Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley
by Donald Vincent
ISBN 978-1-937968-65-6, 81pp, 2020
The cover of Convenient Amnesia, Donald Vincent’s debut poetry collection, pulls no punches, uncovering/revealing America’s complicit amnesia regarding racial injustice. The graphic cover suggests a black family climbing a rope above a noose with fire below and a lit match above. Many of Vincent’s poems, particularly those in the first section, refer to transgressions perpetrated toward Blacks across America, albeit in poems crafted with many of the deft rhythms and rhymes of rap that entice the reader even as story clutches the gut.
Vincent is a recording artist known as Mr. Hip who teaches English Composition at UCLA and Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College in Los Angeles where he received his MFA in Poetry.
The three sections of this collection vary in style but many deal with the experience of being a young Black adult starting out in the world. The book title and first epigraph come from “Can I Live” by rapper Jay-Z: “Forgetting all I ever knew, convenient amnesia. I suggest you / call my lawyer, I know the procedures.” The poems in this first section are highly acoustic. Rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and repetition augment and accentuate meaning.
There’s social commentary regarding inequities within the legal system in “Hard Times” because “Still chained, shackled by handcuffs, / we are guilty until proven innocent.” However, the same poem pays homage to the herculean efforts of an ill Michael Jordan playing superb basketball in the ’97 NBA finals. An elder’s pride is celebrated in “47 Percent Plus My Grandma” as she witnesses the election of a Black President.” The pain of a history of continuing violations resound in “Black Ink” where the speaker says, “I feel like Emmett Till” as well as “Still – I rise stripped of my pride. / Even Affirmative Actions couldn’t / bleach Michael Jackson’s insides.” The poem ends with another grief:
Black boy marries black girl
giving birth to a small, black imprint
forced into a blank,
Many of Vincent’s poems allude to American social history from Jim Crow days until the present. References to President Obama stand out as a pride of time. Vincent’s titles and content enable readers to research and review events or characters referenced in the poems. The poem “District of Columbia v. Heller” alludes to racial discord embedded behind this Second Amendment court case. Embedding history in poetry couples history and culture in ways that dry nonfiction cannot. To read “deconstructing and upholstering / edgar allen poe and his baby-baby cousin / jimmy crow post-reconstruction” jolts the reader with quick connected associations.
No doubt if Mr. Hip were to present the poem he would be engaging listeners acoustically to absorb the message sensorially and emotionally as well as intellectually and lyrically. To read “run joe, run joe, the policeman / is at the door. and he won’t let you /go” evokes the taunting chant in the story of “The Gingerbread Boy.” The poem ends with a fitting terse rhythm:
let the record flow
let the record show
for the record
and on record
Vincent’s poems arrive in time to engage and amplify current discourse. The July 2020 book release comes as scores of protestors continue to rally against systemic racism perpetrated toward people in the Black community, particularly the May 25th murder of George Floyd by police. Vincent’s poems serve to recall and amplify social history. Lines from the poem, “1968 Riots: Washington, DC,” may temper the hopeful because “the crusades of hate keep winning.” These poems arrive when the recurring pain of facing suspicion and derision can no longer be denied or forgotten or ignored.
Vincent’s very first piece in the book, “Lucky Charm,” signaled that his work would be honest and challenging, “I inherited the bop in my walk from my great, / great grandpa’s lashings on the farm. So in Whole Foods / I divide aisles, a modern Moses parting white seas.” Later in the poem:
Others clear throats on elevators, then
are you an entertainer questions swarm
while quickly clutching their pocketbooks. I smile
when they look and give-them-a -buck-for-the-hell-of-it-
Vincent flips reader expectation in section two with a seeming shift in tone and style away from prior societal racial concerns to current and personal concerns. Here are longer lines in poems of a young man approaching romantic relationships and employment. Half of the free verse poems utilize subtle sonic rhyme.
The section begins with “In It,” a poem about relationship, about youthful sexual attraction and anticipation, as “I take a quick glance of you, again, only / to find a home in your eyes.” The next poem, “Convenient Amnesia,” veers to descriptors of a doomed marriage as “Crippled / by the thought of losing love, / she forces fingernails into his biceps.” Lives are linked in love and pain. The poem “In Dispraise of Lies” is a strong short poem of observation, “The problem is that we’re commas / in the wrong place, waiting // for the truth to run on.”
One telling poem comes from the point of view of a young graduate in “Dream Job Cover Letter.” Clever, ironic, acoustic and hopeful, the job seeker speaks, “I’ve labored for free so you can afford me,” soon followed by “not that I overachieve, you under expect.” Vincent uses stop consonants, end rhymes, and sentence syntax to carry the lines toward meaning:
If given the word and power pointed in the right direction,
I’m an expert with organizational skills, which I excel in.
Interested in using my talents for marketing your public
image. In church, I once made God look like a gimmick.
So many poems stand out in this collection! One is a pithy poem of social observation, “Economic Privilege.” Short lines ending on unstressed words move the poem forward to pack a punch in the second stanza:
I know someone who
Knew of no one. Had no
Money to pay anyone
Lied to someone
Telling that one person they
Lived somewhere else so a
Black child could get a
Vincent’s strong poems of social injustice and frustrations challenge the reader, as in “Cultural Co-opting.” The speaker asserts “I am black–living & losing / myself looking for acceptance.” The poem ends asserting that the speaker is “black, not because of my skin, / but because I embody struggle /defying expectation every day.”
Among several lighter poems comes the hopeful stance of a young man, as the second section ends with a short poem, “May Flowers.” The poet incorporates similes to create a poem that melds nature and young love:
tender as morning glory petals
cupping a bumblebee’s proboscis
wiggling in the wind’s breeze
taunting me with their laughter.
All we can do is hang in air, holding
onto the memories that are dreams.
Vincent uses the third and final section as a poet’s atelier. The topics remain similar, but he pays homage to admired poets by deftly riffing on their poems. “The Avocado Eaters” is an improvisation on Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters.” The poem snarkily refers to millennials who are “Mostly Woke” and keep thinking “privileged, white thoughts / And gentrifying the neighborhood.” Titles allow the reader to search for and usually discover the original poems for comparison and enjoyment, such as poems by e. e. cummings and Maya Angelou. The poet acknowledges prior teachers at Emerson via a sestina and triolets.
Near the end of the book, Vincent presents a five-page collage prose poem in short paragraphs full of observation and dialog, “#Oxymoron Famous Poet after Frank Bidart and James Franco.” The piece immerses the reader in what seems to be the end of a poetry reading that can be viewed on YouTube. Online sources note Vincent’s background as a connoisseur of modern media, music and literature, similar to how one might describe Franco and Bidart. Perhaps referring to the celebrities as well as to the poet himself, “Take me, even the fake me. Our written words become us, our memories.”
This collection by Donald Vincent deserves to be read not just for his lyrical lines but because his poems bring emotional life to a cultural crisis. Books of poetry like Vincent’s convey social and personal histories that affirm and remind, that interrupt tendencies of convenient amnesia.
About the reviewer: Mary Ellen Talley’s reviews have been published in Colorado Review, Sugar House Review, Entropy, Crab Creek Review, and Compulsive Reader. Her poems have been widely published in journals such as Raven Chronicles, Gyroscope and Ekphrastic Review as well as in several anthologies. A chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press in October 2020.