The World That the Shooter Left Us
Four Way Books / 2022 / 120 pp / $16.95 paper.
Reviewed by Debra Kang Dean
Changing a Language to Write in This, Our Now
In a speech he delivered at Berkeley in 1979 addressing the pressing issues of his time, James Baldwin closed with a reminder of what’s at stake:
We have one thing to lose. And that’s our children. And we’ve never done that yet. After all, we haven’t done that yet. And there’s no reason for us to do it now. We hold the trump, I said, right? Patience. And shuffle the cards.
Reading Cyrus Cassells’s The World That the Shooter Left Us in these perilous times, I couldn’t help but notice how peopled the book is with children. When in “Requiem for Óscar and Valeria: The Crossing,” a poem about the Salvadoran baby girl who drowned with her father, “adamant to reach / The sanctum of Brownsville, Texas,” the speaker says, “Don’t turn away! We inherited / This sunup-to-sundown dirge, this disavowing, // Impossible border,” he is speaking specifically to those of us who call ourselves Americans. In the book, these words speak not only of the border left to us by European colonization’s division of the Americas, but also of the borders of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They have all resurfaced with a vengeance.
Children in the broadest sense fill the pages of this book: a son (Cassells’s Latino friend) whose lawyer father is shot and killed over a “contested parking spot” (“The World That the Shooter Left Us”) and Alejandro, the speaker of the poem’s “first novio,” an Argentinian who, during the Dirty War, “simply walked to a student demonstration . . . & never returned” (“Tango with a Ghost: III. The Vanishing and the Roaring”); vulnerable teenagers who are victimized sexually, one by a classmate (“Boys Don’t Do That to Other Boys”) and the other, a promising young singer in the foster-care system whose manager/guardian, the persona says, “groomed me / To service a gallery of older men” (“Trafficked Angel”); a third-grade boy molested by a babysitter (“Me Too, Me Too”), and, in the arms of Melania Trump, a baby orphaned by a mass shooting in El Paso (“Harum-Scarum Photo Op”); George Floyd who “Cried out for his mama” (“Dosage”) and a toddler, “speechless defendant,” in court (“ICEBOX: VI. A Toddler’s Day in Court”).
In The World That the Shooter Left Us, Cassells, as Baldwin phrased it in his speech, takes on the role of “disturber of the peace.” The title poem opens the book:
In this one, ladies and gentlemen,
Beware, be clear: the brown man,
The able lawyer, the paterfamilias,
Never makes it out of the poem alive:
These first four lines call into question the work of poetry; along with the cover art and Adrienne Rich’s “And Now,” which functions as a prefatory poem, the stage is set for what follows. On the book’s cover is Albert Bierstadt’s “Sierra Nevada”—frame, white border, and the painting itself rent. What remains of this landscape painting of the American West is, ironically, riddled with holes and faintly lit. Inside the covers of the book, Cassells draws on images from videos and photographs that for a time cycle into the news feed and are soon replaced by new ones, effectively stripping them of historical context. Alongside these images, Cassells draws from Picasso’s drawing “Caballo Corneado” and evokes Goya’s “Black Paintings” and the often-painted subject of Christ driving the moneylenders out of the temple.
“[D]on’t think I was trying to state a case / or construct a scenery: / I tried to listen to / the public voice of our time,” writes Rich in “And Now.” In this, our now of “truthiness” and the debasement of civil discourse, a “would-be saint” needs “a seamless heart / Like Mother Mary’s, // For the benighted seasons / When our hate-laden republic implodes . . .” (“Sin-eater, Beware”). James Baldwin had something to say about this, too. Conscious of his predicament, Baldwin began his Berkeley speech by noting his unease with the improvisatory method he would be using before going on to identify his subject:
What a writer is obliged at some point to realize is that he’s involved in a language
which he has to change. For a Black writer, especially in this country, to be born into
the English language is to realize that the assumptions of the language, the
assumptions on which the language operates, are his enemy.
Working in the lyric and dramatic modes, Cyrus Cassells draws upon the arsenal of tools at a poet’s disposal. The malleable but stable couplets do what couplets do in a ghazal: unify seeming disunities, though here of sections that address gun violence and race, sexual trauma, the bleak state of our politics, and xenophobia. The book is written entirely in couplets except for one prose poem that records the abuse of nameless children in detention centers (“ICEBOX: II. ‘Those Return to Senders’ Children”) because, as Carolyn Forché wrote in “The Colonel,” “There is no other way to say this.”
Cassells uses adjectives not only to shape the music of his lines, but also to echo the epithets of Homer: for example, “far-seeing sages” and “all-seeing masters” ("The
World . . ."). The preponderance of adjectives also allows Cassells to modulate emotions by suppressing them, as in “Ready! Aim! Fire!”:
Yes, in tabernacles
& doleful churches,
In wailing school parking lots, we cry
We can’t go on living like this
& then we go on living like this.
Deadfall, savage protocol
Splattered all over our classrooms.
As demonstrated by the way exclamation points are deployed in this poem’s title, Cassells uses punctuation to graft tones, one hard upon another, to create ironic distance and to reveal the inner condition or struggle of the person(a) speaking. By bringing dated language into the poems, Cassells turns them into pentimenti, as in “Quid Pro Quo (Two Baritones on a Phone)”:
Frankly, there’s zero need at all to include
Mealy-mouth underlings: meddling
“Congresspersons,” aggrieved ambassadors,
Or those cloak-&-dagger snitches
By repeating words, sometimes as heard rather than as seen, Cassells also creates webs of connection across poems in often paradoxical ways. One example is “bawl” (only one letter away from “brawl”) and its homophone “ball,” which seems a way of thinking through masculinity: “Our highest mission isn’t just to bawl / But to turn the soul-shaking planet // Of the desecrated parking lot . . . Into justice-cries and ballots” (“The World . . .); “I’m still proud of the moment // When I had the balls to call”; (“Boys Don’t . . .”) implicitly in “a vogue-ing mother / From the sassy & treacherous House of LaBeija” (“Senator, Where Is Your Voodoo Doll, Your Snare?”); “The weight of the word b-a-w-l” (“Harum-Scarum . . .”). Other examples are the “breakneck patrol car sirens” (“The World . . .”) and in “Here, Sir Fire!”: “My breakneck soul insisted // I could be masterless,” and “Lamp-black” in that same poem repeated in the fourth section of “Tango with a Ghost”: “A lampblack, tantalizing ghost.”
In the book, images of guns and bullets give way to swords, as in “The Mother Who Says Yes to the Sword,” a persona poem that alludes to the judgment of Solomon. Although the pen is not mightier than the gun—“The able lawyer, the paterfamilias, / Never makes it out of the poem alive”—the blade of language can yet be wielded as effectively as the jian (a double-edged taiji sword often referred to as the Gentleman’s Sword), which can merge with, yield to deflect or neutralize an opponent’s force, and patiently circle to disarm by slicing, or ride a curve into the tangent that is the line that can pierce vulnerable places, like the belly or the notch in the throat.
There’s a video of Joni Mitchell talking about the guitar she is holding, and in a closeup of her personalized instrument, you can see the eight trigrams both running down the fretboard and ringing the sound hole. From these eight trigrams come the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. At least twice in The World That the Shooter Left Us, Cassells alludes to her songs. The first instance is in “Is Not (Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow),” written in memory of Eric Garner; the poem ends defiantly, “Is not // Is not // Is not // Is not—.” The parenthetical in the title is the title of a Mitchell song in which “Anima rising” is used twice in the second verse. Conceptually, this is like the inflection point of the taiji diagram where the animus of yang turns into yin—it seems to me a governing metaphor for this book. An inflection point also occurs in “Martín Gethsemany, I See You”: “You know I dare not look away—” mirrors a line from Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin”: “You know they dare not look away.”
Etched on Mitchell’s guitar is also the hexagram for “The Wanderer,” fire on the mountain. If I had to pick a hexagram for The World That the Shooter Left Us, it would be “The Corners of the Mouth (Providing Nourishment),” thunder under the mountain. The hexagram depicts an open mouth. “Thus the superior man is careful of his words / And temperate in eating and drinking,” read lines from the image section for the hexagram; in other words, beware of what you say, of what you consume. And because in the taiji diagram, within the dark yin half there is also a little yang, a little light, Cassells ends the book with “Courage Song for Scott Warren,” “Bold anima, dissenting angel,” whose humanitarian work along our southern border serves as inspiration at “all our desperate crossings”—physical and spiritual, in word and in deed. In The World That the Shooter Left Us, Cyrus Cassells has found his way to change our language.
Totem: America, Debra Kang Dean’s third full-length collection of poetry, was shortlisted for the Indiana Authors Award in Poetry in 2020. In addition to her books of poetry, she has published two prize-winning chapbooks and with Russ Kesler, a chapbook of renku. Recent publications include a review of Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell and poems in They Rise Like a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets and The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit. She joined the poetry faculty at Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing in 2003.