In This Glittering Republic, Seattle poet Quenton Baker shows his work.
The first section begins with a quote from legendary poet and music historian A. B. Spellman, and the second section begins with a stanza from the woefully under-acclaimed poet Elouise Loftin. Shout-outs and dedications to contemporary masters such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Aimé Césaire, Anne Carson, Harryette Mullen, and Fred Moten are tucked under titles. Tim Seibles and local poet/artist Anastacia Renee provide the blurbs on the back.
Readers who didn't spend four years in poetry school might more readily recognize Baker's references to Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Whitney Houston, Method Man, and Thom Yorke, which he threads into the poems themselves.
I knew all those names before I read this book, and I treasured the scholarly pleasures of linking Baker's literary moves and ideas to those of his elders. But I didn't know the names of Mary Turner, Damian Turner, Sarah Baartman, George Stinney Jr., Thomas Shipp, or Abram Smith, who showed up as titles themselves or in the dedications.
The fact that I had to run to Wikipedia to learn that Mary Turner was lynched by a mob for speaking up about the lynching of her husband, and that George Stinney Jr. was a 14-year-old who was wrongly executed for the murder of two white girls, and that Damian Turner was shot a block from a hospital but died in another one nine miles away, and that a mob grabbed Smith and Shipp from a jail cell so that they could beat them and lynch them speaks to part of the work Baker's doing in this book.
In the first section of Republic, alternating contemporary and historical examples, Baker describes an unbroken chain of state and vigilante violence. His terse, powerful lyrics argue that white people mobbing and mauling black people is and has been prime-time entertainment in America, not some private shame, for a long time. The lynchings in the public square are the shootings on the nightly news.
Baker situates himself, Baldwin-like, within the lineage of this history.
In the poem "Museum of Man," he communes with Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century woman displayed as Hottentot Venus: "I am your big-dicked son, / your big-assed daughter: / public pool body, / playground, / metro transit body."
Throughout the poem he reveals the false narratives that attend her life and presents the lessons he's learned from her, as well as the ones he still needs to learn. At the end he asks Baartman, "May I sit with you? // Will you tell me about your river, / your love, // the small ways we say no?"
He returns innocence and power to George Stinney Jr. in the incredible poem "Drip," which brings to the surface the rapacious nature of the crowd who lynched Shipp and Smith. In these poems, Baker's correcting the record. In "Self-Portrait," you'll find his thesis: "Whisper or wail, I work / even the tiniest vibration against this // dynastic rule for / one reason: / no one gets / tired of forgetting. So I / heave what's left / against / violence, / erasure."
In general the poems are formally ambitious but never obscure, equally available to longtime poets and people who "don't get poetry." And nobody can deny Baker's musical chops. Some poems recall the thick sonic patterns of a high modernist such as Melvin Tolson. Some poems, like "Transient," employ triple rhythms that evoke hiphop:
"we built us / we bang drums / we sing loud / we're break beats / we're hands up! / the whole crowd / is white-faced / but who cares / you paid ten."
Some poems skip and skitter like jazz.
“he was shotshe was shot heshe was shot was shotwashot.”
All drive straight down the page, eager to flip the next one.
If every poet waited to publish their first book of poems until it was as good as Republic, the literary world would be a much better place.
Born and raised in North Beacon Hill, Baker says he spent his younger years playing basketball. He didn't really get into writing until he started undergraduate studies at Seattle University. From ages 18 to 24 he rapped with the group Grey Matters under the stage name Intro.
"Short for 'Introspective'—terrible name. I was very earnest," he says. The University of Southern Maine graduated him with an MFA, and since his return to this coast he's been awarded a fellowship at the Hugo House and a 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award, which gives him $15,000 toward the production of a new book of poems tentatively titled Ballast, which I'm very much looking forward to.
And I'm not alone. For his launch party at the Hugo House on December 9, Baker packed the room and sold all his books. Elliott Bay Books and Open Books are sold out, too, but you can still find copies at University Book Store. They fit snug in a stocking.