Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This (Nightboat, 2018)
Review by John Rufo
The pages of Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This come drenched. As one line relates, “[I] got soggy on my way here.” Saturated and sinking, yet also floating burning pyre, quicksand historicity moving with invoked place-names of Philadelphia, New York, Finland, the Bay Area, the American South, and endless shaking seas, Jasmine Gibson’s poems believe in and bleed an oozing viscosity that bends the categories “nature,” “the body,” and “politics,” pushing them into pressurized zones of distortion, blending to disappearance fictional borders. All of this work is done in order to more precisely hold false categories to account and under the piercing lights of sun and moon. The dense fracture at play in the lines doesn’t give the reader the sense of an incoming weather pattern; instead, right now, right here, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This centers the silty cyclone of street protest and riot, police violence (a redundancy), prison breaks, and, among all of that “governmentality,” the thickening thunderstorm of incantation attending to shifting emotions and actions between friends and lovers.
In its whirlpool of both cosmos and cyst, one could be tricked into thinking Don’t Let Them See Me Like This is a poetic of reckless abandon and pure bender off everything. But the anarchy is planned, even if each section break is a surprise. Gibson is a meticulous, matter-focused thinker and poet, one whose dialectics and critical signs admix historical materialisms, psychological scrutiny, poetics concerning the disruption of relation, and what Hortense Spillers has crucially theorized as “the flesh.” These are not sloganeering poems, but sloughing off dead skin poems for the weight of a burning world. There is placement and removal, birth and abortion, of all substance. Spinoza, despite his genderqueer propensities for immanence, couldn’t propel and shake like this. So if there is a genealogy to which the book belongs, maybe it’s that one for which Jasmine Gibson gathers her writing in the thoroughgoing, revolutionary Book of Revelations that could be called the Black Radical Women’s Circle, some of whom “live, love and die without names” as the book’s dedication recites.
In the epiphenomenon of this epigraph, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This surges forth a series of devotions for those who lived and died but were not consumed, a poetic earthquake ritual. Gibson writes: “Imagine all of the stories slaves would have written / If they didn’t die writing with their flesh.” This signification of the flesh marks that punctured reality which Hortense Spillers reveals: that the flesh belonging to the enslaved African and their descendants becomes something before “the body,” a mechanism for writing that tells, sings, and screams even when so many insist on the silence in the archives, the absence in the ledger, empty corridors or listless statistics. “Don’t Let Them See Me Like This” is a burning request that churns out of the waves for those who went overboard: like M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Gibson follows the lines already written with and by the flesh to come into something greater than any canonical story or odyssey. This might be called staying “up deep into the night,” a midnight song that demands intense excavation. What it is to look and to see, “not like this,” like them, but, maybe, instead, as “fleshy sea floors” and “the marshy, dewy feeling of freedom”? It’s something that has been revolt of the many, in all place-times, the nature of which is “holy work, and I find pilgrims everywhere I go.” The damp past condensates as the present, so that we might inhabit and learn from “the crochet text-flesh of our friends.”
If there is a romance in this, though, Gibson seems unconvinced. Heroes are not welcome here. If one of the longest poems is titled, “Love Life,” it’s only because the concepts of love and intimacy are maneuvered in all of their surrounding and cloudy hurts, aches, and geologic pains, pleasure and fighting in the same yard. Gibson writes of being the “Queen of Ache,” making a nomination towards the strange strains of coming together, where all becoming cannot be thought of without a kind of brutality. And the psychological and social cannot be thought and felt without the processes of ingesting. There is so much eating and drinking in these pages, like a blood feast on the molecular level that geysers and gestures into the city, into the desert, finally running forth into the sea, then back to the shore “like Heavy Metal.” See how Gibson calls us up into the context of flesh on the atomic level: “I want to merge, live inside, split into your cells / Until flesh itself is only thought of as contextual.” There’s even a narrative around the abortion of a tooth to make more of a gap, to fit as to burst, and then all together, as “all my friends’ teeth decided to commune with mine.” The cell and the gap of one’s body and one’s mouth converts and turns into the structural fact that “people have been dying on the cellular level” and cell blocks made by “progressives” believing deeply in the Prison Industrial Complex. These are some recordings of the violence and wetness cycling among and spider-webbed between persons, friends, and nation-states.
As Gibson might say, “it’s capital that sputters in our gestational tracts” and “viscus is the value begotten from labor.” Desire is drenched with political longing and political failure, “that can’t be seen because there’s a sea between.” Against the cruel evils of racial capitalism and those who shy away via thin critique loosely costumed, there’s a Marxist undertone that can’t be anything but Black tracing these histories, doubling down on an analytic of desire, hungry all over, eager for the mythic breakdown of the myth of the United States and Europe in order to enable a new geography with no walls. There’s no mistake in the shattering that happens under the wheels when “abolition is my chariot.” Entropic and complex, Gibson cares for the cutting song that “the ocean always knew.” What does the sea say? What might the mountains moan? Difficult but true, this tint and stained strain of interpersonal relations, that “poetry is very much like schizophrenia.” Psychologically dense because it’s fucking complicated.
At least there is music. This poetic protest follows from official party channels having failed again and again, with blood “the same color as MAC’s “Ruby Woo” and a soundtrack featuring Black Sabbath and Depeche Mode, among others. Jasmine Gibson’s reminder is a rejoinder to those who promote the political and utterly fail to consider the failure of companionship. It is a commemorative space for those “who would’ve been happy to just taste the sun once.” And it all sounds really good, play that fucking loud, again and again, because “you like the noise of me,” our sacred scarred shouted secret, the secretions of being seen and heard like that, a sensual world turned inside and out. This is the theory of how we scream.