This slender but tensile volume of twenty-five poems contains “passionate songs” sung from “above and beyond the blues / but still underneath the top heap / of the bottom dung.”
Kenyatta, prisoner No. 74A3701, incarcerated for over four decades, strives “ever upward always towards the light.” Ceaselessly soaring, he says, “mylife / mylife is / and mylife’s song speaks to me / ‘Carry on!’”
His expansive vision is a testament to the courage of a man who consistently flies above the turbulence on the ground. Shaped by an acute awareness of human and planetary disturbances, he issues prophetic warnings about real and present dangers and exhorts us to “carry on” with love.
One may be surprised to hear such a voice emerge from the exile of a long prison term. It would be natural to expect a man interminably immured to write with an edge—sharp, ironic, and bitter—to rail at the dark fates, at injustice and cruelty, at the scandalous abuse of power and the Law. It may perhaps be also reasonable to look here for an owning up to a darkness within—a deed, an irreversible loss of self and other, a terrible and prolonged disruption—and more—possibly remorse, or at least a hint of it, a deeply suggestive trail of a move to recover lost ground.
There’s little in Kenyatta’s work that satisfies these traditional expectations born of an unexamined set of assumptions about society and the system of criminal justice it has long maintained at grave material and spiritual cost. His poems, instead, are philosophical and reflective, even magisterial, touched at times with sadness at the self-inflicted wounds leading us to the edge of collective planetary catastrophe. Perhaps the unfailingly lofty rhetoric and vision are precisely the result of his having spent long years in the vise of suffering—a vision that has been wrung out of pain. Perhaps it is the deepest response to a living death.
In the ringing credo of his preface, Kenyatta asserts: “If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, that is, the planet from the worst that is within us, each of us must look deep within, first, if we are to stop the VIOLENCE: our overbearing self-interest: greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, larceny, jealousy, envy, etc. then we must reach out and ‘grab hold of the hand’ of one other human being in order to help spread the Word. Love. Peace. Respect.” He continues unwavering: “We must stop, look, and listen to the silent voice within our own hearts. The world is crying out to us. And Mother Nature is calling each one of us out—by name.”
Do not ask what this man did to deserve an unimaginably long prison-term. Do not ask what may be wrong with a system of justice that subjects humans to inhuman treatment. Raise yourself, this book seems to urge, to another level and see that you are stewards of a great treasure, a planet facing imminent danger, our “playground” spiraling down into a “place of contentious strife within a living hell.”
Kenyatta does not harbor “illusions” that his poems will have a world-transforming effect. He merely offers them as part of his “humble expression of service rendered toward the Human Family, in my own way.”
Those of us who take the time to listen to Kenyatta will above all else hear his call, more urgent than stern, often poignant, to take responsibility for our lives. The boundaries of what we narrowly see as criminal behavior get vastly expanded in Kenyatta’s profoundly humanistic vision, which warns us against the arrogance of “our god-creating heads.” Unlike the evil functionaries at the Nuremberg Trials who, to a man, said, “I am not responsible,” Kenyatta would have us see that we are all responsible for the ecological holocaust raging all around us, the denudation of the earth, the “injured womb.” Our “projections” and our captivity “within our own ‘event horizon,’” our hubris at thinking of ourselves as “our own suns,” our all-too-blind flitting in the “amniotic darkness of our inner self-cocoon” lead inevitably to little more than “a made-up and make believe world we call human life / where we are the soul-creators of our dreams as well as our nightmares.”
Kenyatta is a teacher who feels no need to apologize for his didacticism. In fact, his doomsday perspective makes it imperative for him to speak. And fulminate he does, as he presses us to redeem ourselves by seeing through the “pseudo-games of mesmerism” of the “devil-mind… disguised as flesh and blood,” the fatal “self-imposed imprisonment.” His wailing is suffused with a world sorrow, too big, almost uncontainable, in the face of which the pain of his own incarceration does not seem worth even a passing mention. His prophetic task is to bring all his fury and passion to make us see our Public SHAME:
…haven’t we for too long now been fighting and slaughtering one another
over the same old divisive theologies of religion
over the same squandered national resources
the same impoverished and land-mined territories
the same chemically laden food supplies
the same oil slicks in already polluted waters
the same blood diamonds and tarnished gold
As we come under the sway of Kenyatta’s doleful catalogs we sense, at a level deeper than despair, a spiritual instinct which heals divisions and points to an integrated being, founded on hope, respect and love. Just as we have no one to blame but ourselves for the “gathering gloom,” we have no need for any agency but our own.
Kenyatta’s vision, equally open to the excremental and the redemptive, rises to rhapsodic levels as he exhorts us in his poem “Imitation of Life” to bend all our forces to the kind of retrieval our lives depend on for meaning and sustenance.
To learn how to walk amid adversity, and to continue to walk in the face of the apocalypse, Kenyatta says, requires that we practice the art of “defying gravity,” an art one masters, if at all, by a “cleared vision” which helps us “act always ‘as if’ everything still mattered in this life / even if she or he inevitably saw no hope in physical matter itself / for the sun hasn’t given up on us yet / and neither has the moon.”
What makes it possible for us to believe that “everything still mattered in life”? How do we defy gravity, which we must do if we are to walk, and continue walking, that is, if we are to be fully human? Kenyatta alternates between the poles of self-will and what he calls the “caring power called Grace.” Reminiscent of the assertion of the great French mystic Simone Weil who said that grace is the act of coming down without weight, Kenyatta holds that ultimately human agency must be seen as part of a larger web of forces. In this web each of us, small “as a tiny grain of sand blown across the Kalahari,” is upheld by the entire Universe, a universe whose story is no larger or more glorious than “your story and my story / and all our stories,” yet without which our stories are incomplete and, like Yeats’s center, “cannot hold.”
To be mindful of this radical interrelatedness, Kenyatta realizes, is an imperative. In a brilliantly creative use of possibly the only image in the book that reminds us of his life under constant surveillance in prison, he pairs it with Mystery. Thus:
anklebraceletmonitoring Mystery is this
we’re all under authority to get this
human life right
Not even here, where the oppressive machinery threatens to shackle the human with its iron grip, is Kenyatta willing to compromise his secular mystical vision, a deep earth spirituality that seeks the nurturing reassurance of two hands, the cosmic and the human, holding each other in inextricable love.
I’m writing in the wake of the brutal deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other besieged Blacks; the unveiling of the continuing horror at Riker’s Island and other penitentiaries across this land; in the era of mass incarceration, the “new Jim Crow,” and the systematic attempt at disenfranchising an entire group of people that was reluctantly brought into the body politic by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In other words, I’m writing this in “dark times.” As a long-time volunteer teacher at a maximum-security prison in New York, I write with some understanding of the “dark places” we call our “correctional facilities.”
I feel a certain dissonance between the nightmare that is our criminal justice system and Kenyatta’s vision, formed in the dark coils of that gulag. Where dissembling in the name of survival is the norm, Kenyatta refuses to wear “the mask” crafted in the days of the old Jim Crow and memorialized in Lawrence Dunbar’s famous poem. Falling in line, or shuffling along with those who “shade our eyes” and feed the culture of “grins and lies,” is an option he forcefully rejects. Similarly, he pushes aside W.E.B. Du Bois’s “veil” and chooses to stride into the open country of his soul, free of the “double-consciousness” and the sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… the feeling of two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…”
At one level, I am disappointed that Kenyatta does not openly acknowledge in his work the excruciating weight of his life behind bars. Yet I am not able to take a definite stand regarding this apparent lacuna in his presentation of himself. Last week when I was back at the prison, I shared this ambivalence about Kenyatta’s work with the men in my class. As always, they were provocative and perceptive in their response. But what one of them said stands out for me as the answer that should still my questions, at least for the moment. He said, “You know, Nazareth, you get to a point… well, you get to the point you’re just too tired to go over the shit year after year. You get over it. You settle down to something. Maybe you’ll call it love. And that’s all that matters….”
Looking again at Kenyatta’s poetry, I am struck by these lines: “am i not also your Brother / am i not also your Sister / under the penumbra of an all-embracing Universal Love.” The solidarity within human community is one of its faces. A union with the reality of the spirit is another. It helps Kenyatta refuse to be reduced to a simple material existence, which runs the risk of being its own prison.
Reviewed by Ralph Nazareth, Ph.D.
Professor, English Department
Nassau Community College, New York