Review by Truth Thomas
Editor, The Skinny Poetry Journal
July 6, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. EDT
Tony Medina does with apparent ease what most people cannot do at all—prolifically composing fresh, compelling work, both in Spanish and in English. In Death, With Occasional Smiling, his latest collection, he offers readers a moving view of what critical race theory would look like if it took the form of poetry. I make this point, because critical race theory is essentially a documentation of the blues—the social blues of racism that permeates every aspect of American culture. Certainly, the horror of racism, playing out in the lives of Black and Brown people in the United States, is unfettered in its historical and ongoing brutality. Though some folks choose not to see it, Tony Medina is not one of those people. Particularly, in terms of chronicling modern day lynchings, the poems in this volume hit like Mike Tyson in 1985.
“Father, Son Arrested in the Death of…” is a piece that fills the early pages of his full-bodied book with a genealogy of race-based terrorism. The poem references Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia, though not by name, it speaks to the names of all the murdered—and martyred, so tragically. For those who may not be familiar with the family tree, which embodies, and emboldens, such evil, this poem is a history lesson, that begins with these words:
Racism is an heirloom passed down through
Generations like a retrovirus
A rifle handed from father to son
Aiming to please some deep-seated heated
Urge to violate rape maim hurt some thing
Like James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and a multitude of great writers before him, Medina makes it plain that Black life in America is an abnormal normality, a halfway freedom riding, a daily kind of death (although we sometimes laugh to keep our sanity from snapping). Also, much like those notable figures, it’s clear that his work springs forth from a decidedly beautiful mind. In a myriad of forms (eintou, diptychs, triptychs, odes, and elegies) he paints strikingly vivid pictures that are gut wrenching, of worlds he has come to know. These poems are richly informed by the Black Arts Movement and Nuyorican poets—of which, he is a beacon. This is especially true in his politically themed verses. In “After Pelosi’s Dropkick,” his humor and social commentary are protest marches in a pen:
After Pelosi got through with Trump all he could do was spit out
some teeth, look
cockeyed and confused, swat aimlessly at stars, and mumble,
Trump folded like Mumbo Sauce on greasy-ass fries.
Covfefe is Russian for “To Cave.”
Covfefe is Russian for Rosebud.
COVFEFE is Trump’s anti-LGTBQ policy known as Don’t Ask
Pelosi laced up her Timbs and STOMPED Trump’s off-white ass
into the White House lawn
until a wall formed around his toupee.
TRUMP CONSIDERS US THE ENEMY.
WE CONSIDER HIM THE ENEMA…
There is tremendous range and a theatrical quality in the breadth of Tony Medina’s poetry. This book, that captures many sobering snapshots of early twenty-first century Black life, is no exception. With that in mind, if Broadway ever launches a production based on his catalog of work, it would be wise to fend for a front row seat. However, until that good show opens, Death, With Occasional Smiling, now lighting up the literary stage at Indolent Books, should more than tide over any thoughtful soul in search of a stunning, transformational, artistic experience.
Death, With Occasional Smiling
by Tony Medina
Indolent Books, paper, 132 pp. $20.00
Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Washington, D.C. He studied creative writing at Howard University and earned his MFA in poetry at New England College. His collections include Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life, and Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. His poems have appeared in over 150 publications, including: Poetry Magazine, Ghost Fishing: An Eco-justice Poetry Anthology, Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (A Cave Canem Anthology), and The 100 Best African American Poems (edited by Nikki Giovanni). He is the founder of Cherry Castle Publishing, creator of the “Skinny” poetry form, a former writer-in-residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), and the managing editor of The Skinny Poetry Journal.