Review by Brian Simoneau
Back in February I met with a group of high school teachers to talk about ways to cultivate a classroom experience based on equity and inclusion. We shared ideas for bringing diverse voices into a curriculum and for decentering the idea of a Western literary canon. In the process, we reminded ourselves that unless such work also involves interrogating our own biases, we risk enacting the same colonialist impulses we’re trying to get past. We agreed that we need to think about how students see themselves in our classrooms—whether that means a richer sense of belonging or an uncomfortable reckoning with privilege—and that wrestling with such questions of identity is essential to building inclusive communities without glossing over difference and without erasing the ongoing complications of the past.
I came home that night to a copy of Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s second poetry collection Colonize Me in the mail, a fitting way to keep thinking about questions of literature and history and identity. Reading these poems, I was captivated by the vivid retelling of histories both personal and public and astonished by the lyrical leaps and expansive approach to form. By turns playful and earnest, Kingsley conveys a sense of the anxiety we feel when we think about where we come from and who we would like to be. How do we embrace an identity when it results in part from suffering? How do we move on from the past without forgetting it? By putting these questions in the context of American colonialism and its inherent violence toward marginalized groups, Colonize Me offers a profound exploration of identity that could not have come at a more essential time, as yet another disturbing episode of American history plays out all around us.
These are poems which complicate the notion of identity—poems in which we witness the assembly of a poetic self from multiple threads. Here we find depictions of Native American genocide, Japanese internment, American housing projects and trailer parks, police shootings, and pipelines across indigenous lands. For Kingsley, poetry becomes a way to salvage a sense of identity from the violent reality of colonial culture, a way to rebuild something meaningful from the wreckage of empire. For example, in “Of What America: How to Assemble a (1) Native (2) Nippon (3) Cubana Body in (4) Appalachia,” the speaker identifies as “a mixed-mixed skinned boy” and describes his “Onondaga origin / bowed beneath the whip / of whiteness” before revealing his faith that “the potential of / a small beginning” can eventually become a song “of forward / rejoicing.”
While the poems in Colonize Me emerge from overlapping histories of violence and struggle, what emerges is not a fractured identity so much as one which endlessly interrogates itself and integrates the many multiple selves found there. Kingsley captures this dynamic on the page and in the ear, as in the collection’s opening poem, “Our Broke-Ass Ladder of Opportunity or The Block Boy Anthem.” Sprawling across the page, the lines are broken and arranged in ways that shape multiple readings, as in the boy who
caught more air
than any jet plane
we’d never ridden in
an ambulance before
the sun turned its
on our street
In the moment it takes to consider which grammatical path to follow—a sense of being trapped or a sense of innocence?—all possibilities form one whole (albeit fleeting) truth. Even the title’s contradictory use of both “Broke-Ass” and “Anthem” to describe memories of growing up in the projects captures the specific double consciousness that lies behind Kingsley’s poems. And when the speaker claims “tenant reality was complex / colonies,” one can’t help but read the apartment building as both a prison-like instance of colonial violence and a self-sustaining community—a community that includes “boys raising each other” and dreaming still of taking flight. The apartment building becomes an image of both poverty and nostalgia, confinement and possibility, but the good never cancels out the bad. Both might be true for the speaker, but it’s no easy solace. It’s a sense of alienation that leads us to question our assumptions about Kingsley’s speaker, about ourselves, and about the very nature of identity.
Kingsley’s speaker presents his own sense of alienation as a result of a painful past and a source of what’s to come—both curse and offering. Poems like “I Can’t Close My Eyes Without Seeing Jason Pero’s Body” and “Split the Lark & You Will Find the Music” bear witness to police violence and poverty. Using multiple languages and images like “vines around the trunk / of violence,” they transform experience into art without diminishing their lived reality. A series of poems about Japanese Internment photos for sale on eBay leads into “Insecticide,” in which the speaker earns “half a penny per / japanese / beetle” in the garden of a white neighbor—an intersection of war and family history and capitalism that illustrates yet more of the difficulties of navigating this speaker’s past and present.
Reading these overlapping identities feels like laying out the edges of a jigsaw puzzle and finding more than four corner pieces. There’s no easy way to contain the heaps and scraps that combine to make a self—except maybe language, which itself fits together uneasily and only for moments so that every poem risks becoming a hollow gesture. Kingsley hints as much with poems titled “just another horse poem” and “just another night sky poem” and “just another fruit fly poem,” but his formal inventiveness and playful language mean these poems never ring hollow. Instead, the piecing together of an ever-shifting identity makes easy categorization impossible. The resulting poetic self—aware of its past while looking forward to define its own terms of selfhood—becomes nearly impossible to colonize, at least on the page, and so each poem becomes a chance to work through the anxieties that arise between past and present.
In “just another horse poem,” for example, the speaker responds to racist insults from a boss: he keeps silent to keep the peace, to keep the job, to keep close to the beautiful horse he takes care of. But his silent nodding becomes a sort of self-affirmation, and the language (“I sing sweet” and “I paint myself” and “I hold the wet drum / of his heart”) points to the poem itself as his ultimate response to the woman’s taunting, which leads him to a new self on the page:
I let my hands lie long behind the pieces
of his shoulders and when I hold the wet drum
of his heart I am ne hochsàte I am
horseman fullhearted enormous I am
I am clean I am I am bigger even than this moment [.]
This celebration of the self hints at one way a sense of alienation might be resolved, a notion that becomes more and more direct throughout the collection: love—everyday devotion of family, celebration of ancestors, love of self and other—becomes a form of remembering and resistance, a “singing of familial silence into ode.” Of course, it’s no simple sentimental love, but one complicated by its complex origins and its potential loss to the violence of history.
Colonize Me is a book to savor and share, a book with much to teach about how the past might be made into something capable of enduring the forces—capitalism, racism, state violence—that seek to exploit, to erase, to iron out the folds of identity that come together, no matter how untidily, to form a sense of self. What emerges is a necessary sort of hope for all who would do the hard work of building communities—in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, in our homes—amid daily reminders that such forces remain as strong as ever. In poem after poem, Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley resists any impulse to erase these forces; instead, they are recalled and witnessed and shown to be—eventually, and in ways big and small—ineffectual against the resistance and persistence of the cultures and communities they seek to diminish.
Brian Simoneau is the author of the poetry collection River Bound (C&R Press, 2014). His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Mid-American Review, Southern Indiana Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, he lives in Connecticut with his family.