018), is a black and white photograph of a young black man crossing an intersection, listening to headphones and wearing a fedora. He’s intent on making his way behind the traffic, and his profile bisects the image, as he heads away from skyscrapers and a clock tower. Combined with the title, which suggests both the close-fired bullet and the poet’s unadorned noun and verb style, the book promises (and delivers) poems intent on navigating a world their poet is vulnerably in the middle of.
Much of the collection is devoted to detailing the good with the bad. In the title poem, he details an innocent game of “Cowboys and Indians” that goes sour quickly when his pre-teen friend picked up his dad’s gun. King has seen dead bodies from gun violence on his local basketball courts, so as he tries to hold on to his positive childhood memories, he can’t. “I thought of my mom at work, / and she became my slain friends’ mothers – / baby photos across her lap, / crying every time she passed my bedroom.” This honesty and the unflinching look at his own life is compelling, and it tempers his nostalgia.
The opening poem, “Hulk,” finds the poet walking the streets at night, feeling that being black makes it unsafe to do so. “Wind bends / the branches above me / as if I might swing from them.” He feels his body grow with “anger and grief / swelling” his body, and references the case around Stanford student Brock Turner, noting poignantly that while a white rapist gets probation, black men are “rounded up on suspicions // as if our lives could be swept / into a crack in the floor.” The justifiable rage he feels inflates his body, which in turn distorts the landscape. He also references Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” (where the child narrator’s only memory of visiting Baltimore is being called a racial epithet), he writes: “Rage rattled the cage/ of me. // All I remember is how / the trees shrank in my shadow.”
In “The Brute,” he returns a boss’s fire: “He called you Alex. / He’s the supervisor who asked you / to read poems at the holiday party, then said, / “Don’t get too black with it. Your name is Alan. // He was light enough to pass.” Here, I feel he should trust the reader to remember his name, and not feel the need to spell it out. The poem ends with the poet noting that although the boss wanted to fight him, “his bad hip and knee screws / told him not to knuckle samba with a 22 year old / too broke to move out of his parents’ house / a young brother desperate / for a clown to punch.” King writes about a world where everyone is flawed, and where discrimination comes from places he expected solidarity. He’s able to note his own brutishness, even in a poem where his boss’s conduct is decidedly discriminatory.
King is at his strongest when writing about family, and his facility with narrative allows him to concentrate on the specific details that make the mundane memorable. As in “Match Sticks.”
Used to like matches-
wooden ones snoozing in box beds.
Never dad’s still-paper nerves
Ignited by backtalk,
like when he called me greedy
for not sharing a shake with my sister.
He was pinewood and sulfur
eager to cook my behind, when I said,
I wonder where I get it from.
Another great example is “The Watch,” a thematically related poem where he has his father’s watch stolen from his gym locker. The loss reminds him of the way their “hands/ sliced at each other the way / dad and I crossed words…. The absence of it / still popping up years later / haunting the replacements.” As in “Match Sticks,” he explores his relationship with his father through details that flow from the object, and his experience of the relationship.
Here, and throughout Point Blank, Alan King explores the topic of manhood—what it means to him to be a good man and, specifically, a black man in America who has been exposed to violence and discrimination. His fluency with topics like family relationships, urban violence, and racism have a clear, relatable emotional appeal which stems from the way he presents them: earnestly, inviting the reader in to see the bittersweet experiences of his life from a vivid perspective, up close.
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Maximilian Heinegg's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cortland Review,Columbia Poetry Review,The American Journal of Poetry,Tar River Poetry,Borderlands, and Wisconsin Review. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and been a finalist for the poetry prizes of December Magazine,Crab Creek Review,Rougarou, and Cultural Weekly. He is a singer-songwriter, and his his records can be heard at maxheinegg.com.