I was never the clean plate, I was the swirl
of flour-white biscuit in dark corn syrup.
At church I was a wide-mouthed Baptist hymn…
Former National Poetry Slam Champion and Individual World Poetry Slam Champion Junious Ward puts his immense talent on display in Composition, a powerful debut that challenges form and convention across poems that interrogate race, identity and heritage in America. At the core of the collection is Ward’s own experiences as someone who is multiracial. Known for his stage presence, Ward commands the page and regularly exhibits a keen understanding of how to manipulate space, as well as a careful and deliberate ability to infuse artifacts that ground his work in the history of systemic erasure and disenfranchisement in the United States.
Composition opens with “Kodak 4200 Slide Projector Asks if I Have Ever Held Hands with My Father,” a brilliant poem that explores love and masculinity. The text includes two sections that utilize white space as a physical manifestation of the disconnect the speaker experiences with his father. The first section features descriptions of three slides, each displaying the speaker’s father doing manual labor, culminating in an image of the father as a custodian. The speaker first proclaims that
…He really could
needed to be
loved/fixed if I’d let him…
before lamenting that instead he would pretend “not to see him in school/head down timid/waving as he passed.” The second section rebuts the distance present in this images, invoking memory as the speaker describes “his thin fingers/resting in mine.”
Heritage and lineage are at the heart of Composition, in large part because Ward contends with his own alienation as someone with one Black parent and one White parent. Numerous poems recall the ways in which Ward was made to defend his Blackness and, even as a child, make choices about which lineage defined him. Ward balances his own experience with historical allusions, including “#219,” a poem that includes five separate approaches to erasure, all of which draw from the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Senate Bill 219. The first and second sections make use of the white-out style, eliminating words and phrases from the legislation to build out their respective poems. In contrast, the third section blurs much of the text to highlight the phrase “The state desires/children be/felony/punished and returned/postage.” The fourth section utilizes black-out erasure, while the final section makes use of a mad lib to put the reader squarely inside the legislation.
Several poems later, Ward incorporates artifacts around Loving v. Virginia, including a letter written by Loving to the Attorney General of Virginia. These artifacts are peppered amongst poems in which Ward describes returns home to contend with the lived experiences of his family. “Homecoming, Rich Square, NC” opens with a powerful image of “Northern Black folk” who drive through Rich Square and “stop along the road/to pick cotton–a drifted piece” because they “Feel the need to connect,/honor ancestors…” The speaker in this poem recalls picking cotton once as a boy, only to rebuke the work after receiving just $8.58 for filling an entire bag.
Ward is at his best when he upends traditional forms and invokes artifact, effectively grounding his own experience in a history of figurative and literal erasure that harkens back to the earliest years of the United States. “Language of Composition” catalogs ever changing definitions and descriptions of people with both multiracial lineage. This is juxtaposed with “Do You Identify as African American?” and “Virginia Health Bulletin, Extra No. 2,” a pairing that serves to demonstrate how individuals confront questions of racial identity both in their personal lives and at the hands of the government.
Many of the poems in Composition are difficult to capture faithfully within a review, as Ward routinely utilizes shape and space. “Black Rapture,” for example, begins with an inscription that describes “blackbird over the fields” from “The People Could Fly,” by Virginia Hamilton. The ensuing stanzas take the shape of blackbirds, each one paired with a silhouette that simultaneously evokes blackbirds and mirrors the shape of the preceding stanza. “Mural of this Country” spins the palindrome form, situating a relatively traditional first half with a second half that, while following the confines of the palindrome form precisely, takes the shape of the contiguous 48 states. Ward does not engage these shapes lightly, employing them with precision only when they serve the poem and add layers of meaning to what the reader encounters.
Composition is one of the most unique collections I have ever encountered. Ward is masterful with his language, yes, but he also manages to present a collection in which every poem offers something structurally and linguistically unique. Poem by poem, the collection demands that readers pause and sit with the lines, the shape, the missing and manipulated language of our history.