Convenient Amnesia confronts America's memory problem
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
By Stephen Scott Whitaker
In Donald Vincent’s Convenient Amnesia, from Broadstone Books, the weight of history creates tension throughout the social, personal, and historical conflicts Vincent explores. Composed in three movements, Vincent addresses racial injustice, personal relationships, and the craft of the poetry, as well as family, and Black identity, among other intersections.
Early on, in section one, in “47 Percent Plus My Grandma”, Vincent crafts a world collapsing the from the weight of its own history:
“Grandma might die, so she leaves it to the man up in the sky. Let go and let God, she sighs at all her friends’
There’s no stopping
the AARP postcards & calls from telemarketers, tombstone companies, and life insurance salesmen, but she sees glimpses of hope, like dreams no longer deferred even through the great economic recession. Now, smiling at all his pictures
remembering when she thought she, assuaged, was at the gates of heaven because she witnessed the first black
Vincent’s America is one exploited by capitalism, a system that in many ways parallels slavery, as well as an America strung out on religion, held up by family, but held back by an institution that oppresses, where lynching is ripped from the history books and the front pages, and coupled with the surreal fact that a Black man was elected president of the United States. In this poem, blocks of language mimic the short brutality of life in Black America, as well as the never-ending prosaic corporate bombardment of capitalism. Convenient Amnesia resonates with the now, as well as harkens to the past. Not learning from history and not listening to Black Americans is an amnesia of the privileged, one Vincent addresses over and over.
Amnesia also reflects on and has a dialogue with African American literature, Black identity, and its erasure; it’s inherent in Vincent’s voice which at times seethes with anger, in “Not A King’s Dream” but also lovingly in “Invisible Boy” or in “For My Unborn Son.” In “A History of Black People” which was inspired by Jean Michel-Basquiat’s painting of the same name, and in this short poem Vincent not only engages with the painting through ekphrasis poetry, but also evokes the far past, the part of history Malcolm X so famously described as "whitewashed" in his essay, from his autobiography, “How I Learned to Read”:
we be the kings and queens of ancient cities,
Pythagoras of pharaohs’ pyramids or reaping sword swingers following the drinking gourds.
we be the soul of the blues—
can’t sleep at night, can’t eat a bite because the nation we love, she don’t treat us right.
we be a most beautiful black, salmon-pink colored skies in the mind of the blind.
Vincent employs the blues tradition, one rooted in American Blackness and the south’s turbulent post-civil war years. Vincent primarily employs rhyme and fragmented lyric free verse, but also prose. In, “District of Columbia VS. Heller” Vincent uses legalese to deconstruct the ways in which the 2nd Amendment impacted Black America:
upholstering edgar allen poe and his baby-baby cousin jimmy crow
post-reconstruction that ford brother
don’t want us have nothing but we are popular culture the predominant
population, run joe, run joe,
run joe, run joe, the policeman is at the door. and he won’t let you go. it don’t
mean a thing if you ain’t got that go- go swing. they won’t let me keep that thing
While part one of the collection is sharply focused on America’s amnesia when it comes to institutionalized racism and restorative justice, Vincent also addresses personal amnesia, how people cannot address the worst of their character defects. In Part II, Vincent’s eye and ear are bent inward towards personal reflection. Here, Vincent allows himself to explore his own relationship to sex, love, and place in "Convenient Amnesia" and "Dating Advice From Married Women", among other poems, as the speaker travels in Paris, and from bedroom to bedroom. One of the most interesting intersections is Vincent’s found poem, “Grab Them” which recalls the famous Donald Trump’s quote where he bragged about sexual assault. Later, in “Cultural Co-opting” where Vincent engages with the definition of Blackness, deconstructing it as well as navigating his own relationship with expectations of Blackness:
I did not create the meaning, it was already created. consciousness
committed to experience knows nothing of determining a being. the
creator enforces inferiority, but he needs my sauce, my flavor, my swag.
I am a poet of this world
& in tune with its vibrations & cosmic understandings. the creator
has discovered poetry that has nothing poetic about it. he is locked in
his whiteness. I am black—living & losing myself looking for
Vincent doesn’t just engage with African-American history and art, but also engages with Western art, for part three of Convenient Amnesia is a dialogue with poetry, its communities, and the exigency of poetry. At times, Vincent aptly critiques the academic shell game when it comes to MFA programs, contest culture, and gatekeeping, all while playing the game, so to speak; this isn’t hypocrisy but survival, especially for Black artists and POC. There are complex rules for everyone, but the deck is stacked against POC. There’s joy here as well. Poetry as a lifestyle or vocation is transformative. Perhaps best exemplified in, “Men I’ve Slept With” where Vincent skewers readers’ expectations of a sex poem by instead of listing lovers, instead offers up a list of male poets or male muses:
Mayakovsky’s Revolver’s hard cover should be wrapped in selvedge
denim, those words,
your words do not unravel. Seemingly a prophet, your
scriptures remind me of my ex-girl. Friend,
if Major Jackson were wheat bread then you’d be the organic,
French baguette, top shelf.
Poetry is sustenance. Poetry is food. Poetry is a kind of religion. Vincent does not want you to forget it, nor does he want to forget about the invisible legal and systemic world that disproportionately targets POC on a daily basis. And what distracts us? Our own ego, our own problems, our own personal history. Convenient Amnesia rages and celebrates, calls out for reflection, and looks inward.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His poetry has been published in Crab Creek Review, Fourteen Hills, & Oxford Poetry among other journals. His novel of weird fiction, Mulch, is forthcoming in 2020 from Montag Press.