Rickey Laurentiis

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015

Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn is, among other things, a master class in ekphrasis. The subjects upon which Laurentiis fixes his gaze include the “negro boy” in David Bailly’s seventeenth-century painting Vanitas with Negro Boy; hanged Black bodies in lynching photography; a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe; his own reflection.

In “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men,” the most vivid poem in the collection, Laurentiis describes two men “hoisted hung up” “spine to spine somehow,” “from the mood of a tree,” “for the sin their touching incites.” A note at the end of the book gives international anti-gay legislation as the occasion for the poem, but the breathless syntax creates an immediacy that transcends that complex backstory. Laurentiis eschews narrative and hacks at the lyric form, carving sharp turns with line breaks, while running other lines together to create a sense of guilty, compulsive looking:

Their black skin tipped blacker by this American
Feeding but just one shot up

A cry African it was

American Oh Lord abide with me
It was human lusty flat

When Laurentiis has a picture before him, he names the picture’s color by searching the unconscious of the culture that produced it. In O’Keeffe’s Black Iris III, he sees

Dark, imposing flesh. Darker still,
its center, like the tongue of
a cow that has for a week now been
dead, spent during calf birth, and the calf
still clinging to her, and his own tongue
wild for want of milk, and the calf
with flies in his eyes—that color: near-to-
purple, bruised.

A whole world is born and dies in a color, a picture, a poem—his gaze is totalizing, and so are his descriptions.

Laurentiis is keen on the masters, and engages them as equals. He revisits and revises Wallace Stevens (“Of the Leaves that Have Fallen” takes Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” for its dedication) in a poem on lynching, and remixes Elizabeth Bishop in the same poem (“So the boy’s penis unlocks like a votive door in which leaves / Fly out, falling, and, historical, also having fallen”) in a brutal recasting of Bishop’s “At the Fish Houses.” Laurentiis is not fearless, but utterly precise in his fearfulness; he renders the present with the same studied scrutiny most historians and poets reserve for the past.