There is an entire genre
of poems about the fear
of bringing another
black son onto the Earth.
I refuse them all.
From “Dad Poem: IV”
The Study of Human Life, the third collection from esteemed poet and critic Joshua Bennett, endeavors to process the enormity of life through a careful juxtaposition of the self as individual, as historical figure, and as father. Each section of the book approaches life and mortality from a distinct perspective. Trash, the first section, makes use of autobiography and introspection, turning inwardly to process what it means to live and thrive as a Black man in 21st century America. The Book of Mycah reimagines the life and legacy of Malcom X through the lens of immortality. The third and final section, Dad Poem, shifts the gave outward to process what it means to anticipate and raise a Black son in America. Together, these three sections offer a unique and nuanced window into the effects of generational trauma and state-sanctioned violence, as well as powerful insistence that trauma cannot and will not be the defining characteristic of future generations.
To some extent, each section of the book functions independently of the others, almost like a suite of loosely interconnected chapbooks. Readers will notice that Bennett shifts both voice and perspective for each section. The Book of Mycah departs most overtly, both sonically and stylistically, as each entry in this section utilizes Arabic numerals and prose poetry to visually situate the work as a narrative. The speaker in the poems shifts between observer and member of the collective, sometimes reporting the events and others philosophizing about the impact of particular moments or memories on the community. Trash and Dad Poem both employ more traditional verse and separate entries with Roman numerals, but there is a distinct voice in each; Trash features a speaker that is often mature, self-aware and understandably critical of the world around him, while Dad Poem offers a speaker who is overwhelmed with wonder and who actively resists many of the tropes associated with Black fathers and Black sons.
While each section feels complete and cohesive as a unit, reading all three in proximity to one another helps to highlight Bennett’s overriding commentary about the history of state-sanctioned violence, systemic oppression and the innate trauma of navigating society as a Black man. The arrangement of the sections is particularly effective, as Bennett deconstructs his sense of self, first through a reimagined history of one of the most influential Black men in United States history, then through the lens of a man increasingly aware of his responsibilities to his son. By closing with a sense of wonder and appreciation for fatherhood, as well as the deliberate rejection of “an entire genre/of poems” that correlate Black sons with mortality and trauma, Bennett leaves readers sitting not in grief but in hope. This trajectory exemplifies a different genre of poetry in which authors center Black joy as an act of resistance, not through the denial of past traumas but through the insistence that the subjects of their poems are more than trauma.
There is something powerfully and fully human at play as Bennett arrives to the first ultrasound appointment, only to encounter a “No visitors allowed” sign. As “Dad Poem: II” progresses, Bennett tries to explain that he is the father, then laments that the nurse “looks at me as if/I’ve just confessed to being a minotaur/in human disguise” before she repeats that no visitors are allowed into the room. The speaker is forced to come to terms with the myriad ways that power structures will work to keep him from his son. “Dad Poem: III” expands on this realization, as “Months into the plague now” the speaker is again “disallowed/entry even into the waiting/room” is instead “escorted outside/instead by men armed/only with guns and bottles/of hand sanitizer.” By situating reflections from the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the familiar image of armed men escorting a Black man from the doctor’s office, Bennett effectively critiques the many layers of systemic exclusion at play in his daily life. Though the impact of the pandemic on his experience of new fatherhood is, on the surface, merely incidental of the time, recalling moments like frantically taking COVID tests while his lover is in labor helps to center the helplessness and loneliness that many experienced in the most intensive months of lockdown, pulling readers in with a moment of shared grief around the ways that COVID robbed us of joy, of memory, and of life.
One of my favorite moments in the collection is “(Crown of Thorns),” a sonnet sequence early in Trash, which trades on the iconography of its title to critique the various methods of martyrdom that Black men experience in America. The first sonnet in the crown takes aim at the racialization of Black people in the United States and zeroes in on the expectation that Black people are “indefatigable” and “indomitable.” These characteristics manifest continually across the sequence, which contains a total of fifteen sonnets that invoke everything from the King James Bible to Kit Kats to Ella Fitzgerald. As the crown progresses, Bennett deftly bridges humor and images of daily life with the historical defense of white supremacy, iconic Black Americans with everyday people and boyhood friends, making a strong case for the rich and complex history of Blackness in America.
The Book of Mycah resists genre, subverting expectations of both novella and poem as Bennett builds a world defined by spirituality and possibility. The narrative comes together through a series of narrators, including Mycha Dudley, Man Man, and Malcom X. As the section opens, Mycah rushes to the aid of his younger cousin, enveloping him as police fire on a group of Black boys. Mycah is riddled with bullets, his death a familiar scene of police brutality and the tragic end for a boy orphaned by the carelessness of a drunk driver. Bennett presents the death of Malcolm X in parallel fashion, with Coleridge witnessing the event in much the same way that Man Man witnesses Mycah’s death. Both Man Man and Coleridge also attest to watching the fallen men rise and walk among the living as “the Unburied.” Coleridge states that Malcom X’s resurrection as a triumph “over mourning and mammon and the worship of designer dictates,” while Man Man explains that Mycah is larger than any myth, which is why he never got a nickname. By the end of the narrative, Malcolm X has proclaimed that he “chose [his] own ending this time,” while Mycah declares, “I was gone, and then I wasn’t anymore. In the time between, the entire world shattered at its axes.” Bennett puts his skill on full display as both a poet and storyteller, creating a narrative that pushes ever forward and characters that feel impossibly real even as they disrupt our worldview.
The Study of Human Life is every bit as layered and complex as readers might expect from Bennett, who has established himself as an intensely patient and deliberate writer capable of upending genre as seamlessly as he upends our understanding of the world.