NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF THE BROWN BOY AND THE WHITE MAN, Ronaldo V. Wilson $14
Ronaldo Wilson’s collection of poems “Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man,” published by the University of Pittsburg Press and winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2008, explores the often visceral intersection of race, sexuality and youth. By reveling in the subconscious, Wilson’s prose-poems push the boundaries of both poetry and creative non-fiction while the attention to action and detail creates a chillingly vivid reading experience. Each of these poems maintains a third-person narration and focus on the bizarre events and inner workings of the never named “brown boy.”
This is not your bask-in-the-beauty poetry and not suitable for children. Wilson faces profound and sometimes ugly subjects like prejudice and racism that often gets pushed to the peripheral in politically conscious culture with the swagger of a young man taking on New York. However, Wilson does not use these subjects to alienate his audience; instead the personality of the brown boy develops into someone distinctly human. Even if the reader does not share in the described minority, they will certainly relate to feelings of rejection, vanity and the desire to be loved. For what could have so easily become a caricature under someone else’s pen, Wilson’s brown boy emerges from striking scenes as a complex character that wonderfully echoes the works of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
The collection’s reflective moments can seem unusually short, particularly in the presence of otherwise alarming events, but the text, like dreams, is drenched with symbolism. As the title suggests, these poems pay close attention to color, often shades that need to be blended or mixed to be created. Wilson is constantly laying one shade over the other and watching the distinctions dissolves as one character smears into another. He draws upon a collective, nationwide subconscious and funnels it through the psyche of a young, secretly vulnerable man to reveal the cognitive dissonance present in our everyday lives. With every read it becomes harder and harder to separate reality from the dream. All of this works to build to a unifying theme of defying classification and simple labeling.
Those not acquainted with modern poetry should not be discouraged because the collection draws much of its power from clarity and an unwavering gaze. Wilson’s prose-poems are closer to sensual vignettes wrapped in raw, living language. Slam-fans will also be impressed as the skilled poet takes his audience through a variety of emotions. Expect to be shocked and expect to laugh. Should a reader devour the entire collection in one sitting-and it is hard not to-they will be left with the distorted memories and elusive emotions that some might liken to the quiet, confused moments preceding a hangover. The effect is truly satisfying. Like any piece of excellent writing, it lingers in the system.
Ronaldo Wilson teaches creative writing and African American Poetics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A featured guest of the Kansas State University English Department’s Visiting Writers Series, he is scheduled for a reading and book signing Friday, March 9 at 3:30 pm in the K-State Student Union Little Theatre. His visit is sponsored by the Department of English and K-State’s LGBT Resource Center.
Amanda Mahoney is a student at Kansas State University.