The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water,
// review by Noor Ibn Najam //
The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water is not a book to tear through. The care and meticulousness with which poet and educator Cameron Barnett deconstructs his relationship to his Blackness demands that we as readers slow down.
In “Nonbinding Legislation, or a Resolution,” the second poem in the collection, Barnett exemplifies an interrogation that refuses to settle - one that characterizes The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water. “Whereas I’m as proud to be black as a tree is/to be made of wood” writes Barnett. As I read this line, I found myself questioning my relationship to Blackness in ways I hadn’t before. I am someone who has often relied on Black pride as a defense against White aggression. And yet, I haven’t taken many opportunities to ask myself what Black pride looks like outside of the context of Whiteness. The narratives in this book definitely brought me back to the pain and spectacle of being the only Black student in most of my high school and college classes — from snide comments about my hair to assertions that I was “an oreo” — that some incorrectly perceived element of Whiteness in the way I handled myself was what made me tolerable to my peers. These hostilities drove me to turn to pride in my heritage as a defense mechanism, instead of as an expression of my inherent dignity.
But reducing Black pride to a shield against White aggression is, ultimately, limiting. As I read The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water and grappled with its decision to relinquish compulsive pride in Blackness in favor of a more rounded meditation on Black experience, I often found myself squirming. However, no matter how uncomfortable I became, I was never able to keep myself from diving back in. Barnett’s images move nimbly between mundane and extreme, gentle and violent. His motifs shapeshift between pride, uncertainty, joy, and pain - changing form as fluently as running water. Blackness is so much more than its relationship to Whiteness, but once one declines to define it within that framework, what is left, and how does it relate to the individual Self?
By using some of the "common" themes surrounding it, Barnett invites readers into a new critique of Blackness: historical narratives of Emmett Till; hot topics like interracial dating and police brutality; touchy subjects such as the politics of the confederate flag. All of these are handled without Barnett generalizing his personal experience or falling into the repetitive and nonconstructive arena of tropes and stereotypes.
As a Black, assigned-female trans person with a nonblack father, one of the strongest points of entry for me was Barnett’s discourse concerning Black boyhood and fatherhood. I don’t have firsthand experience with Black paternity, yet was able to access Barnett’s experience of it through his work. Barnett’s candidness around boyhood and the uniquely complex relationship he maintains with the men in his family operates as a brook or stream - at times clear and telling, a window to what lies below; other times forsaking frankness, muddying and disrupting its own depths.
In poems like "If a Bag of Silver Coins and Bags of Bullets Sound the Same," Barnett deconstructs the body. His critique of our culture’s treatment of the Black body are grounded in a keen understanding of it — and the burdens of joy and politicization that it carries. In the final poem, “Notes on Cameron Barnett”, the speaker is just as careful: “ The palms of my hands are lighter than the backs,/a clear line running down each finger - the same/with my feet, the same with my arms.” These tender observations of the physical truths of the body refute the monolithic Black that is so often portrayed in mainstream media’s one-dimensional depictions. The nuances of our triumphs are so often glossed over; our heroes are muzzled and reduced from great humans to idealized figureheads; our aesthetics are cut down until they fit into easy cliches. All of this to protect White comfort. I live for work like Barnett’s, Black art that truly refuses to let the White gaze dictate its direction and emphasis.
The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water is brave and refuses to betray its Blackness, no matter how impossible the questions it takes on. This book stands up for itself in poems like “Fresh Prince”, where the speaker realizes that he was “always more Carlton/and that it’s okay…” — and, sometimes, it does not, as in poems like “Baby,” where the speaker banishes pride in order to speak truth on an interracial relationship with a white woman who is “scared [their] kids will come out splotchy”. This balancing act between Barnett’s speakers’ impulse to defend their Blackness and their refusal to do that work for the reader resonated with my own experience operating in a world that is relentlessly against Black people, that is unspeakably cruel to our personhood and peoplehood.
In the last lines of The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water, Barnett leaves the reader with a question, not an assertion: “When I say I do not care for my skin...when I say it has given me everything, when I say it does nothing for me...when I say you can have it, when I say it is mine...what do you hear?” Society, as a whole, denies us our multitudes. In the many moments where The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water refuses to explain itself, choosing instead to question things that cannot ever give conclusive answers, its vulnerability and resistance to neatly tied-off endings, reclaims some of that stolen nuance.
The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water; the title serves many purposes - it’s a metaphor, an admission of overwhelm, a reclamation of autonomy and authority. It’s also a key through which we can decipher the form of the book. It would be easy to dismiss the sudden shifts in form and tone in sections such as “From ‘The Bones we Lose’” as disjointedness, to not recognize them as gasps for air, an attempt to navigate through the water even as writer and reader drown in it together. I’m grateful for this book’s brutal beauty, for its complicated pride and validation, for what it’s left me with - a deeper questioning of my own blackness, and the revelation that is its stunning lack of closure.
Noor Ibn Najam is a Callaloo, Watering Hole, and Pink Door fellow, and all their friends’ teita. Their work has been published with the Academy of American Poets, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and Winter Tangerine, among others. Their chapbook, Praise to Lesser Gods of Love, will be published as a part of the Glass 2018-19 Chapbook Series.