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Len Lawson is author of Chime (Get Fresh Books, 2019) and co-editor of The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair Press, 2021). He received a 2022 Fresh Voices in the Humanities Governor’s Award from South Carolina Humanities. Len has earned fellowships from Tin House, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Callaloo, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts among others. His poetry appears in African American Review, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, Verse Daily, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. A South Carolina native, Len earned a PhD in English Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Negro Asylum for the Lunatic Insane enters the maelstrom of institutionalized racism and cruelty to aim an unflinching gaze at the violence, neglect, and delusions borne of Southern race ritual. These poems wield knives against slavery’s tumultuous afterlife, cutting us free, guiding us through thickets of scar tissue and nightmare till we glean the brutal clarity of American sin and bear witness to the wondrous power of Len Lawson’s artistic and historical imagination. ~Herman Beavers
Len Lawson is, above all, a talented lyricist whose candid chronicles of working in the field of mental illness—the patients’ trauma caused largely by the institutions supposed to treat and protect them—provides an insight into a realm plagued by racism and abuse, one often ignored and silenced by the world at the large. We come to learn of Lawson’s speaker’s interactions with Brock Bridges who “loved butterflies” and often too tried to escape the establishment, “thinking like the statue/chewing petals off that flower.” Though the speaker tries to keep a line between him and his patients, dealing with his own issues concerning his own happiness and the weight of family memory and present circumstances, all their lives are intertwined even in times of doubt: “I didn’t trust those butterflies like Brock did…Matter of fact I hate butterflies//They give people false hope//Everything can’t have wings/Everybody wasn’t made to fly//Ask all them Africans that didn’t/grow wings still on the plantation.” Lawson explores the larger implications of historical violence and survival, never flinching away (” If you show me this box/hovering up and down/heaven and earth,/I will show you/a casket/lowered into/a world’s eye”) through a variety of many (often experimental) free verse possibilities, and I too can be candid, this is one of the best collections of poetry I’ve ever read. Get it now. Lawson is going places. ~Rose Ben-Oni
Lawson’s Negro Asylum for the Lunatic Insane constructs a fictional institution based on actual 20th century mental asylums for Black people. This haunting, stark series of vignettes of people who occupy such spaces traverse through surprising and dangerous spaces in the mind. History starts surrounding us as an eerie specter seeping into the present, where mental health is now a demand as part of freedom in America. ~Tara Betts, author of Refuse to Disappear
A small-town circus,
frequenting the Piggly
Wiggly, gangly tornado
twisting, touching down
in the parking lot
pointing and shouting
at those braving the storm.
Black folk knew him.
Harmless as cotton.
White ladies clutched
or reversed in their cars.
Sometimes police came
but he entertained the law,
half dozen squad cars,
uniforms laughing in a circle
holding each other up.
Who you cursin’ out today, huh? Brock, go easy on ‘em, boy!
He attracted the law but tamed it.
Cuffed them with his odor.
Store manager wasn’t arrested by
the picket fence teeth and black gums.
That old dog became an honorary bagger.
When he opened his ashy palms—
fingers out like a weathervane—
they tipped him a dollar.
He would gallop home
with a wad of smelly bills.
One day a white lady found him
pissing outside the store,
came close behind, cursed him to leave.
He swung around startled, sprayed her face.
Calhoun became his home then.
Tornado kept twisting,
blistering cloud they called touched
but one they never would.
Psychology of Black Folk
Called us four-legged beasts
wearing shackles as accessories
when we really have wings
created for flits among petals
to leaps over treetops
voices for calling tribes to war
for summoning the dead in us
Not for lowing and moaning
eating what our feet trample
chewing our cud until slaughter
We form ranks to carve
our names in the skies
march the air until we inhabit
the gods we gave life
The Backway Home
Roads always intersect in Southern towns.
Highways of dusty clay fogged my mind
Passing where bullfrogs gallop over ponds
My croaking heart beating in my ears
Where leaves champagne the clouded path
A red carpet into nature’s wounds.
But damn if my mind didn’t go from
One tunnel of barbed wire to another
Back to gun blasts and the funk of napalm
To grown men begging me not to let them die
To the iron rind of blood on the tongue.
I wasn’t off work when I left work
Just careened through levels of hell
Outside my mind and inside my chest.
I tried to get lost on the dirt roads.
But how could I, knowing the time clock
Would be calling me back to the grind
Knowing the bombs would be going off
In my head, a landmine bullfrogs can’t cross.
Roads in the woods, rippling through me,
Always led the way back home.
standing outside to shake loose the dawn
with brown paper bag of lunch in one hand
and cigarette lamp to light the world in the other
watching both lanes of highway in front of home
for the ride that will carry you into the jaws of the factory
standing outside on breaks in a chanting circle
heaving plumes of burnt offerings from cigarettes
while you and your cohorts discuss babies and
mamas and baby mamas and baby mamas’ mamas
hoping to pry open the jaws of the factory for overtime
to save them all
the blackened ravined lips
the mangled spine
the beleaguered eyes you gave
for decades to fill the belly of the factory
the gray hair
The caravan of prescriptions from asbestos exposure
lining your coffee table
pill box labeled with days of the week
days you remember waking at godly hours to serve
as priests and priestesses to the heavenly host of some
overseas company misspelling your name on pay stubs