The Country of Fatherhood: A Review of Alan King’s Crooked Smiling Light
by Taylor Alyson Lewis
Poetry editor, Taylor Alyson Lewis, reviews poet Alan King's forthcoming
chapbook, Crooked Smiling Light (Plan B Press. 2021).
In Crooked Smiling Light, Alan King writes himself into the mythologies of Black fatherhood while interrogating the futurity of this identity, in a country where to raise a Black child is to pray for a future that you cannot guarantee nor imagine. King’s poetic memories and incantations are laser-sharp in their focus and execution; Crooked Smiling Light prioritizes the clarity of telling the story exactly as it happened, a nod to his roots as a spoken word legend in the DMV poetry circuits and to the ancestor-poet he calls his “Yoda,” Amiri Baraka.
King begins his collection with “In your dream,” setting the stage for what we are meant to witness in Crooked Smiling Light, just as the speaker witnesses the events of his own past with the brand-new eyes of a father and husband. Here, he steps into the myth of his father’s making, conquering the paternal hyper-critical gaze and moving into a kind of allegorical triumph: “That’s how Zeus must’ve felt/surviving his father’s appetite/and jailing him to the underworld.” Themes of consumption and freedom reappear in poems like “Gluttony” and “What’s Unsaid.” The spectre of the speaker’s father becomes a vehicle for describing physical and emotional violence and its long-term consequences.
What King also manages to deftly accomplish through the character of the father is two-fold: a painful separation experienced as alienation, combined with a correspondence-like closeness that feels as if we are privy to a deeply personal, yet one-sided, conversation decades in the making. His father, often referred to in the second or third person, reads as intimately familiar. We hear his voice; we learn his story; we stand in awe of his emotional tug-of-war with the speaker, as if we, too, are made frozen by his disapproval. Yet, this painful relationship stands in poetic juxtaposition against what is revealed to the speaker through his own fatherhood. In “What’s Unsaid,” he uses the second person to speak directly to himself, retroactively affirming his experience and memories of being parented in the face of his father’s emotional alienation: “Your nearly 4-year-old, listening/to her grandfather on the speakerphone,/says: Poppa, I love you. /A dam breaks inside of you/when your dad’s choked voice/cracks back, I love you too,/Sweetheart.”
In “Stride,” King closes the circle of this correspondence, extending sympathy for the complicated figure at the center of many of his poems. Again, the speaker directly addresses himself in the second person as a means of extension, ending, and the kind of close reading that comes with age and experience. For the first time in the collection, he asks questions of himself like, “How many times you almost broke/his patience, when he nearly came out of himself/to give you a piece of his mind?”
King’s third collection is multi-faceted and multi-layered in its themes and within the questions it asks of itself, of the speaker, and of the reader. King references mythic Jedi temples, suicidal bees, and the perpetually liminal late-night diner in a collection that serves as reflection on what it means to be a Black husband, father, protector, provider, and survivor in this world. For King, the fight for justice is as consistent and quick-spirited as a boxing match (“Counter Punching”), fatherhood is the cultivation of light and miracle (“The Light Inside”), and to be in love with is to love with conviction, tenderness, and divine awe (“The Island of Smiles”).
And when King asks us for permission in “The Land of Innocence” to “begin again,” who are we to deny ourselves the telling of the same story with different eyes?
“And isn’t it an act of faith to go blindfolded/into the future and be delighted/by the light there?”
Taylor Alyson Lewis is a poet and third-generation Spelman alumnus originally from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a second-year MFA candidate at Rutgers-Camden. His poems have appeared in Voicemail Poems, Academy of American Poets, and The Tenderness Project.