reviewed by Steven Perez
My reading of Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies coincided with repeated listening to Kendrick Lamar’s two most recent albums (DAMN. and To Pimp a Butterfly) and Max Roach’s ever-powerful We Insist! Freedom Now Society. I mention these, not solely because of the book’s working through the black experience and what that means now, what it meant before, and what it continues to mean, but because these poems riff around and puncture like jazz and breakbeats. The book is reminiscent of when hip-hop producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier pulled genres together to make the 90’s the “golden-age of hip-hop.” Sometimes, these two genres—jazz and hip hop—are dichotomized as “high art” and “low art”. Buck Studies is another reminder of how these genres are rooted in African-American culture and were initially deemed low-brow.
The poetics of this book are experimental and radical, to say the least. Kearney manipulates text with a scalpel, creating a pendulum of language that oscillates throughout Buck Studies by way of code and folklore. The poems often act as a kind of fable travelogue, moving through Greek mythology, as from the “Labours of Herakles,” and the American folk tale / song, “Stagger Lee.” Within this poem sequence “Stagger Put Work In,” in the poem “Shot,” the aforementioned stories are spliced together by a scene from a recording studio with some heavy boom bap drums:
Artemis speak her burst hart back to quick, a soundboothed gangsta say that shit hot! run that shit back! So BOOM CLAP BOOM BOOM CLAP “shot that boy so bad… broke the bartender’s glass”:
Here Kearney weaves through idioms fervently, and it’s a moment that truly captures the way much of the rest of the book works. Buck Studies presents the folk alongside the institutionalized world of academia through tale and language that accumulates throughout the rest of the work.
In the poem, “Runaway Tongue,” the typography’s spastic (dis)organization embodies the ideas presented in what is and what makes ‘broken’ language. It’s a kaleidoscope framed by code-switching and englishes, pondering the question:
the canebrake’s english breaking brokered by the cane breaking open the broken’s brains?
The contention between the idea of certain englishes being broken and what it actually means for an english to be broken sits at the crux of this poem. We are constantly being drawn back into how systemic and institutional oppression, not only created these englishes, but perpetuates the systems of ‘brokenness.’
There’s a performativity being questioned in Buck Studies that really resonated through my time reading it. Kearney redefines his work as ‘performative typography,’ in an interview with PoetryLA. He states his understanding of something performative to be “taking its presence and marking that presence; not assuming or asserting that that presence is incidental, but that that presence is an active part of it.” In this interview, Kearney bluntly argues against the notions of post-race, -gender, etc. with the critical understanding of context’s place between and within identities and society. The example he brings up is how if he were on a stage and yelled it would be different than if say, a woman were to yell or an Asian man were to yell. It is here where the book’s sociopolitical potency thickens. Throughout Buck Studies, understandings of what is blackness lives in relation to a world still enveloped in prejudice and racism. While language and poetics underpin the power of this book, race powerfully drums throughout the pages.
Kearney has his reputation as a powerhouse of poems and performance, but the poignancy of “Niggas Be Watching the News in 2015, Y’all” is an almost obvious understatement. In a time when the news and social media has completely exhausted the minds of those who don’t wish to see mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters shot down, frisked, poisoned by lead, contemporaneously ever-present in media cycles, this poem is a reminder that those truly affected ain't sleeping on shit. This is the bedrock of the book. Kearney’s Buck Studies lives as a testament to the abrogation of fixed beliefs in unfounded binaries between identity and intellect, class, and politic. Even in one of the poem’s moments when Xanax is the saving grace of the anguished and exhausted, the closing line pillars the book’s ardency to not be forgotten: “2015? all over our eyes, shoeprints stay, y’all.”
With Buck Studies, Kearney has etched further into the wet stone that is a time when artists are relentless in reproaching a world unwieldy to progress and change.