Crooked Smiling Light by Alan King (Plan B Press 2021)
Reviewed by Devon Balwit
Alan King’s newest poetry collection, Crooked Smiling Light, (Plan B Press, 2021) moves from punch to caress, offering the lie of easy and sudden transformation, but in the hard-fought, zig-zag feint of everyday effort. Along the way, the reader encounters metaphors from boxing and marathon, giants of history like Nelson Mandela and Amiri Baraka, Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer, the Bible’s Goliath, Roy Hargrove and the Black Lives Matter protests. All illustrate a man’s life as he moves from son to father, seeking what we all do—love and a meaningful place in the world.
“Patience is the currency / of anything worth having,” muses the narrator of “The Light Inside.” This “anything” encompasses compassion for fathers who fall short and the daily engagement needed for marital harmony. It includes the battle to birth a child after miscarriages, the hunger for artistic equanimity in the face of the world’s indifference, and the long struggle to bring about racial justice.
Like many of us, King knows that we might be told again and again that we don’t belong. Perhaps it’s our dark skin in a white diner. Perhaps it’s our bookishness in a family whose father disdains such pursuits as unmanly. Perhaps it’s our lovingly crafted poems drawing no notice from a distracted world. Yet when faced with incomprehension or injustice, we must find ways to keep going, to keep nurturing the dogged seeking self. In an epigraph to his poem “Stride,” King foregrounds the words of marathoner Haile Gebrselassie: “When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time.” King’s narrators model this persistence.
“Courage,” King says, “Is a pattern / of quick punches, rippling change / through the hemorrhaging skull / of injustice.” These patterns only develop through dedication—that of the poet at his desk, of a husband working through an argument [“last night, our words were / a fight cloud of knuckles and boot soles”], that of new father figuring out what his baby needs [“No one tells you parenting is like gardening, / where you defend your choices from parasites posing / as unwarranted advice…”], that of Nelson Mandela refusing to let his vision be snuffed out [“you pacing yourself over a match / that took four decades of your life.”]
We will face opposition and setbacks as we journey, and our disappointments and injuries will mark us. In the poem “Scars,” these scars speak to us, demanding: “How you gonna break this curse?” “I’m a sign,” they insist, “that you can’t evade every sharp edge. I know my host; know there’s no way off your body.” Maybe so, yet many cultures use scarification as rites of passage. Scars can be proudly worn, indicating that their bearer is a survivor. And what else is a poet but one who turns scars into beauty?
King showcases this beauty as well. In one poem, a husband praises a beloved wife whose “spicy tongue rolls the hours / back to us… ,” and who, despite battling a chronic illness and the loss of an awaited child, is able to “welcome each day, even those / where grief is an overcast sky.” In another, he takes us to an Amiri Baraka poetry reading where “the air seemed edible / when the spicy-sweet aroma wandered / from Gladys Knight’s chicken and waffles.” A third, looking at his own much-loved child, revisits a time before he and his father grew estranged: “That was once you— / resting against your dad on his bed.” “Didn’t you live for those moments / in his work van—the one he bought / when he left the union / to start out on his own?” These moments of grace and tenderness infuse the world alongside and within the very relationships that pain us. “Love / is the everyday meal, …” Despite our ineptitude at offering and receiving it, “the lack of it kills quicker / than the absence of food.”
Throughout Crooked Smiling Light, King embeds us in fraught relationships we recognize. Fathers and sons battle. Husbands and wives bicker, sacrifice, and support one another. Brothers compete and serve as role models. Poets look to their forebears and heroes for guidance and inspiration. Members of one race look with both alarm, malevolence, and curiosity at another. King’s final poem, “A Prayer for the Bees,” celebrates them all, the difficult and the glorious, as like the priest’s raised hand, it sends us tenderly on our way: “Bless those that build the hive. / Bless those that clean it. / Bless the defenders. / Bless the undertakers ushering / away the dead and diseased to keep the colony healthy. / Bless the nurses incubating the babies. / And bless the bastards …” How like King that even the bastards get a blessing. Good and bad, he insists, we’re in this together.