October 26–November 1, 2015
Rickey Laurentiis is the author of Boy with Thorn, selected by Terrance Hayes for the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. He is the recipient of many honors, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems appear in Poetry, the New Republic, New York Times, Kenyon Review and Boston Review, among other journals. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, he currently resides in Brooklyn. On Thursday, November 5, Laurentiis reads for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Smack Mellon in DUMBO with Jee Leong Koh and Mahogany L. Browne.
Vanitas with Negro Boy
David Bailly, seventeenth century, oil on canvas
I’ll show you a bone made to hold on to.
A pip. A dense fire in which once
the thinking imagination sprawled
like a breathing vine. He would put the skull
on the table (And nearest to the worn
flowers, sir, or nearer to the flute?) turned
just so so not to be too crude. That
was the boy’s job, this cage with a debt
in it (And whose boy am I, and what is
my name?). Black erasing blackness,
body and backdrop: you are not permitted to enter
the question light asks of his skin as if it were
a field, a mind, a word inclined to be
entered. It’s true: his face, his boyhood even
(And what is my boyhood, and where is it from?)
would fade if not for the rope of attention
yanked glittering across that face. Look.
This is my painting, my version of the Dutch
stilleven. I’m trying to write obsession
into it, and can. Open your eyes. Don’t run.
Vanitas, from the Latin for “emptiness,”
“meaningless”—but what nothing can exist
if thought does, if the drawn likeness of a bone
still exists? Why trust the Old Masters? Old
Masters, never trust me. Listen: each day
is a Negro boy, chained, slogging out of the waves,
panting, gripping the sum of his captain, the head,
ripped off, the blood purpling down, the red
hair flossed between the knuckles, swinging it
before him like judgment, saying to the mist,
then not, then quietly only to himself, This is what
I’ll do to you, what you dream I do, sir, if you like it.
–“Vanitas with Negro Boy” is from Boy with Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis © 2015. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I can’t recall how I got to it but somehow, one day, when still a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, and alone, as I often was, rabbit-holing through the mass of information that is, for better or for worse, the Internet, I landed on (or did I rise up into?) Darell W. Fields’s “A Black Manifesto,” which I’ve only piecemeal read, never the whole thing the whole way through, and probably because of the leading image, David Bailly’s still-life painting, and especially the title attributed to it, “Vanitas with Negro Boy,” which totally arrested me. I was fascinated. And though I’ve yet to see the painting in the flesh, it still captivates me. As I view it, there seems to be some darkly sinister subtext, or something clever, in the painting and even within the gesture and positioning of the “Negro Boy” holding up the miniature portrait that one notices between the fingers of his hands. Or that alone could be my imagining. Nevertheless, I began to think deeply about the painting, about the title of the painting, about the history of the title of the painting (it was revised by the museum, as is the custom of so much historical visual art that features a black figure, sanitized away from its “Negro” history and repackaged in more “polite” language, erasing “Negro Boy” and becoming “Vanitas Still Life With Portrait,” so deliberately ambiguous)—I thought about all of this and, with it, the way I was seeking to “claim” this portrait, rewrite its narrative as I was seeing it, to assert my position as (black) (queer) viewer upon it. “Why trust the Old Masters?” was a real question that occurred to me, that still does, and from that point I felt emboldened to write this grotesque scene of murderous rebellion towards the end of the poem (even as, within the poem, I’m structuring the poem around loose rhymed couplets). I wanted to show how I see visual art: as a witnessing of the object as itself, but also as catalyst for my imagination, the shadow-object. So the poem was made partly as description, partly as transformation, and finally as argument.
What are you working on right now?
“Vanitas with Negro Boy” references “black erasing blackness” and I’ve been thinking about that or, more generally, about the dark as vessel for the imagination. Thinking is a kind of work.
What’s a good day for you?
I like days that are sunny and with a breeze carrying over the top of my head, or else still as warm but with a stormy, tropical sense of rain about to let down. That’s a good day, weather wise. I like days when I can have conversations on politics and poetry or pop culture with my closest friends, even better when accompanied by a glass of whiskey. I like days when I am recommended a terrific book of poems or recall an old (still as good) book of poems that I haven’t read for a while and should return to, being lost in the pleasure of words. A good day is when I can recall any of this and more and somehow push it through the sieve of myself and draft a poem.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I’ve lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn since moving here from grad school—the summer of 2013. I moved into the then-guest room of a fabulous apartment with my best friend and his sister, probably the easiest and least stressful transition into New York City one can imagine. But I choose to stay in Brooklyn because of its blackness, which in ways is slowly being eroded. When I walk down the street I’m reminded of the kind of Afro-Atlantic, at least Afro-Diasporic, sensibilities I grew up with (though I didn’t recognize them as such at the time) in New Orleans. So Brooklyn functions as the quasi-home, what-almost-fits.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
1. “I love your hair. You look like sunshine walking down the street.”
2. —When I was bashed . . . for the second time.
3. Noticing the autumn leaves on Bergen Street, which are beautiful, but remembering they signal winter approaching, which is horrible. I hate snow.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
There are parts of Whitman’s oeuvre so good you have to throw the book across the room. That’s just the way it is. You just have to throw the book across the room. I know Timothy Donnelly lives in Brooklyn and, while I feel his sensibility is more Stevensian than Whitmanian to some degree, he’s at least picking up the breadth and length and overall epic-ness of Whitman in many of his poems. I love the mind I find racing through his work.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Unnameable Books is about a 15-minute walk from my apartment and, on every visit, has always surprised me.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Never home! I need to be moving. Was it Thoreau who wrote while walking? I could be remembering that inaccurately. Nevertheless, I’m similar: I need to be in transit. Walking, talking to myself (thank goodness for the deception of headphones), in a car, on a plane, most often on the subway. I write in the in-between places, not at a place. To be at a place must mean I’m in a state of revision, relooking, reconsidering.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
I love all of Franklin and Nostrand Avenues a little above Fulton Street and on down to Eastern Parkway. I require the Brooklyn Museum and, when in season, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. DUMBO is also a nice neighborhood. I like that it looks blankly at Manhattan, but just looks at it.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus is a treasure. The centerpiece poem is, yes, masterfully and imaginatively rendered and deserves much discussion. But really those poems bookending it do so much powerful work, particularly the poems of the last section that substantiate the value of black intellectualism in a way I don’t think I’ve yet seen before, at least in poems. I’m so happy for all the accolades she’s receiving. “They” got it right!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you ______________,
For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.
And what I I, you you,
For every me is me as good as you is you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I grew up without a father,
—as big as Brooklyn?
Saturn’s too far.