by Noor Ibn Najam
In Casey Rocheteau’s poems, first person speakers become tools of agency and humanization. “Ballad for the Banquet Prepared in Front of Mine Enemies” opens Gorgoneion Suite with a swaggering title, but quickly complicates its bravado with a crafty, ever-shifting speaker.
“Does it pair well with the way your bones went to dust when you thought you saw a wound [dead] dear and went to snap my neck? All I know of mercy is located in a bead of my own sweat equity”
The enjambment-driven switches in meaning in “Ballad” make it impossible to pin the speaker down, and that evasiveness is essential to their survival. This speaker can afford antagonistic statements like “I’ve lost patience with your shot/ clocks” because they move swiftly enough to outrun the fate of their “dead uncles” and “methadomed/ roommate who is, of course, also dead now.” Any vulnerability on the speaker’s part must be admitted quickly .“I want to whisper/ in the back of a classroom with your girlfriends,” begins the speaker, “but there’s not an address left on Earth for my/ exhaustion. So here it is…” The conditions that brought on the exhaustion also necessitate that the speaker acknowledge their exhaustion briefly and between two assertions of confidence. The speaker slaloms through the whole poem in this way, but rounds out the final dodge with both feet on the ground: “All these/ knives turn acupuncture on this table my/ ancestors built centuries before I even arrived.” The speaker is able to survive by rapidly turning power dynamics in their favor – weapons aimed at them turned into physical therapy – because the speaker is grounded in their ancestral inheritance.
The next speaker’s expression is more rigid. Written strictly in short-lined tercets, “First Day Out” restrains itself in ways the previous poem does not. The small stanzas and many line breaks slow the pace. The speaker’s anger is all but hidden until it breaks through the surface of the narrative, unable to remain subtle: “no we don’t/ take this shit politely or lying/ down.” This line turns the tone of the poem, but the speaker remains unable to control the circumstances they are faced with. By the end, there is “not a damn thing left funny or/unbroken apart by the festering/ August sun.”
“Grave Cleaning Ghazal” is also concerned with form, but this piece uses the restrictions of the ghazal to monitor the reader’s attention. Reading for the traditional markers of a ghazal is disorienting because the radif and qafia are as shifty as the speaker in “Ballad”. Really, the piece evokes Jericho Brown’s Duplex form, calling upon the ghazal, sonnet, and blues poem at once. This more nuanced poetic heritage certainly echoes Ai’s ever-complicating take on issues of identity, a fitting decision for a poem focused on names. This use of form allows the reader to find synonyms forced by form. Because this is a Duplex, line 1 parallels and overlaps line 14; because it’s a ghazal, to unmake the sun’s name (line 4) is to make a name of a dead sun (line 6).
If the formal choices of “Grave Cleaning Ghazal” and “First Day Out” lend structure for the speakers of these poems, then the lack of punctuation and lineation in “knight mare” strip logic down to the bones, leaving room for thoughts and images to crash into each other.
“Don’t drink the water, just shower in its lukewarm drizzle or take another little pop of stabilization and be a good horse, don’t Trojan chariot the gates, just graze some and tranquil dawn with a red sun reflected across the river will beget and egress, a portal to every new day with a gag boxing glove on a spring crashes a champagne flute into yours, just waiting to give a toast only to take it back.”
The rare punctuation marks create sudden halts that disarm the reader, and the resulting stream-of-consciousness feel of “knight mare” allows power and agency to see-saw between speaker and subject.
It is fitting that Rocheteau’s Gorgoneion Suite ends by engaging the persona of Sun Ra. Like Ai, Rocheteau has reinvented a popular figure into a statement on the society that made him. But unlike many of the personas written by Ai, Rocheteau’s Sun Ra maintains a distinguishing vernacular and particular mannerisms – “you love death more than mothers” sounds distinctly southern, for example. He also carries the same intensity of the other speakers in Gorgoneion Suite – this iteration of Sun Ra is a mashup of his character and Rocheteau’s own creative voice.
In Gorgoneion Suite, Rocheteau crafts masks of persona that live up to Ai’s legacy. They don the masks, one by one, and get all the way in our faces, filling our whole field of vision. There is no chance of escape – whether or not we are ready for confrontation, we are forced to reckon with the painted facade, then look straight through the masks’ eyes and into the poet’s.