cover image The Sobbing School

The Sobbing School

Joshua Bennett. Penguin, $18 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-14-311186-3

In his scintillating debut, Bennett, a performance poet and 2015 National Poetry Series winner, raises a crucial question about the writing of African-American experience: how can one convey the enormity of black suffering without reducing black life and expression to elegy? Bennett writes, “when I consider extinction,/ I do not think of sad men with guns,” but instead “of our refusal.” Bennett’s poems resist conventional narratives and lyric expectations, riffing on personal and cultural history instead of directly telling a story. “I know/ the respectable man enjoys a dark/ body best when it comes with a good/ cry thrown in,” Bennett writes in the book’s opener, a skillful meditation on the performance and consumption of pain. Another poem, “Yoke,” uses the poet’s family tree to connect Jim Crow–era farming to mass incarceration. Others render his background from surprising angles or in ingenious forms. Two pieces are presented as academic paper abstracts, another adopts the perspective of a cockroach, and “In Defense of Passing” explores the persistent ironies of coloration through science fiction. At its heart, Bennett’s sharp collection is an ode to family, friendship, and culture that neither pulls punches nor withholds sentiment: “despair kills: too slow to cut/ the music from a horn, or set/ my nephew’s laughter to dim.” (Oct.)