review by Livia Meneghin
Resistance, Rhyme, and Reality: A Review of Jabari Asim’s Stop and Frisk: American Poems
As I sat with Stop and Frisk: American Poems, America experienced an uprising. A testimony, the collection rapped and grooved into my ear amidst a raw, new nationwide witness of violence against Black bodies. Written in seven sections, Asim’s poems respond to and document a musically informed, trauma-informed, reality. The book’s cover, an eye-catching yellow, demands to take center stage, to burst into blazing outcry and song. Hearing him read aloud, too, at a virtual event with Porter Square Books, was an electric experience—a synergy of the traditions of written and spoken word.
Jabari Asim is an award-winning author of countless books across nonfiction, fiction, and poetry for both adults and children. Born and raised in St. Louis, he is also a cultural critic and educator, now serving as Graduate Program Director for the MFA Program at Emerson College where I am fortunate to be in conversation with him and write my own poetry. His writing works to answer urgent questions on race and American society, bringing our attention as students and readers to incidents right at our doorstep, forcing us to confront them head on. Written before the national outcry and mourning of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Stop and Frisk is still terribly relevant, noting one of the hallmark legislations meant to persecute Black people for the past 400 years of this country’s history. It’s pertinent to recognize this collection by its subtitle: American Poems. Like Tayari Jones’ novel, An American Marriage, this text is completely and utterly of this country—ours to read, hold, and share.
Asim writes alongside other Black American writers, as well as in direct response to life as an African-American man. In 2014, he told Emerson College, “By the time of Mike Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer, I had already begun scribbling lines and addressing the idea of ‘The Talk’ that many African American parents give to their sons when they reach adolescence…I consider the poem in the tradition of Langston Hughes’s ‘Mother to Son,’ and Dudley Randall’s ‘Ballad of Birmingham.’” The poem’s second stanza reads:
When to concede and when to risk,
how to handle stop and frisk:
Keep your hands where they can see
and don’t reach for your ID
until they request it quite clearly.
The rhyme and sounds of this poem immerse readers in an oral and musical tradition beyond our current atmosphere. And in these lines in particular, Asim continues the i: end-rhyme beyond one couplet, a pattern established in the shorter first stanza, into three lines (“see,” “ID,” and “clearly). There’s both a pull into the past as well as the future. The conversation around stop and frisk, the Terry stop, and racial profiling is a constant for BIPOC Americans, even though these terms trace only back to 1968 (the Terry stop). Asim also masterfully uses the second person in this poem, instructing the reader on how to stay safe, even if she has never been faced with this fear in her own life, like myself. Claudia Rankine does this too in “Citizen: An American Lyric,” placing non-Black Americans in the seat their fellow citizens have been chained to for far too long, simply because of the color of their skin.
In addition to having a musical quality, Stop and Frisk often takes on persona itself, giving the lines to individuated voices: Black men and Black women. “Wild Things,” the last poem in Section 3, is the only prose block poem of the collection. The black opposite page in the spread, signaling Section 4, forces us to confront this square of text, one that is saturated with the panic and horror of Denise Stewart, who was assaulted by the NYPD in her home, wearing only a towel. “Wild Things,” as all of the poems in this collection do, speak directly to the connected realities of today’s Black Americans, and those of the past. The poem starts:
Two minutes half-naked in the company of at least a dozen men with guns does things to your mind each minute becomes a thousand
years you think of headlines and history your great-grandmother
raped by white men with guns on the dirt floor of a barn what she
remembered most were those who stood and watched, doing nothing
We are in media res, immediately thrown into the situation, in a similar manner she was by the cops. And even with the terror, the speaker, Denise, can’t help but acknowledge the lineage of violent systems, particularly police systems, against Black individuals. The poem ends with an eerie refrain, “good men stood all around all around the good men stood all around,” addressing the indirect destruction by inactive witnesses, passersby. This message lingers over the shine of the dark Section 4 title page, where I could almost see my own reflection. I’m compelled to ask myself: Where am I standing, in history? Am I anti-racist? Am I doing enough?
The ties between the spoken word and the written word are further explored in “Because I’m Happy,” a poem directly referencing recording artist and creative, Pharrell, and his song, “Happy.” Asim levels up the original lyrics, speaking to “the new black” that is choosing a new mindset, drawing a line in the sand at going through life with a mentality of misery. The speaker even notes, “It may sound crazy what I’m about to say:/ I’m tired of it; it stops today.” Both Black Joy and Black Power fill these lines, creating a texture to Stop and Frisk that might come unexpected. But what is reality but nuanced, full of layers? Robert Pinsky calls this collection “in a very good sense of the word, documentary.” The Black experience is not two-dimensional, not for the collective nor the individual.
In a virtual Q&A at Emerson College that I attended, Jericho Brown answered a young Black woman, a poet, who asked [paraphrased]: Should we write Black joy, or should we focus on the trauma, make our pain known? Brown replied [paraphrased] that everything you know sits just above your brow, hovering, waiting. When something falls to your page, you write it. If Black joy falls into one line of a poem, Black pain almost always falls into the next. It’s not about shutting out either, but writing a living thing, which always includes both. In this way, Stop and Frisk: American Poems not only speaks to Asim’s tremendous breadth as thinker and social justice advocate, but also to the complex, multi-faceted, and 100% true Black American experience.
The penultimate poem of the collection, “Walking While Black,” is more abstract and slim than most within these pages, and yet hits hard in its repetition and crumbling. Each stanza breaks down into its core. The story belongs to Michael Brown, to whom the poem is dedicated, but also to Asim himself, the reader, and all Americans. These words, narrative, and lives need to be spoken. The names of those murdered and harmed by police and other Patriarchal, racist systems in America need to be known. “Furtive Movements” is beautiful tribute, listing only these names. Within the lines, indicated by capital letters, lies a code: FUCK THE POLICE. Let it be known. Through poetry and inspired action, let these voices be lived.
Bio: Livia Meneghin is a writing instructor and MFA candidate at Emerson College. She is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair. Her individual poems and reviews have found homes with The Academy of American Poets, Entropy Magazine, tenderness lit, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere.