“Disappeared, Disregarded, Dead”
Poet Richard Hamilton’s collection, Rest of US, is a passionate and intense debut. Identifying as “Black, disabled, Southern, and queer,” Hamilton writes from the intersection of these marginalized spaces, giving voice, as he writes in the dedication, to the “disappeared or disregarded, or / dead.” The poems take as their subjects presidents, prisoners, athletes, enslaved people, poor people, homeless people, queer people, and the disabled. They document remembered and recreated experiences of exclusion and exploitation. They pulse with anger, aggression, and sometimes hate, yet they seem spawned from the lifelong sadness of not fitting in.
Hamilton’s not working things out here. He’s bringing ideas to the page. These poems convey intention. They’ve been engineered to do something. Hamilton, according to the artist’s statement that precedes the collection, sees his work “in conversation with the form, shape, and sound of slave narratives and art praxis of Black writers at the turn of the 18th century to the present.” He writes about the Haitian Revolution, the Enslaved Peoples’ Uprising of 1811, the Ferguson Riots. This is not a cool critique of structural racism. This is a hot-blooded, no-holds-barred, let-it-all-out tirade by someone who’s had it. “Not one more / penniless note / on empathy,” he warns in “White Narratives.” He’s smashing America’s ugly history right back in its face.
Respect, abandonment, neglect, dependency, poverty, bureaucracy, racism—Hamilton explores these topics in most of his poems. But the effect it has in the ones that spotlight women as their central characters is different and more quietly powerful.
One of his struggles, Hamilton explains, is “how to write about and embrace the ugly, cast-out, elided, dispossessed, and misshapen parts of queer culture.” It’s almost like he’s saying, Wait a minute. This is my community, too. Don’t tell me what it’s supposed to be like. This is what
it is like—for me. In “They Pride,” the speaker, in a wheelchair, roils between feelings of desire and discomfort, putting himself out there for the first time only to be “thrown against / the sharp white background.” He’s told it’s a “safe / space,” yet there are gatekeepers for who’s allowed in and who’s kept out: “tell me what level / of death / or disability / you choose / to accept / at PRIDE.”
Two of the poems in Rest of US are written in response to collages Hamilton has admired (reproduced here), and many of them are almost collages themselves, composed as they are of lines from To Kill a Mockingbird; variations from Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Sleepwalking Ballad;” and a reimagined scene from Richard Wright’s Native Son, among others.
For all of Hamilton’s fiery intensity, it’s the less didactic poems that moved me the most: “Organize” (dedicated to his Grandma Margarie) and “Marva with the Good Credit / Martha with the Bad,” about the imagined ways a woman’s identity changes depending on the way she’s perceived (or she perceives herself) in what are implied to be public (white) and private (Black) spaces.
Respect, abandonment, neglect, dependency, poverty, bureaucracy, racism—Hamilton explores these topics in most of his poems. But the effect it has in the ones that spotlight women as their central characters is different and more quietly powerful; the subjects modeled, perhaps, on the kinds of strong women who raised him. What surfaces in these poems, more than anywhere else in the collection, is the life-affirming feeling of love.