NEA Literature Fellowships

Joshua Bennett

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(2017 - Poetry)

"Preface to a Twenty-Volume Regiscide Note"

              after Krista Franklin after Amiri Baraka

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
each newly dead face flashes like a crushed fire

-work across the screen. The red mass
of each name. How each name settles,

a fistful of ash at the back of the throat.
I don’t hope for ceasefire much, if you

must know. I don’t pray for rain.
On a good day, I honor the war

by calling it war. I sing
along with the hook. I sing

every nigga is a star & don’t mean dead

things shine too. For shame,
my six year-old nephew dreams

of a life indebted to invention,
his first prototype a blade

-thin suit to help the human body move
faster. For a muse, he claims nothing

more than the implicit sweetness of speed,
but I know his best heart, how he longs

for cousins to grow gray as an alloy alongside.
I think him a prophet. I think of the fire.

I think of the drones with pictures of first wives
in their wallets, their bad teeth, middle names,

401ks for when all of the blood dries. I think
of the badge & see children running,

children laughing, children cradled
in smoke all at the exact same time.

On a good day, I think die die die and don’t know where to aim

the hex, who to hunt down or cut
a deal with, some armistice

without end, a certain commitment
to infinitude built right into the fine

print, in an unexpected turn.
I don’t want any more words

that heal. I want a language for being
born underground, gravestone quarried

the moment you arrive. I want explosions
or else a fresh cosmos. I want the fang

-white king splayed
against a throne of bones

I see in all my new dreams
gone. Spare me any coalition

that does not require blood.
Give me time to think & a hope

-less cause. Give me lethal
equipment. Give me the names

of the slain. Say each name
like benediction. Ask

who will claim this flesh? Expect the quiet.
Expect the flood.

Dr. Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016). He holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, and an MA in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick, where he was a Marshall Scholar. In 2010, Dr. Bennett delivered the Commencement Address at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with the distinctions of Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, Dr. Bennett has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Cave Canem, and the Ford Foundation. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The New York Times, Poetry, and elsewhere. He is currently a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.

Photo by Rog Walker

Author's Statement

My foremost commitment as a writer and theorist is to linger with the unthinkable, to study that which has historically been considered unworthy of lyric, or any form of sustained philosophical attention. Thus, I have decided in much of my work to cast my lot with corpses and former property, to write of the flesh over and against the body, to think not only about what is lost when one is marked as a nonentity or nonperson, but about what such a designation makes possible in the way of literary imagination. How do the descendants of living commodities render their relationship to the nonliving? How do human beings once considered property imagine a more capacious, liberating vision of personhood? The history of black poetics is, in one sense, the history of a people refusing dominant categories; a collective assertion of complexity over & against a social order that calls their beauty nothingness, their living a kind of death. Writing as I am from the midst of such a tradition, one built and sustained by those who—according to Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, and others—possessed nothing resembling an interior life, I think of the practice of making poems as both an inheritance and an intervention into the historical record. This grant from the NEA is going to help provide the time and space needed for me to undertake archival research that will greatly contribute to the development of this broader intellectual project. What’s more, it is a welcome affirmation of work that emerges from an abiding love for the unsung saints that raised me, all the people and places that held me close and kept me here: unfinished, imperfect, and yet alive.