Introduction for Rickey Laurentiis at the University of Pittsburgh, with Terrance Hayes, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, January 24, 2019
Rickey Laurentiis was raised in New Orleans to love the dark. They are the author of Boy with Thorn (2015), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Levis Reading Prize, and was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Other honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the Lannan Literary Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and the Poetry Foundation. Their poem, “Visible City,” opened Notes for Now, the art catalogue for Prospect 3 New Orleans, and he has partnered on other curatorial collaborations or programs with the Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art and, most recently, the Andy Warhol Museum. Laurentiis lives in Pittsburgh, and is the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial,” Laurentiis writes in his poem “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen.” This fifty-part poem draws on language from Wallace Stevens’ “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” and on images from lynching photographs. What is crucial about the dark? The first time I taught Boy with Thorn, I showed my class a clip from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, set in the Sea Islands of South Carolina around the turn of the 20th century. In the clip, three black women have a conversation about rape and lynching while sitting in a tree. Daughters of the Dust is shot in daylight, is dazzling, the sun never sets even on this shadow conversation in which so much is said in silences, between the crooks of branches. What would happen, I asked, if the exposure in “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen,” were reversed? What if it was cast in bright light like Dash’s film? Without darkness, my students insisted, the poem would not work.
Darkness, with its many shades and weights, its desires, delights, violences, and unutterable secrets is both a theme and an orientation in Laurentiis’s work. It is also the racialized darkness of these United States. In the poem “Continuance,” written after Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Laurentiis addresses the darkness, writing, “you can enter me, Mister Dark.” Here darkness is invited to participate in another of Laurentiis’s obsessions, penetration, with its potential for violence, for pleasure, for transformation. In an essay in the Warhol’s exhibition catalog for Devan Shimoyama’s Cry, Baby, Laurentiis writes,
Penetration, finally, as what makes a pressure in and of, as an irruption of knowledge that leads to eventual eruption. It could kill, it does kill—as did each bullet penetrating Trayvon, Michael, Tamir—but it might also heal (think of a finger, a hand, pushing into the wound, as to pause the flow of blood).
Penetration becomes a site of pleasure in “Feeling Myself,” where Laurentiis writes,
On my knees, then not
So much kneeled
As lying down, on my stomach,
How I like it: my body became his observatory,
A way to knowledge—Oh
How I have wanted
A man to throw down
His strength onto the slight
Flare of my hips and spike
To the known ground.
“How I have wanted,” an expression of desire, is as crucial a recalibration as the image of the speaker’s body as an observatory (which opens up, commanding an expensive view, as opposed to the interiority of say, a tunnel). Once, in somebody’s kitchen toward the end of a Writing Program party, Rickey mentioned that he was writing about penetration and suggested that, if we flipped the perspective, it would be called envelopment. Such a reversal or reframing begins to articulate a poetics of agency. In the Cry Baby catalog, Laurentiis writes, “Penetration, finally, must mean more than death, than black injury, than this act, I think, that black flesh—particularly, especially again trans or femme black flesh—is subject to, come up under or against, decided by.” Such, too, is the potential for darkness. Later in “Continuance,” Laurentiis’s speaker says to the dark:
Aren’t you the mirror in which all lights balance?
Aren’t you the line on which all lines cross?
Anything lives in you, so that that dark over there
Can be the dark of Mike Brown, full of breath; that the dark
Right here can be the dark of my own bastard mind;
That this dark come closest to my lips
Is a shadow’s knowledge, full, not ever empty,
Charitable as is wicked, risky as is good;
In considering their own darkness and darkness as plentitude rather than absence, Laurentiis embraces the dark as a partner. His poems do not cast light onto shadows so much as they speak into and among shadows—penetrating the very darkness that is penetrating them. Or is it enveloping? “Brilliant” is first defined by Merriam-Webster as “very bright: glittering: a brilliant light,” but here the dictionary falls short. Rickey Laurentiis’s brilliance arises out of the dark, out of silences, unspeakable histories and lush, fraught, finally articulated desires.
It has been our good fortune to have Rickey here this last year and a half as the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at CAAPP. Please join me in welcoming him to the mic.