by Julian RandallThat’s the fascinating thing about nations, in spite of every flag we know, they’re not linear. Such a reality is at the heart of Nicholas Nichols’ “Bitter Fruit” suite; like Nichols’ forebears and contemporaries Jamaal May and Kendrick Lamar, like so many nations we might put it in reverse and find another country altogether.
Nichols’ suite begins with the proclamation “My face is not my own” and indeed it is rather the eye of a camera that is introducing us to a familiar landscape in “Watching Me, Watching You.” “My face is a joke with two punchlines” proclaims the camera and here we see Nichols working in the duality of his lineage. The camera, by design is a corridor of light and all images require a beholder and a beheld. But it is neither the beholder nor the beheld where Nichols asks us to turn our attention but the intermediate, the space between one image and another where we might observe the mechanics of seeing at work. The poem’s use of caesura is spacious, nearly circular in its ambitions to widen the scope by which we might see how an image becomes an icon, becomes a legacy and, as Nichols will show us, how we might put freedom in reverse by making “death look spectacular.”
Such spectacle accompanies the body in Nichols’ “Self Portrait as an Autopsy” considering here again how the poem allows, like the camera that we might occupy in language the in-between space that the muzzle of the camera affords. The speaker imagines and occupies here not merely death but, through the process of autopsy, an unbirthing, a reversal of the body accompanied by surreal elements. The chest parts and we find a layer of obsidian feathers. True, the body is not racialized here but such spectacle in this suite both leans into the bizarre and the commonplace for the Black body in this world of in-between, these lives and nations Nichols puts in reverse.
Finally, walk with me, with us, to August 7th, 1930; to the photo I know when I say the word “lynched”. Nichols in “Three-Part Harmony” has rendered the story of Thomas Shipp, Abraham Smith and the lone narrow survivor of one of America’s most famous lynchings, James Cameron. I’m astounded again and again by this poem, not merely its lyric or its voice but by how Nichols as a writer has never traded beauty for complicity. The poem is meant to be read not just contrapuntally but vertically. It’s inaccurate to say that the poem “invites”, instead like an American, it demands. The poem demands I hold my head at the angle of a lynched man, at the angle of a boy who could pass for my cousin in this and any other life. Only the dead or those standing in the position of the hunted can understand fully what spectacle the poem sings ugly back to us.
It is, I think, impossible to read this poem correctly and not have the blood rush back to your head at its close; when I can tilt my head back, when I can breathe again. Nichols is a magician like this, to make something that so seamlessly proves the only way I could understand this country is to hold my head to the point I think I may die for the seeing and then allow me to exit on Cameron, the narrow survivor, the embodiment that as June Jordan stated “Some of Us Did Not Die” I love Nichols best for this, for how when he says at the close of “Watching Me, Watching You” “I have mastered my death” and I believe him, truly. These poems, this poet may document death but over and over they also remind me by virtue of being written where it was once illegal for us to read, that some of us did not die, and insodoing put the project of this country in reverse, made it sing briefly us alive.