Boogeyman Dawn is hard reading; hard in the tradition of Alice Munro, of some of Toni Morrison, of what is often politely called “unflinching social realism”: about racism, sexual abuse, poverty, identity struggle. Raina Leon’s collection is about people whom poetry, more than prose, often disregards; it is concerned with suffering, which often also sits uncomfortably alongside aesthetics. Not here, however. Leon does not make suffering beautiful per se, nor is she trying to; instead, she harnesses the power of poetic form to communicate experiences, lessons and observations that would not resonate as much in prose. It is easy to forget that poetry can far more than displaying the aesthetics of erudition. Leon’s poetry is furious and delicate, shocking and beautiful, and incredibly moving.
A dizzying range of poetic voices fills Boogeyman Dawn. In “The disappearance of fireflies”, Leon contrasts an image typically associated with American pastoral literature, with the brutal urban imagery of the projects:
We used to catch them in Mason jars
or beer bottles by the park where the junkies
hid with their works and fire spoons.
“Fire spoons” might be, in a different poem, something beautiful used to catch fireflies. And Leon certainly, through the image, recognizes the delicacy and strange beauty of heroin preparation. But the poem does not romanticize the underworld well-known to her childhood self . Whilst she caught fireflies, other children were not allowed even that small idyllic moment:
One kid learned what his Daddy taught him,
how to give good such in the corner
by the yellow brick.
This is visceral, shocking, and made all the more so by the traditional four-line stanza form, the memory of fireflies, the register of paternal instruction. But employing traditional forms in order to subvert is far from Leon’s sole tactic.
In “a (second) to consider (generations)” Leon adopts a form that splits the lines over the page, experiments with justified text and hanging sentences, thus allowing her to speak with, or recall, multiple voices simultaneously. It is a poem that jumps from voice to voice, and moments of repetition within it allow the reader to catch their breath:
shouldn’t I be praying or cooking…
shouldn’t I be fiery or subdued
shouldn’t I be married already
By rejecting these familial expectations , Leon unleashes other furious demands, other voices:
my grandmother beats the
with a broom to get the
can I be forgiven for loving
one who spits on the pope.
To be American, Catholic, Latina and Black – this poem both takes on and breaks down all of these identities into a sprawling, multi-voiced family tree so loud that it eventually collapses, and the poet becomes just ‘a body to talk about/as if the ears/ could not hear’. The idea of nuances so complex that instead of being honoured, they are ignored, becomes a motif. The perils of complexity include erasure, Leon’s poetry says, and although the collection tackles this head on, it offers no alternatives, except the act of writing itself: creating a voice countering the ability of others to reduce the self to a body.
Leon also engages with broader issues. In ‘One for Katrina’s survivors’, she uses a fascinating stacked-word structure to create droplets of meaning, commemorating the event. These form imperatives, then relate back to the events during and after the hurricane:
These words figure as options – outcomes – moments that gesture towards the extraordinary suffering that occurred during Katrina and its ongoing effects, with affecting universality. Perhaps this imperative speaks to a thirst for recognition, for social justice, for communion and communication of experience, and most of all, the thirst to be heard.
This is not an easy collection, but it is all the more powerful for resisting conventional methods of talking about suffering.