Five Reasons to Read: Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us,
by Trace DePass
// review by Nkosi Nkululeko //
Trace DePass welcomes into the world his debut book of poems Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us (PANK Books, 2018). In a kind of stream-of-consciousness, DePass meanders through the heartbreaking subject of abandonment. The book is as much about loss as it is about being lost, jumping time periods and zones to find something he himself seems unsure about. That is the beauty of Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us, the persistent questioning and reevaluation of ‘here’-ness.
The book does not ground the reader in a specific location until the 4th poem. This literary decision already becomes a form of detachment or abandonment, a wide emotional chasm between the author and us, however, this is a distance he seeks to earn in the journey. One of the most notable motifs is his reoccurring usage of the word ‘here’, that comes as early as the first poem “[requiem] for the boy telling of the time his body was not his”:
you can hold breath, hold your nose, close your mouth
and still hear
the sound of a knuckle crack and, so, you are still, here.
This word bounces all throughout, reminding us that we can at least find comfort in knowing we are somewhere, even if we do not exactly know where the ‘here’ is. This is where the poems prove to be the strongest. As DePass experiments with the visual aspects of a poem where the words dance, split and sometimes ramble, the author talks and sketches his way through the difficulties of keeping ideas, men, memory and language itself, in a collective and harmonious order. He arrives at these critical moments that describe the intimacy between men. He seems to be interested in multiple forms of brotherhood; the strange relationships of a father and son, friends, lovers. His descriptions of masculinity highlights both the problematic and celebrational sides of it.
DePass writes across timelines, imagining the narratives of slaves, dogs, boys, family, childhood, and how they intertwine. Reading through it, I find poems going backwards and forwards like hopscotch. While much of language proves difficult to decipher, the characters and how they interact inside the poems, give us the necessary guidelines to keep track where the author intends to lead us.
i don’t think there comes inherent healing
with poems or with time.
This is conclusion DePass comprehends late in the book, reminding us once again, but with more solemnity now, that we are still ‘here’. At the end of the poem “band-aids & other temporary healings”, he continues to write as we all do, but for what; the ego, recognition, purpose, to inform a later life that we were here? These are the contradictory thoughts that makes the poems most human. In the rereading of this book, you will look deeper for the heart that tethers these writings to our memories. We recall animated characters like Ash Ketchum, victims like Mike Brown, and figures like Sambo to prove that the distance between one violence and another is not as far as we think.
You will soon discover for yourself that the book is not an easy read, nor is it difficult in a sense. The concepts are simple but the language for it is complex. Just like life itself, we put ourselves in a maze of the most clearest of questions. DePass writes:
or perhaps ‘he’
assumed you just knew,
as you were ‘his’ God,
even if he felt free to act on
a want, a piece of room inside
‘Him’ was, yes, a slave
The poet goes on and on to utilize contrapuntals, sonnets and more, with the syntax as warped, whipped, or ripped as it need be.
With brief references to trap drummers, percussionists, rappers, and musical aspect of pop culture, we’re offered contemporary sound as we read onward. The ability to sustain a kind of sound, helps the reader maintain an understanding of the abstract modes we pass through. You will find some of your favorite names today, passing through DePass’ work, putting them in a new invented space. Connecting the characters are fun, and this act of connecting opens the space even more for the reader to insert themselves through the multiple narratives until the reader breaks through to find what it all means.
5. Exiting the Book
The way you’ll close this book is the most important moment. The last lines of the poem (9 pages in length!) will leave you on a question. You will find yourself going back to confirm thoughts. Trace DePass belongs to a family of writers and musicians. This fact would hardly be noteworthy if we didn’t live in a world that strives to diminish the imaginative mind. Self-Portrait as the Space Between Us is a search for the self, wandering far enough to find itself back ‘here’.
Nkosi Nkululeko is the recipient of fellowships from places such as Poets House, The Watering Hole and Callaloo. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee, finalist for the 2016 Winter Tangerine Awards for Poetry, featured for TEDxNewYork, Aspen Ideas Festival, and more. Nkululeko’s work is currently published or forthcoming in Apogee, The Collagist, Michigan Quarterly Review, Third Coast, VINYL, and will be anthologized in the Best American Poetry 2018 anthology. He lives in Harlem, New York.