Keeping it Unreal


In 1994, Susan Smith aroused white America’s deepest collective fears when she insisted that an African American male had carjacked her Mazda with her two sons inside. Nine days later, while being interrogated, she confessed to infanticide and directed police to the lake where she’d dumped their bodies. In the meantime, however, her South Carolina hamlet demonized countless black men, which speaks volumes about the knee-jerk racial assumptions that continue to hold America hostage.

In the first section of his latest book, Brutal Imagination, poet Cornelius Eady chronicles this “demonization” by giving breath and flesh to Smith’s incorporeal factoid. Using reportage and ironic splashes, these poems are written from the point of view of Smith’s nonexistent African American villain, and take the reader on a piquant journey through this small-town Medea’s incongruous inner world. Following popular song form, Eady divides the Smith cycle into four parts, with two verse-chorus sections, a modulating bridge (where the point of view shifts to avuncular African American icons like Uncle Tom), and a coda, titled “Birthing.” Throughout, Eady’s discriminating command of simile and understatement simultaneously circumscribes and invigorates tropes like “the lake has no appetite/but it takes the car slowly, swallow by swallow, like a snake.”

Brutal Imagination‘s second segment, “The Running Man Poems,” finds Eady’s tone shifting into a lithe, bluesy lyricism. Unlike the prior section, this cycle chronicles the promise and demise of a real African American, whose life devolves into a perfect composite of Smith’s black bogeyman. Running Man, the protagonist, is by turns a comely, ribald sociopath and an intellectual manqué—”when he left . . . birds and trees lost their Latin names.” Regrettably, he uses his gifts for drug trafficking, murder, and beguiling the unsuspecting. Most of this section is told from the point of view of family members, who have contrasting perceptions of who Running Man really is.

Eady’s archetypal black males hail from the South. Both inhabit “whistle-stops” where truths are misconstrued and diluted. In both cycles, Eady employs contrapuntal viewpoints: Smith timidly confesses while her factoid awaits psychological manumission; the community derides Running Man while his momma extols her demon seed. Ultimately, Eady’s latest opus nimbly illumines how individuals can piddle away precious time searching for things that just ain’t there.