Reviewed by James Bourey
By Jason B Crawford
Here I sit in a nearly all-white rural community, an old white man, not particularly well educated, somewhat conservative in my worldview, with only a few connections to the wild diversity of urban America, and, for some reason, I’ve been asked to offer a review of Summertime Fine by Jason B. Crawford. Mr. Crawford and I don’t have a lot in common. As his biography puts it “He/They is a black, nonbinary, bi-poly-queer writer.” He/They is also a young person, well-educated and erudite, obviously more in touch with modern culture than I am. But I think, after reading and re-reading this fine book of poetry, we share one important thing – a love of language.
Summertime Fine is a collection of twenty poems and a poetic introduction sprinkled with dialect. There are three sections in this collection, each titled with definitions from UrbanDictionary.com – The Function, The Jump Off, The Heat. In the introduction we are treated to a description of a scorching summer day in a big city neighborhood; “Where we wait for the temperature to drop/ to a mosquito breeze so we can sit by the court with a fresh cup of Auntie Jane’s lemonade." The introduction ends with: “We made this summer burn brighter than anything the sun could shatter into.” It’s not often that an introduction is such a clear indicator of the finery that lies in the pages ahead, and all the poems in this collection are fine indeed.
The six poems in the first section, The Function, take us to family dinners, parties, and observations on food and hair care. The language is direct and often in the patois of Black urban America. The details bring images as vivid as photographs and are full of sense-memories. We smell the food at the block party and at “The Chicken Spot”. We hear laughter and affectionate conversations between grandmothers and kids and just a little bit from risqué aunties. There is a soft melancholic note in these remembrances, but never any false or overworked sentimentality. The opening poem of this section is “Untitled (Tanna)”. The poem is about a block party, family members, food, and the kind of connections that create a fierce loyalty to our beginnings. Another particularly interesting poem is “Ode to the Waves Underneath my Wave Cap.” The narrator begins by describing his hair and its care and then moves on to make a sort of existential connection between his waves, his neighborhood, and the Universe. The whole poem is told with gentle humor though the feelings imparted are serious.
The Jump Off section begins with “Untitled (Arge)”, which begins as a prose poem. The only Arge I vaguely remembered was a character from Greek mythology – a daughter of Zeus and Hera, a nymph and huntress who ends up transformed into a doe. At first, I couldn’t see the connection between this poem and that character, however the transformation might be the key. The poem, however, works very well without being too concerned with the reference. It is a lively piece, full of motion and conflict and some neighborhood mythology. And the final two sentences of the first part of the poem actually do clarify the classical connections: “We tell a million stories of the immortal, every retelling becomes more a myth. We are trying so hard to live… “.And then, in the second part of the poem, which moves into variable free verse, celebrating youthful freedom and hope there is a second conclusion: “There isn’t a quicker way to an angel than/ being black and alive in this city/ Here I get to stay god all summer long.” Other poems in this section address being young, black, and sexually inquisitive. The poems “On Jukin’ wit a White Boy”, “Space”, and “On Twerking in a White Space” all reach deep into the rhythms of the street while the language slips in and out of black vernacular. These poems are Hip-hop eloquent and they have the ability to reach the heart of a jaded old, white guy.
There are ten poems in the final section of this collection. The section title is The Heat and it is as timely. In the third line of the opening poem, “sonnet for the black body turn ghost” Crawford writes, “What body of melanin does not drown?” What follows is a dirge of frustration as it closes with these lines:
We chant/ and chant/ and cry/ and chant/ and chant
and chant/ and chant/ and chant/ and chant/ and chant
and chant/ and chant/ and chant/ and chant/ and chant
And still the boy stays in the ground all bone
The next poem “the title of this poem is…” is just as strong, with the repetition of nigga driving the rhythm of the piece, but also making it more and more emotionally uncomfortable:
niggas in the outfield or niggas and demons
or city of niggas or fallen niggas or the littlest
nigga or all niggas go to heaven or a nigga
blows at midnight or niggas of desire…
Every poem adds to the frustration that the poet lives with. A recurring thematic image is of the river. One poem titled “river” begins “if black were a river, it would be tainted water”. In the next poem, “black like,” we read the final three lines: “a boy with a taste for the river/ but yet in fear of any body of water/ that he can’t spit out.” And in the final poem of the collection, “Untitled (Mufa)” the opening lines, “Somewhere there is a river/ full of dead things, asking me/ when I will be added to their collection” – haunt the reader and pull the reader into an empathetic sense of near despair, though the author hints at a possibility of hope in the middle lines of the poem - “…I’m waiting/ to be enough soil to sprout/ flowers. A garden of/ geraniums bellowing from my/ chest.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into those lines. But that’s one of the beauties of poetry, isn’t it? We’re allowed to find a little hope wherever we can.
Summertime Fine is relevant, angry, and not always easy for a privileged white person to read, which is exactly why privileged white readers should read Summertime Fine. But it is also a beautiful, sometimes amusing, always touching collection of poems. The language is clear and powerful. The images are fresh and striking. And this is exactly the kind of poetry that we need today. Buy this one.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for The Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.