Five Reasons to Read: The Dozen, by Casey Rocheteau
// review by Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah //

On the cover of The Dozen, a smiling black girl sits atop an elephant, her hair set free to the wind, shackles loose around the elephant’s feet – and behind them, a circus tent burning in the garb of a dying imperialism, clouds of smoke billowing to ether. The elephant is aphorism. The girl becomes the role the reader embodies within the text, and the elephant the vehicle. We are carried. In the introduction to her book, Casey Rocheteau describes The Dozen as “a game that grows outward,” the goal of which is to “juke what is truly oppressive about the world in which we live.” As much as the poems juke, they also bring readers in. Juke, the motion: the dance and the music; the book, a box; the poems, the fire – and of course – the smoke. 








1. Topsy the Elephant has a vitality within this collection. Topsy is the charge of black girl magic, of dissention, and of limitless survival. Google search Topsy, and barring strange aberrations in Google algorithms, the Wikipedia article is the first to appear. Three poems in Rocheteau’s collection are titled after Topsy: “Topsy (alternative),” “Topsy (direct),” and “Topsy (Current).” Topsy finely figures the question of the human throughout the collection. Through Topsy, Rocheteau explores the ways we willfully shy away from the humane and become the ‘beast’ we would otherwise seek to burden.

Deemed inhumane,
they poisoned her first,
the current finished the job,
and Edison’s company made snuff,
sold 15,000 tickets, barked Step Right Up Folks,
Witness the magnificent, the phantastic
spectre of a petulant exotic beast!
Come unhinge your maw and feast.


2. Reading The Dozen, I gets a sense of the massive amount of labor that went into this project. Rocheteau experiments deliberately with form and content. There are very few places these poems do not touch, and yet with care and craft, Rocheteau navigates us through the call and response of The Dozen. In “Unlucky Building for Charleston Emanuel AME Church,” Rocheteau borrows a form invented by contemporary, Sean DesVignes. An “Unlucky Building” is meant to be read “from the ground floor up the stairs.” We start from the last line of the poem, and poet graciously walks us up.

?name His out called children his when God was Where. missed He.
with a halo of bullets, for my unholy black.
nigger me call to thought uncle my, nine was I When


3. So often the prevalence of black death is such that those engulfed by it become reduced to their last living moments. When I hear the name Aiyana Stanley-Jones, I think of a child still sleeping. I consider then the bullet, it’s cold plummet into the child’s head and then through her neck, but very rarely the child, or even the specific conditions that rendered her mute and lifeless. To look so closely upon death is to commune with ghosts, and in so doing, to be haunted. Many of the pages of The Dozen are deeply imbued with a sense of loss. The dead are resurrected to tell of their living. They admonish us. The ghost of Aiyana Stanley-Jones asks,“If our legal system operates at the axis of ethics and logic, from which intersection of America was this bullet fired?”
4. Rocheteau remembers and I use the word remember in the sense of the original meaning of the word, to disassemble and to put back together again. The Dozen is a deeply historical project, and with a historian’s sensibilities Rocheteau retells and re-centers the queer and femme narratives that are vital to Black American history. “The Caste Land” is written after TSE, not TS Eliot, and is a modern reimagination of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The poem remixes and remasters the religious and mythological imagery, speaking specifically to modern life in (North) America, and ultimately, crafts a new (but old) mythology out of the iconography of Black life. In some stanzas, Rocheteau rewrites/(re)rites Eliot’s text line by line.

IV. Death by Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                   Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


Fred Hampton, the Chiraq kid, half-century dead,
forgot the rolling traffic, the concrete flat lurch
and the power and people.
A tide below our cities
picked his bones clean, quiet.
As he fell and fell he passed
over only his youth’s urgency.
My people
who ghostride the wind,
consider Fred, who was once bold and black as you.


5. Each and every one of the poems in The Dozen is a dare, in the very real sense that the dozens is a game, and thus, there are stakes. But nowhere is this more present than in the poem “Unfinished Letters From the Most Popular Kid in the Psych Ward.”

To the woman at the hospital who did the evaluation:
When I said I didn’t think group therapy was going to help me in my current state, I meant it, and I don’t know why you refused to listen.
To J, my oldest friend:
Isn’t it just like a woman of color to fly from California to show up my white “friends” who wouldn’t walk three blocks?

Metaphors unveil, but often times in the hands of the ambivalent poet, they conceal that which they sought to reveal. There is no such equivocation in Rocheteau’s poems. With each section of the book, Rocheteau complicates what it means to be Black and alive: living through trauma, living through social amnesia, living through misogynoir and mental illness. There’s a macabre beauty in wearing one’s own survival, in pointing to the thing that once threatened to kill you, and knowing that at last, through all of it, you’ve survived.



Check out poems by Casey here and here.
Check out Casey’s website here, as well as her twitter, here.
Listen and/or read Casey’s interview on National Public Radio, here.
And of course, buy the collection at Sister Rivalry Press here!