By Sarah Browning
100 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017
Review by Margaret Rozga
How Do We Call Ourselves Neighbors: Sarah Browning’s Killing Summer
“I want to tear history from my throat.” With this line in “Petworth, Early Evening,” the first poem in Killing Summer,” Sarah Browning caught my attention. The energy and insight in those eight words—mostly monosyllables, most of them accented—propelled me forward until I read the entire book in one sitting.
Subsequent readings confirmed what I first perceived. History is at the root of much uneasiness and seemingly private anxieties The poems show how the conflicts and desires of public and personal history co-exist and often intertwine, and how they carry forward to the present. The book’s cover art with its red and white stripes, its square of blue in an upper corner, suggests a US flag, but it is not flying. It is placed vertically and patched, effectively translating the theme of the poems into visual terms. Browning interrogates history and probes layers of every day experiences with courage and forthrightness. Most importantly the poems show how we might talk back to all the injustice in that history. They are unflinching, meditative, and ultimately deliver an affirmative vision of the future.
Co-founder of the Washington DC-based Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Browning squarely faces issues many people shy away from, especially issues of racial inequality. The opening poem that so caught my attention brings racialized fears to the fore. A white woman walks home one evening in her neighborhood where recent stabbings have occurred. “Most poor people in my city are Black // and because of the warnings of 400 years / I assume the man stabbing women / is Black.” The young Black man she passes on the street pulls from his pocket not a weapon, but a cell phone. Not a threat. The speaker critically responds to the moment: “I don’t want / to be afraid of my neighbors, walking home / from the Metro in the clear light of evening.” That fear originates in the history she wants to tear from her throat.
Such fears often seem omnipresent . The title poem, “Killing Summer,” presents a litany of “another boy dead, and another—” everywhere, near schools, at bus shelters, on “streets /of whistling, streets of mourning.” In this city where, as Browning says, most poor people are Black, presumably many of these dead young men are Black. Their deaths prompt one of the volume’s key questions: “What city are we? / How do we call ourselves neighbors?”
Questions like this, about a common humanity, are central to the book. And because answers are in short supply, the book radiates an underlying sadness. In the flashback poems where the speaker recalls her girlhood, her student days in Rome, and her first readings of the vivid images of Dante’s Inferno, sadness seems to come from sexual longing or failed relationships. Woven into the book intermittently rather than presented in chronological order, these memories represent early chapters in “[t]he book of longing we’re each of us still writing.” Sometimes this undercurrent of sadness is recalled with gentle self-mocking humor. The girls, the speaker, and her classmates are remembered as “innocent scholars, all theory and no practice.” At other times the mood deepens and becomes more ominous. “Rainy April Fools’ Day in Italy,” for example, includes the assertion that “We’re all made of one thing” and urges the reader to “crawl around inside your despair. Tap on its walls. / Test its floorboards. Will it hold your weight?” This poem leaves open the question of whether the despair will hold up and, in fact whether we’d want it to. If the despair doesn’t hold, does that open the way to hope?
In poems such as “This Is the Poem” we do see some movement toward hope. Here the speaker sets the scene: a man and a woman “driving home / from Baltimore to DC.” He is African American, and she is white, not insignificant facts as the subject matter of their conversation attests. She says she’s been trying unsuccessfully “to find my way into the head / of my great-grandmother or anyone else // who owned other people…” Slavery. Enslavers in her family. Likely enslaved people in his. That past, he suggests, may not be “the poem.” Rather the present moment of the two of them, friends, travelling home together, may be “the poem.” Perhaps so. And perhaps regardless of its tentative, questioning syntax, poem is a synonym for answer. Writing a poem gives words to those heartfelt longings, and even a poem’s questions point out a direction towards answers.
Still, in this poem, the woman speaker is uneasy about this history that she cannot tear from her throat. She wonders about the Black men killed for talking to white women. She has questions about those white women: “How could they bear // what had been done in their names?” The past, the history of lynching and racial injustice done in the name of protecting white women continues to haunt the present moment. There is much accounting still to be done.
Part of that poetic accounting involves restoring a fuller picture of our history. Browning includes a poem that remembers the story of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. She does so taking an unusual angle, as Emily Dickinson had advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Here Browning’s slant is on the participation of Dangerfield Newby, an enslaved man about to be sold south. Instead of waiting passively for his fate, he “chose the gun and John Brown / and the town we know with its high vise of cliffs and beauty.”
The poet’s accounting also involves bringing the tools, “image-simile- / metaphor,” and possibilities of poetry to those who are imprisoned in the present. In “A Small Portion,” we see the speaker, presumably Browning, marvel at one of the men in her poetry workshop at Rivers Correctional Facility: “I’m no poet, he says, then reads a poem. You could warm the bottles of a thousand babies / on that smile…”
At the heart of poetic possibility is the power to imagine and reimagine. Given this imaginative power, a poem can offer ways to turn history around. This Browning does most effectively in “Drinking as a Political Act.” The mint julep historically was a southern drink enjoyed by privileged classes:
my Virginia forebears
who sat out on their wide porches and sipped
the minty coolness of the labors of people
they took to be their property.”
The present-day speaker in this poem rewrites that scene in a voice full of resistance and joy:
I mean, let me make you
a sweet, ass-kicking julep. Let’s raise a glass
to those who unmade that hideous life,
who, with their hard, truth-telling love,
keep unmasking it each day.
What patches together the flag represented in the collection’s cover are such energizing moments of joy and transformation. They point to a future. In a rhythmic and alliterative finale, the concluding poem, “Flag of No Walls,” presents an image to answer the initial question of how we call ourselves neighbors. We earn that good name and the connection it connotes by raising a new flag that symbolizes an inclusive neighborliness. Browning concludes Killing Summer in this way:
I want the flag of talking,
of sitting on the disintegrating
wall and gabbing, gossiping
negotiating, waving that flag
of no walls. That flag.
Browning concludes as she began, with energetic and insightful language. In this particular poem seven present participles replace the history of injustice she wanted to tear from her throat. They stitch together a new flag, symbol of the life-giving community we could be.
Margaret Rozgahas published four books of poetry, including Pestiferous Questions: A Life in Poems (2017), written with the help of a creative writing fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. She has been also been a resident at the Ragdale Foundation and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Her poems have appeared recently in Presence, Peacock Journal and Mom Egg Review. She writes monthly columns for Milwaukee Neighborhood News and for the Los Angeles Art News.