103 pages, $16
Renowned poet Patricia Smith writes in the introduction to Kevin Covalâ€™s newest collection of poems, Lâ€™Vis Lives, that his latest offering is a â€œrelentless book, brave and uncomfortable.â€ Indeed, Covalâ€™s collection is brave and forceful in the way it deals with race, exploring why suburban white kids would want to shed their identify and imitate black culture. Itâ€™s a topic on race that has rarely, if ever, been explored in contemporary poetry collections. Covalâ€™s book, also dubbed â€œracemusic poems,â€ confronts the issue through recent music history, specifically Elvis, Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys, and Eminem, all artists that owe their success to black music and what they took from it. Covalâ€™s poems, while unsettling at times, highlight a truth about how white rappers and even rock â€˜n roll pioneers made riches off of black music and culture.
Early on in the collection, Coval depicts a time when hip-hop was purer, during the beginning of the Ronald Reagan presidency, when the music had yet to burst into the mainstream. In the prosaic poem â€œthe crossover,â€ he writes of a tapedeck and a walkman, music that â€œtruthedâ€ and was a â€œmiddle finger fuck youâ€ to President Reagan who â€œsent uncle dave crazy back into the streets.â€ In the poem, and throughout the collection, Covalâ€™s form imitates the rawness of early hip-hop. Like the poetâ€™s other collections, he forgoes capitalization, even of names, places, and some titles of poems, thus making the poems a little more unrefined.
In the beginning of the collection, Coval also places his white speaker in front of a mirror, wishing he was cooler. In the poem â€œposing,â€ the young speaker confesses that his nose is still too big for his face and that his chin hairs â€œstruggle for articulation.â€ A few clipped lines later, the speaker also admits that he wishes every muscle in his body were bigger. Anyone who suffered through an awkward adolescence, wishing for a newfound hipness and cool, can relate to the poem.
About a quarter of the way through the book, the white boy persona alters his identify even more by lying about where he is from. Instead of confessing heâ€™s from a suburb that was named â€œBest Place to Liveâ€ by Money Magazine, he says heâ€™s from a different place in a different state. The white boy persona from early on in the collection then evolves into musicians that essentially used black music to build their wealth. One of the first musicians addressed in the collection is Elvis Presely. In the poem â€œThe Humes High School Band Presents Its Annual Minstrel Show,â€ which acknowledges a gig Elvis played in 1953, Coval pushes and challenges the notion of identify and race even more by writing,
he walked on stage
whispered his Black-
faded voice into a silver
microphone. all the white
girls sighed and screamed
and knew their fathers
might not be okay calling
this white Black boy
The tight lines and frequent enjambment enhance the tension and conflict of identify and race Coval builds in the poem.
The issue of identity is raised even more in the poem â€œnerveâ€ in which Coval adopts the persona of white rapper Vanilla Ice, who confesses he is not of his own invention and he is â€œmaking something new and am not,â€ and is â€œauthentic and not.â€ The poem is filled with contradictions, one after another in each line, and personal conflict that stems from Vanilla Iceâ€™s lack of a clear identity and trying to be something he clearly isnâ€™t. Â Coval maintains the Vanilla Ice persona for a few more pieces, including a poem that is a transcript of an interview the rapper did with talk show host Arsenio Hall in which Hall questioned the rapper about why he would want to rip off black culture and change his identity. The transcript also challenges the idea of what poetry could be and what form it can take. In a full collection, the interview poem works, but Iâ€™m not sure how it would hold up if it stood alone, without the broader context the other poems bring.
What Coval makes clear in the collection is that white people made a lot of money by co-opting hip-hop, watering it down, and making it safe for the suburbs that people like Vanilla Ice hailed from. He does this especially well in the poem â€œthe beastie boys cast a video for paulâ€™s boutiqueâ€ in which he mentions the â€œcabernet bottles, ounces of herb, mounds of cashâ€ that line a conference table in the video where â€œthree upper east side boys/wear afro wigs, inebriated grins.â€Â And he concludes the poem by stating, â€œthey are not Black/the joke is they are not Black.â€
One of the strongest poems in the collection is â€œletter to white backpackers and battle rappers,â€ a longer poem that recalls what hip-hop was like before it hit the mainstream and generated millions for CEOs and white rappers like Eminem or Vanilla Ice. The poem also acknowledges and confronts the history of racism in the United States.
there was a time when there were no whites
in hip-hop but when they came, they came like Warhol,
Malcolm McLaren, Tommy Mottola, Cecil Rhodes
ready to oversee, define and bottle all that noise.
there was a time before hip-hop
got named, when white folks hung Black people
for speaking and dancing and drumming like thisÂ and this
is the denotation our skin shines, brightly when we enter
a culture not our own. a culture that is a celebration
of life we disturb and deaden and shackle and legislate
against its existence. our whole lives, predicated on controlling
life that morphs and hides and tricks(ters) us into thinking
itâ€™s just music.
Coval also included in Lâ€™Vis Lives poems that touch on even more contemporary social and political issues, including the story of Troy Davis, a black man who was convicted of and executed for the murder of a police officer in 1989 in Georgia, despite faulty evidence. The poem, â€œholla for Troy Davis,â€ which somewhat mirrors in form a section of Allen Ginsbergâ€™s poem â€œHowl,â€ is a cry of solidarity for Davis and other men like him currently sitting on death row. Davisâ€™ story drew protests and rekindled national debate about the death penalty in 2011.
But the strongest poems in the collection are the ones that confront race and identity head on through contemporary music history. A lot of Covalâ€™s poems are uncomfortable at times, but the poet brings up truths about race and the mainstreaming of hip-hip culture that need to be said. His poems are as raw and honest as the first wave of hip-hop referenced in the early pages of Lâ€™Vis Lives.
Brian Fanelliâ€™s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Blue Lotus Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Word Riot, Chiron Review, The Portland Review, and other journals and websites. His chapbook, Front Man, is available through Big Table Publishing and Kindle. Brian has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.