by Chris Caruso
With the issue of racism, violence, and inequality at the forefront of national attention, Sleeper Hold, Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s third collection, adds another voice to the discussion. Huffman’s poems avoid much of vitriol and political opportunism and grandstanding found in the news. Instead, an “I” offers up flecks of narrative and antecedents and, unlike so many other texts that deal with these subjects, his vernacular doesn’t require one to have an advance degree to access his work. While the language might be simple, the poems themselves are complex in how the philosophical is mixed with “low brow” culture. The “I” that speaks is in a process of searching for place and value amongst the distractions found in media, catch phrases, and the addictions of daily life. The awareness of a discussion on race does not exist in a sealed off environment, sterile of the lives and experiences of population in which they relate to.
On the first day
of the poem
a trust exercise
These lines that open the collection allow Huffman to address the limitations of poetry and at the same time speak to the necessity of poetry to accomplish his task. He is aware that despite how the poem allows one to “start dancing in the street,” there is artificiality present. Even if one is writing a poem, there is a system in place that forces one to “adopt the speech/of a telemarketer”. Despite the illusion of assimilation, the “I” is still an outsider where
the Star Spangled Banner.
On the surface of nature
is an argument
for crying your eyes out.
It is in this tension between the ideal of America versus the reality which the title of the collection addresses. Sleeper Hold draws upon the desires of a compliant populace to be distracted through entertainment, scandals, and various political actions perpetuated through the media, to keep distractions at the forefront instead of an awareness that might alter the condition that infects society. The title also refers to a trope found in professional wrestling. The sleeper hold is a modified choke hold performed by flamboyant characters in spandex battles between archetypal roles of heroes and villains. It is used to subdue the opponent, strangling them into submission. The title also alludes to racism, in that non-white wrestlers were often found to perform characters as savages or minstrels. This theme of being strangled and beaten into submission is found throughout the book. What is disturbing is not that this occurs, but how willing the citizens are to accept it:
wrestling is an interesting case
because it can provide a spectacle
we can at once ignore
come back to.
At once ignore
our complete attention
Socially the title draws on corporate and government desires to keep the populace placid through the distractions the media. Much like in wrestling the populace finds themselves being strangled into submission to accept their roles and continue on the path for which that have been following. It falls to the “I” of the collection to disrupt this cycle, not through violence, or protest but through a questioning of the self and how the “I” fits into these various roles and ruts. “Poem for Cedric The Entertainer” encapsulates this tension between entertainment and a striving to address the underlying racism found in society. A dichotomy begins the poem between “White people/love the 1980s/Black people/can’t help/but strive for/more declarative sentences…My live/in the bush of ghosts” Huffman builds on these two declarative sentences where White people become jokes in and of themselves with absurd novelty hats, where Black people strive for more important concerns such as caring and supporting their wives. The short lines and declarative statements create a tension between the perception between races.
The main question of collection is, how can American society escape from the sleeper hold it finds itself in? The sleeper hold that attempts to choke out the importance and relevance of Black experience and struggles. It also looks to offer a path for which those bombarded with the sleeper hold of media and trivial can perceive the world and their actions, and break out of a cycle of cute ads and a rhetoric of oppression. These are poems of protest, not against certain groups of individual or races, but instead protest against a system the encourages and wishes to continue these divisive practices.
Fence Books: $15.95.
Chris Caruso is a poet with MFA’s from Rutgers Newark and Boise State University. He is fascinated with the limits and transgressions of borders/boundaries especially the margins between words and images.