by Genevieve Hartman
The Gleaming of the Blade by Christian J. Collier.
Bull City Press, 2022.
CW: Police brutality, Buffalo shooting, racist violence, domestic terrorism
The morning I started writing this paragraph was the morning after a white shooter drove several hours to Buffalo, NY, and attacked a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood, killing ten and wounding three more people. The grocery store is just an hour away from my home in Rochester, and less than ten minutes away from the Tops that I used to shop at when I lived in Buffalo, in a different predominantly Black community. It feels impossible not to hold space for grieving for the victims of this brutal act of domestic terrorism against Black people as I reflect on Christian J. Collier’s The Gleaming of the Blade. Given the proximity of the Buffalo shooting to my home and former home, compounded by recent shootings targeted at Asian communities in the United States, which feels very personal for me, I’ve been thinking deeply about the long, continuously heartbreaking line of tragedies in America, which are reflected back at me in The Gleaming of the Blade.
The chapbook opens with the poem “How It Feels to be Black.” The first line of the poem delivers a swift punch to the reader, one of many to come: “Sometimes, it feels like we are loved by no God” (3). In combination with the title, this line acts as a kind of thesis statement for the collection. The Gleaming of the Blade reveals the speaker’s profound grief in the face of continued violence both against the speaker themself and the Black community. Heavy with the speaker’s prayers, the poems offer an unflinching witness to the rampant violence that continues across America, supplanting any false notion that America is a safe country for everyone to live in. They refuse to accept the infuriatingly short-term memory that many non-Black Americans have when it comes to race-based violence. Instead, this collection pays respect to the countless lives that were unjustly ended in the name of white supremacy.
“How It Feels to be Black” continues:
Each day, I want to wake to find no name of someone Black & butchered in my throat,
the morning never yields to my request,
so, more days than it should,
it feels like a bounty latched to the bleached rails of our spines,
like we are destined to keep dying unarmed & at fault (3)
I’ve woken up every day following the shooting in Buffalo with the grief of tragedy heavy in my chest. These lines feel especially barbed. But moving past my personal experience, these lines are an important reminder to those of us who are not Black that the Black community has carried and continues to carry immeasurable sorrow as they endure repeated violence at the hands of white and non-Black people of color. America’s whole history is drenched with a legacy of Black folks “dying unarmed & at fault,” yet still people are indoctrinated into believing that racism is not a problem anymore, and still tragedies such as the one in Buffalo and the instances in The Gleaming of the Blade occur all the time.
On one hand, it feels like there could not be a more timely book, but I think it’s also important to draw more from The Gleaming of the Blade than a grim parallel for the last month’s news cycle. Collier draws attention to a very obvious pattern of violence that exists in the United States, but the pattern didn’t start with rising numbers of mass shootings. Before mass shootings, lynchings were commonplace. That’s why, alongside the poem, “How It Feels to Be Black,” is “A Blues for the Walnut Street Bridge.” Set in Chattanooga, the poem commemorates Albert Blount and Ed Johnson, two Black men lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in 1893 and 1906, respectively. The speaker condemns the forgetfulness of Chattanooga’s citizens and imagines how the bridge itself might feel for its forced role in their deaths.
I want to know if it envies
how we, who casually walk across it, claim ignorance as a shield,
how we choose not to be burdened by the history that has stained it,
how we work ourselves to the highest states of negligence
to avoid hearing the blues it, alone, has had to bear. (20-21)
In “A Blues for the Walnut Street Bridge,” the inanimate bridge feels more human than the people walking by. As it upholds the weight of people walking across the river, it carries the awful memory of past tragedy that was inscribed on its beams, that the people have all too easily forgotten. Alongside the city’s citizens, though, the speaker and the reader are made complicit in the casual walk and the shield of ignorance: “we choose not to be burdened,” and “we work ourselves to…negligence.” No one is exempt from learning the darkest parts of our shared history; no one is exempt from listening to the blues notes that ring out from the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga and across the country.
Alongside the purposefully unaware people walking the streets of Chattanooga, there are monsters, both real and fictional, that roam the streets. “Candyman Blues” is one example. Told from the perspective of Daniel Robitaille (of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” and the Candyman films), this persona poem tells the origins of how Robitaille became the infamous Candyman, a ghost who kills anyone who says his name five times. Robitaille was murdered by lynch mob for dating and impregnating a white woman. Reflecting on his actions, the speaker says,
What they call me is a sacred word built on blues & blood
like any Black man born & buried in the South.
They say Candyman enough times & I am obliged to appear,
because they made a god out of me.
How could I not come when summoned? When prayed to?
How could I not grant them their wish
to see my face? Mine, the last they’ll see. Mine, their guide away from this life. (12)
The speaker, Robitaille turned Candyman, is more than just a killer here. He is also a sympathetic figure, someone turned into a killer by the people who maliciously murdered him. Going on, Robitaille muses, “Many call me / monster. / Who made me into one? / What name should we ascribe to those whose brutality transformed me?” Yes, the Candyman is a gruesome horror figure, but behind the nightmarish ghost are the racist people who murdered him, just as monstrous. Behind the fictional story, there are the very real monsters who punished—and continue to punish—interracial relationships with violence and death.
The exploration of interracial relationships extends to several poems in the chapbook, as Collier’s speakers navigate the still-fraught experience of dating white women in the South, only to face angry fathers or be forced to lie to their partners’ families, or even, alarmingly, to lie directly to their partner. It’s a sharp reminder that we are just now celebrating 55 years since the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that legalized interracial marriage. In most of the poems, the white woman and her family engage in acts of casual racism, sometimes explicit and on purpose, but as often as not, perpetrated with a cluelessness that highlights their privilege. This speaker is wary and has been hurt before and knows now that a white partner will never completely understand the speaker’s own experience of being Black. In the poem “When She Asks What I’m Afraid Of,” the speaker does not even trust that their partner will not someday employ the n word against them in the heat of an argument. As an Asian woman who is both the product of an interracial marriage and in an interracial relationship, the resigned and heartsore tone of these poems ring with a note of truth. Interracial relationships, when they work well, are complicated, and there will always remain some level of difference—a white partner will never fully understand the experience of being a person of color—and this can lead to difficult but necessary conversations. The interracial relationships that Collier presents do not seem to function well, however. The speaker is haunted by past harms, left too scarred to fully trust a white partner again.
Since many authors name their collections after a particularly impactful poem from the collection, I think it’s worth noting that, past the title, any further mention of “the gleaming of the blade” is absent from the text. It’s an evocative image. The gleaming blade is insidious and promises harm, yet, without direct reinforcement in the text, the blade lurking here has a subtlety, too. I picture it at night, visible only because of a streetlight or the moon. It’s obvious if you are paying attention, but so often in America, the gleaming blade of racism is only noticeable to the people in immediate danger or is only noticed when a particularly high-profile act of violence takes place. There’s no mistaking what Collier wants to illuminate here. This collection, first and foremost, is an account of past and present acts of racist violence, a heartbroken memorial for the people who have lost their lives. There is no offer of comfort for the tragedies recounted in these pages; these poems are not interested in comfort when violence is constantly overtaking the speaker and their community. In The Gleaming of the Blade, Christian J. Collier asks readers to mourn and to signify and to pay attention even—especially—when it seems like all is well. Where is the gleam in the darkness? What is being revealed?
Non-Black readers can never truly understand how it feels to be Black, especially Black in the United States of America. The Gleaming of the Blade allows access to a painful, generations-deep wound, and it is necessary for us to attune ourselves to this writing-as-witness. Whether readers find this collection gives voice to their own stories, or readers allow their eyes to be opened by Collier’s frank and haunting lines, this chapbook is as necessary now as it has always, unfortunately, been. The Gleaming of the Blade is a finely tuned chapbook, rich in its setting, precise in its images, and unapologetic in its grief. It leaves us longing, as its speaker does, for an alternate ending where murdered Black folks “find their ways back into the graces of their most-loved” (32).
Genevieve Hartman is a Korean American poet based in upstate New York. She is the Director of Development & Publicity at BOA Editions, reads poetry for VIDA Review, and reviews for GASHER. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe, EcoTheo, Singapore Unbound, River Mouth Review, and others. Follow her on Instagram at @gena_hartman.