GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2** For that space between the ears


SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone; the idea has become self conscious and laboured. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the ‘dad’ of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).

As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”. It took ten writers to come up with this gag.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a BIG treat for you.

If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2. Dir: James Gunn. With: Chris Pratt; Zoe Saldana; Dave Bautista; Vin Deisel; Bradley Cooper; Karen Gillan; Sylverter Stallone; Kurt Russell. Production Designer: Scott Chambers (“Tomorrowland”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”)

 

 

SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone, the idea has become self conscious and labored. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the dad of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).
As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a biiiiig treat for you.
If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

LADY MACBETH**** Bloody.Good


IT IS THE night of her wedding. Katherine (a stunning Florence Pugh), a demure, Botticelli-esque beauty, is asked whether the house is too cold for her and whether she is apprehensive as to what will transpire that night. She says “no” to both questions. Her proper Victorian blushes hide a heart much bolder and colder than either her questioner or the dark, stern, sour-faced family into which she has been ‘sold’ (along with a parcel of useless land) can possibly have imagined.

She is not so much a ‘bride’ with its connotation of love and affection, as a womb without rights or power…a mere child-bearing vessel whose owner (the father of the groom) is in need of succession.

That night, her reluctant husband simply goes to bed. On their first night of ‘intimacy’, he orders her to strip off and face the wall. “Don’t look at me,” he further commands, as he masturbates, sitting a few feet away from her naked body (His own pathetic rebellion against his father’s mandate that he produce an heir). The following day, her -black- maid (Naomi Ackie) – like her, just another piece of property – aggressively, hurtingly brushes her hair. Father, husband, maid…the sources of the house’s dark chill…need to establish from the onset where the power lies; they need to ensure that this newcomer to their airless country landholding, their kingdom, knows, like every woman should, her place in the pecking order of property and sex.

And for a while, Katherine – the perfectly beautiful precious object, (straight) laced tightly into her bustier, her wild flowing locks tamed into tight cords framing her porcelain face – succumbs to her role.

She is kept indoors (as if the propriety of property demands constraint within the property) and sinks into a dull languor. But, as the father says of one of his wild dogs, “the bitch has been kept chained for too long”.

Freedom will out.

But this woman’s liberation follows that of the eponymous Lady Macbeth, hatched as she roams free, away from the inhibiting house, upon the “damned heath”. The story follows her meticulous and carefully planned assumption of power through her brazen defiance of the roles written for her sex. If the Victorian norm was one of male power over her sex, she breaks away through the power of sex itself and begins a passionate affair with one of her staff, a mixed race laborer (Cosmo Jarvis). It is an affair that smashes all taboos: of class segregation, adultery and interracial sex.

And finally the taboo of murder.

It is as if, once unleashed from some rules, no rules further apply. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Her sexual lust soon morphs, or perhaps is the same as, her lust for power. Like Lady Macbeth, no damned Duncan will stand in her murderous way to power and (eventual ownership of the) property.

As Katherine, Florence Pugh (last seen with Maisie Williams in “The Falling”) is a tremendous presence. She exudes a compelling, lethal stillness; her gentle voice and mask-like calm never quite mask the wild anarchy residing within. Once Katherine has emerged from her society-demanded stupor, Pugh’s charisma is riveting. She effortlessly seduces us to her very dark side. She’s like a younger, more subtle, more lethal version of Natalie Dormer.

Naomi Ackie is Anna, the abused maid, a mainly silent witness (having been struck dumb) to Katherine’s bloody swath of destruction. She too (another relative newcomer) has a compelling presence and offers a nicely balance yin to Katherine’s yan.

The story is based on a mid-nineteenth century Russian novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, and, transferred to England in the movie version, has been brilliantly realized by two newcomers: director William Oldroyd (his first full length movie)and play-write turned screenwriter Alice Birch. Her script is at times overly theatrical…It’s a movie that is so heavily dependent on its layers of symbolism and its dramatization of the themes of power and repression that at times character takes back seat to message.

That said, it’s a well-made, thoroughly engaging and important film. Well worth seeing

 

LADY MACBETH. Dir: William Oldroyd. With: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. Screenplay: Alice Birch. Cinematographer: Ari Wegner. Production Designer: Jacqueline Abrahams

 

COPENHAGEN*****Compact, cheerful and cultured


THE FIRST THING you notice about Copenhagen, perched on the westernmost tip of Denmark, a -long-stone’s throw from Sweden, is that the pace is different. It’s not that people are any less hurried. It is after all, a major European capital. It’s just that the hurrying people are hurrying on bicycles, many of which propel large boxy containers of grinning kids on their way to school. The bicycles all seem (to my inexperienced eyes) to be solid, practical, usually well-worn vehicles. There seems to be little, if any, flash to the morning’s dash.

And it all seems spectacularly safe: the cycle lanes are wide, clearly marked, raised surfaces that, with typical Danish friendliness, suggest to passing cars they can just piss off…thank you very much. Here bikes rule. Their whirring wheels dictate the rules of the road and the rhythm of the city.

I’ve been to many bike-dense cities: Delhi, Shanghai, Pnom Penh etc. But there’s a frenzy to the rhythm of the bikes there, where every road-crossing venture feels like a challenge to chaos and an open invitation to broken limbs and cracked heads. Not so here. The pace is tempered by a sense of calm and order. People wait for the lights to change before crossing. Only we dumb tourists made so bold as to ignore the politely waiting natives and scamper across empty streets.


Perhaps because it was April and already the long winter hibernation was easing into days that stretched well into the night, everyone was cheerful. Or perhaps that was just my cynical take on a city that simply feels at ease with itself. Denmark is supposed to be the happiest place on earth, despite the cold, despite the long darkness of winter, despite the high taxes. And it feels like it. People weren’t simply polite, they were jolly. In flawless, unaccented English. The bartenders always brought us our chilled wine with warm cheer. So this is what “hygge” feels like! Once, as we sat sipping said wine, we saw a row of carefully balanced bikes clatter to the ground, blown over by a sudden gust of wind. Tough shit? No. Two men passing by stopped, picked them up, carefully steadied them and moved on. Huh? Did we just see that? It’s as though the immediate stop to help is part of Danish muscle memory.

A beautiful city with great food, stunning architecture and…Danes. This must be some sort of high point of what it means to be civilized (or maybe just a clever veneer to mask a well hidden dark side…the side we all know so well from “The Killing”)
Said “beautiful city” is a compact one, easily accessed by the many stops of the S trains (which travel mainly overland) and the Metro (A three day tourist pass costs about £25…nothing’s cheap here; though in five days we were never asked to show our tickets). It is a cultured quilt of contrasting neighborhood characters…from the bucolic residential wealth of Frederiksberg in the east, with its graceful, water-laced heron-rich parks to the bustling, curving cobbled streets of shopper bound, tourist crowded City in the center, to the dark silences of black, blank, secret, private banking Christianhavn in the west, to the youthful vibrancy of Vesterbro in the south.

The way to experience all this is by foot (after all, Stroget is the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe… though really not worth the visit). Copenhagen is a delightfully eclectic blend of dark seventeenth century North Renaissance architecture, churches with minaret-high towers, idiosyncratic structures (Borsen, the stock exchange is topped by a sky-piercing tower comprised of the plaited tails of four roaring dragons. Kalessi, where are you?)

reclaimed (and trendified) warehouses with their bearded baristas and cute wine bars; tall, genteel, ornament-free eighteenth century burgher’s homes (the unshowey restraint of the Lutheran sensibility is evident even in the Royal palaces) and pockets of strikingly modern architecture. Though Denmark (when it was twinned with Norway) had scattered colonial outposts, the feel of the city lacks the imperial, slave-funded pomp of places like Brussels.
   

There are parks – and flower shops- everywhere (all of which have their own extensive lake-large ponds) and the entire place, threaded by a network of waterways, is embraced by two wide canals. Some parts -Kastellet, a seventeenth century star shaped fortress surrounded by a moat, the administrative center, Christianborg Slot, and just to the West, Christianshavn – are themselves islands within the city itself. They’re all brushed by the wakes of laden sightseeing boats and monied yachts whose slow flow down the cold canals fed from the Baltic Sea, lend the city a mood of unhurried leisure. Relax. You move too fast. Gotta make the moment last.


In a world bent on building walls, here is a city of bridges.
(Indeed, just by chance, while waiting on the famous Tivoli gardens – one of the world’s most kitsch of places – to open, we wandered into the Town Hall. There, there was an exhibition of “refugee voices”: a hundred refugees were photographed and their stories documented. The exhibition offered viewers synopses of the disasters – wars, persecution, famine – from which they’d fled. Here was a city boasting of and celebrating its moral role in the acceptance of refugees. In a world of Trump, May and LePen, such sentiment seems quaint…unthinkable!)


And if all this isn’t enough, go for the new Danish cuisine (smorrebrod is sooo out!): new flavor combinations of fresh locally sourced ingredients whipped into impossibly light concoctions and topped with a drizzle of greenery that actually add taste and depth instead of a mere flourish of color. These places are expensive. Much cheaper are the bustling, buzzy, food halls and food markets, where pretty much anything from tapas to pizza to sushi (those Danish staples) to, yes, smorrebrod, are, like the wine and beer, readily on tap.


(Or, if drugs are your thing, you can groove on across the Torvegade bridge to the free state of Christiania, a hippy-esque hang out where marijuana dealers openly, and legally, solicit your custom)

So is it the food…or the drugs that make the Danes (and Copenhagen itself was voted happiest city in the world) so damned happy? According to the (no doubt, Marxist) Danes, it’s their welfare state. They’ve made the astonishing link between paying (lots of) taxes and getting in return -free- top notch education, health care, roads, public art, parks and social care. Brilliant. No wonder Neil’s Bohr (who, with Einstein, pretty much invented quantum physics) was Danish.

Now let’s hope the presence  of refugees in their midst doesn’t bring to light the hidden right of Danish noir.

Where we ate and drank (and would recommend):
Spisehuset: it’s a small, intimate restaurant run by the bearded chef/owner and two others. A very friendly place, located in an obscure alley in the old side of the Meatpacking area (Kodbyen). There’s a price fixe menu (300k)…everything’s good. But the desert was just this side of heaven.
Slagtehusgade 5C, Kobenhaven V

Host. A converted many layered corner house; reclaimed timber and eager, super helpful staff. Prixe Fixe (300k or 450k). Features an extraordinary artichoke froth topped with caviar.
Norre Farimagsgade 41.

Brod. Reputed (deservedly) for offering the best (fresh from the oven, delicately, crumblingly delicious) Danish pastries. An absolute breakfast must. Open from 7
Enghave Pl 7

Kanalens. Here there’s a choice between prixe fixe (400k) or a la carte. Superb food and service and an outstanding location (on Christiania) on a finger of water opposite a lovely, moored schooner.
Wilder Plads 2

(This area – Christiania- boasts a number of great looking restaurants: cafe Wilder -where we had excellent Cosmos- is at Wildersgade 56 and just opposite, Sankt Annae 8)

The food markets at Papioren (Paper Island on Christianshavn) and off Norreport S station are “must go” places. Share a table or a counter and join the happy fellow eaters.

Drink:
Granola is by day a breakfast place that, magically transforms itself into a cosy cocktail lounge, offering a tempting range of cocktails.
Vaernedamsvej 5, Frederiksberg

Jo-Jo’s Social: good for a quick mid morning break for bubbly. Landemaerket 7, Kobenhaven C

Stemple: in Vesterbro, if you happen to be staying in this trendy district. Airy, relaxed and friendly
Enghave Pl 2

 

THE HANDMAIDEN**** “Hell hath no fury…”


“THE HANDMAIDEN” IS Park Chan-Wook’s outrageously sexy retelling of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, a story originally set in Victorian London, now transferred to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea. The story – structured around the delicious contrasts of bright surface opulence with dark hidden deceptions – centres on the lusts, fantasies and longings of four main characters. Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a low life pickpocket in the pay of a con-man (Ha Jung-woo). She has been briefed to present herself, as a respectable handmaiden to the wealthy (and reputedly naive) heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to subtly woo her on behalf of her con-man boss, now disguised as the aristocratic Count Fujiwara. His intent is to seduce Hideko away from her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an old lecher and collector of erotica, who also has designs on Hideko’s fortune.


Despite their stark social differences, dramatised by the dingy hovel of the one versus the palatial splendour of the other, Sookie and Hideko are both prisoners…of circumstance and convention. Both have been bred and trained, like decorative birds, to do the bidding of their breeders: Sookie to steal, Hideko to engage and entertain her uncle’s book-buying clientele with her lascivious readings of his erotica. To their male ‘masters’, they’re no more than beautiful, erotic routes to their deepest lusts…for money not sex. And as the handmaiden dresses herself in her mistress’ dresses, they both become interchangeable…almost mirror images of each other.

But the men, so wrapped up in their own sense of haughty masculine superiority (It would not be inappropriate in this context to describe them as “cock-sure”) have no inkling of the far deeper deviousness of these two trapped women. Freedom will out. In one glorious scene, Hideko -she who can go nowhere- introduces the bare-footed Sookie to her serried rows of shoes…and offers her a pair. Now they both have the -physical- ability to roam. And in their unspoken search to free themselves from society’s norms/masculine control, they discover the freedom in each other’s bodies. In the trust and tenderness of intimacy lies the healing measure of freedom. Park’s (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s) sensuous, almost tactile cinematography delights as much in the tingle and shimmer of their naked bodies as it does on the textures and gloss of their clothes and surroundings.

Control (the first part of the story is very measured and mannered) gives way to love in a wonderfully, intricately plotted story that frequently loops back on itself, seen from differing points of view and with a single, gasp-inducing twist in the middle. One of the themes that drives the movie is that of the illumination or deception of storytelling (or the art of lying): each of the characters frames a narrative aimed at masking intent and creating a desired image; Hideko’s “role” in life is to seduce by her storytelling; The Count comes along with an entirely fabricated back story; the uncle’s tongue has been blackened with the stories he writes even though his library is a place of truth (in the same way the serpent brought truth in The Garden, etc.

It’s one of those movies that – like the best thrillers- makes more and more sense to the viewers (as susceptible to seduction as any one of the characters) the more privy they are to the layers of deceit that, like Hideko’s garments, are slowly removed, eventually revealing all.

This is certainly a “see it again” movie. Now armed with the knowledge of the end, and of Park’s sleight of hand’s deceptions of surface, there is so much more to be seen. Park’s production designs and clever symbols (Hideko lives in a home that’s part Japanese, like the colonial masters from whom, like her, the Koreans sought liberation, and part Western, like the story’s creator) are so overwhelming, that I’m sure I must have missed, and will now hopefully see with new eyes more of the director’s multiple signs and suggestions, all guiding (seducing?) me to his final vision of love, deception, seduction and money…

life’s four verities?

 

THE HANDMAIDEN. Dir: Park Chan-woo (“Stoker”, “Oldboy”). With: Kim Min-Lee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri. Writer: Sarah Waters (from her novel), Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-woo. Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie. Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon

 

 

GET OUT****Something New This Way Comes


“GET OUT” – SCARY…hypnotic- makes for mesmerizing viewing. It’s one of those movies whose clever writing and meticulous direction seduces you away from what seems like an everyday, ordinary boy/girl romance into a world so bizarre you view it through unblinking, horrified eyes.

Writer/first time Director Jordan Peele signals from the very start that things aren’t going to end well. The movie begins at night with a black young man who has lost his way and has found himself in a dimly lit, tree-lined, affluent (for that, read, white) neighborhood. When a car arrives and slowly begins to trail him, you’d be right to be apprehensive.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya from “Sicario”) and Rose (the all-American Allison Williams) are the young, happy, flirtatious couple. They’re off for him to meet her folks (in their large, elegant, isolated home). She reassures him that the fact that he’s black (she’s white) is no biggie. Dr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitfield and Katherine Keener), her parents, voted twice for Obama and would have voted for him again. They’re welcoming enough, though he’s a bit unnerved by the (all black) staff, who greet him with broad smiles and dull vacant eyes. A slightly deranged brother (Caleb Jones) turns up and wants to wrestle; and the following day, a queue of limos arrive, bearing their wealthy white passengers. It’s the Armitage’s annual get together, which Rose claims to have forgotten about.

Chris, much to his consternation, is clearly the centre of attention (and is constantly reassured of the guests’ liberal creds: one guest boasts of having met Tiger Woods, another is fascinated by just how strong and firm he is; one asks him whether it’s better to be black ‘these days’). And we’ve clearly journeyed not just from city to country, but to the world of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Soon enough, the initial slow drip of warning signs becomes a waterfall. These aren’t simply super rich white folks self consciously aware of a black man in their midst. There’s something amiss. Nothing here feels right. Get out now. Run. As he tries to figure out just what’s amiss, he isn’t even aware that one of those creepy white folks has ‘won’ him in a Bingo game. Just what do you do with a young, strong, black man? What the host (a neurologist) wants to do to him….that beggars description.

This is a movie with a B-movie format cleverly concealing A-movie insights. It strips away (bloodily) the well-heeled veneer of polite, white, some of my best friends are black, liberalism to reveal a darkness (a mix of hate confused with the envy of the black ‘super masculine menial’) far deeper than mere prejudice or hypocrisy. And, along with the always surprising, never clichéd score from first timer, Michael Abels, Director Peele keeps you suspended between laughter, outrage and shock horror. It’s a difficult balancing act that he pulls off with aplomb.

Daniel Kaluuya brings an engaging sympathetic performance. He’s without question, the good guy. But his Chris wasn’t markedly different from his character in “Sicario”. Allison Williams’ performance however is one to take note of. Her Jeckyll and Hyde character is a treat.

More than this, there’s something of historical significance at work here. It’s a first time outing for three new black movie talents: the director, the composer and the special effects artist. Not too long ago we were treated to the brilliance of another black directorial newcomer: Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight”. This is a good trend. Peele and Jenkins along with the likes of Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) begin to feel like a trend. May we be entering into a new (brash, young, challenging, not yet given over to commercial annihilation) era of filmmaking?

GET OUT. Dir: Jason Peele. Writer: Jason Peele. With: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Katherine Keener. Composer: Michael Abels. Cinematography: Toby Oliver

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL** Shell Game


Scarlett Johnson is Major, a cyber enhanced soldier ‘controlled’ by a human brain; one that has been altered by implanted memories (and regular doses of ‘medication’) so as to eradicate all traces – all ghosts – of her actual humanity. This is not an A.I that has achieved the singularity (consciousness), but a human who has been embedded into a robot. She’s an evolved version of Robocop.

The conceit that drives the story is Major’s intuition, fueled by dreams of a burning pagoda, that she isn’t who they (shady corporate villains) make her out to be. If she can only identify who she was before she became this hacked, carefully controlled consciousness, she can potentially free her ghost trapped within her shell.

And what a shell it is. Beneath her battle gear, Major wears an invisibility cloak that’s a gossamer thin extra skin that renders her invisible to all, but almost – but for the absence of nipples – naked to viewers. Far more compelling than the Blade Runner inspired futurescape (a crowded, though lifeless place, reminiscent of The Sixth Element, but with the wet, watery feel and Sino-Japanese iconography of Blade Runner along with CGI-clever holograms) a near naked Scarlett Johansson makes for attentive viewing.

But if the shell’s great, the acting’s no more than a ghost of a performance.  Though this isn’t exactly a character driven story, Scarlett Johansson seems to have put so much emphasis into the robot side of her character that she managers to drag her way through the entire one hundred minutes of the movie with but one facial expression and no trace of intonation in her voice. Ms Johansson’s recent oeuvre has majored in the ‘non-human’. She’s an Avenger, a superhuman fighter (“Lucy”), a disembodied voice (“Her”) and an alien (“Under the Skin”). Her last decent movie was “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona” in 2008. Based on this sorry performance, either she simply decided to flaunt her very flauntable bod and take the money (she earned $10m for this); or she’s simply forgotten how to act…since her public probably isn’t all that interested in that side of her talent anyway.

Whatever.

This is a yawn-inducing movie. And no amount of production expense ($110m) can plaster over what is essentially a rag-tag plot strung together with the clunky, forgettable dialogue of three B movie writers and a director (Rupert Sanders) whose last big hit was that instant classic, “Snow White and the Huntsman”.

Nevertheless, along with production designer Jan Roelfs (whose achievements offer an interesting balance between the big production visionary sagas such as “47 Ronin” and “Alexander” and much more intimate fare: “Dark Blood”) he certainly works hard at giving the enterprise the visual gravitas of “The Matrix” series (which apparently borrowed heavily from the original animie version of “Ghost…”). And many of his set piece action sequences are visual delights.

But visual delights alone do not a tolerable movie make. Let’s just hope “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a quality indicator of what the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters holds in store

GHOST IN THE SHELL. Dir: Rupert Sanders. With: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche. Cinematographer: Jess Hall (“Transcendence”). Production Designer: Jan Roelfs

 

CLAUDIA RANKINE: CITIZEN: An American Lyric. Poet of a people


CLAUDIA RANKINE’S EXTRAORDINARY book of poetry, “Citizen. An American Lyric” is a prose/poetry meditation on the state of modern American race relations in seven chapters. There are traces of Robert Lowell’s confessional style…but in a form that’s an exciting structural rethink on the nature of poetry; essentially each ‘stanza’ is a series of short prose paragraphs… anecdotes or a train of thought of events that took place…or could have; and the poet/persona’s accompanying ‘explanations’. They’re anecdotes that offer a perspective on the all-encompassing insidiousness of (American…but also quite easily English) race relations. And they communicate not only how black people are perceived by the white society (where, at its extremes, you’re either invisible or a proto criminal) but how this perception shapes the black person’s sense of self and identity…the sense of anger, outrage and personal inadequacy.

Rankine (or the poet persona of the book) is light-skinned enough to ‘pass for white’. She’s a chameleon, a camouflaged spy in enemy territory. But these aren’t poems of protest; while they principally focus on the dark nature of living in an indifferent, often unconsciously racist society, their insights into how memory, the past and perception shape your response to the world are human in color, not just black or white.

Invisibility or overt bias are easy enough to identify.
In the first poem/chapter, she recalls her younger self in one Sister Evelyn’s class:

        …and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean on the right during exams so she can copy what you have                           written…The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair…you never really speak except for the time…she tells you…you have features more like a white person. You assume… she feels better cheating from a white person”

We know the little girl in the seat behind (the poet can’t remember her name) is white from the description of her hair. And hair, is as much (more so?) a signifier of ethnicity as is skin color. This first visualization of the poet is via how she is perceived (features more like a white person). Neither of these two, presumably innocent, little kids make any effort to see beyond skin color. It’s as though from the get-go, black/white relationships have been poisoned. To the poet, her recognition as a person (not just a racial entity) is further compromised by the teacher, God’s representative, this Sister Evelyn:

       Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there

Race as an unwanted cloak of invisibility!

In another poem, a man knocks over her son in the subway. He does not stop. It’s as though… [he] did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself. Or as she adds in another poem, …no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived” (President Obama will for a third of Americans always be perceived as some unwelcome African born interloper)

She quotes James Baldwin: Baldwin says skin color cannot be more important than the human being. Alas, not so in this lyric. So much for recognition…acknowledgement as a person.

Many of the stories she tells us are presented as distant memories, the poet having given herself the permission to … linger in a past stacked among your pillows
These are the multiple memories, multiple incidents, that shape her – one’s – public sense of self, her idea of how she is seen by her society. Perception is all.

She narrates one incident in which she has asked a friend to babysit her child while she’s out with another friend. Her neighbor calls in alarm. He’s watching…

         a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy…seems disturbed”. He reassures her that the guy is not her friend who he’s met, “…that nice young man. Anyway he wants you to know, he’s called the police… you hear the sirens…

Even to a ‘friendly’ neighbor, to eyes that view the world through the lenses of race, you’re either invisible (probably all races are guilty of this…it’s the “all Chinese look alike” syndrome) or a potential menace (only white people view non-white people like this).

As the poems (and her thinking) evolve, she is more than invisible, which at least results in a kind if passive indifference. Rather she, the black person, is what she terms “hypervisible”…which makes the invisibility ‘your’ fault:

       When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty- fifty chance of getting it right.
Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake”. Apparently, your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion…

 But, the poem shows, there is another, perhaps more pernicious layer of the racial perspective. It’s not the obvious one where the wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth.
Rather there is a layer of the racial perspective that shades into racism. It is often hidden behind walls of decorum, often unintended, and can slip suddenly, unbidden into sight. This may be racism at its most most hurtful, most revealing of its author who remains ever blissfully unaware that he or she is being racist:

       You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there

And:

       A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus…she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they’re calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it? – her son wasn’t accepted…The exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive

The poet tries to rationalize and find a reasonable framework for these experiences; she quotes…

        A friend who argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’… you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self…arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths…And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant

 These so effortlessly narrated anecdotes are all remembrances of things past. And therein lie their sting. That past stacked among your pillows carries its dangers. She speaks of her fears that all these little incidents become locked in and coded on a cellular level. For …The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. These little incidents all add up. You cannot …learn to absorb the world…you can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you. The memories  add up to an angst, an anger.

       …the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.

The flash point of these quotidian struggles against dehumanizations are given full vent in a vituperative poem centered on Serena Williams:

        Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world.”

 The poem documents with almost legal precision the deliberate bad calls from multiple umpires; one of whom, Mariana Alves, had to be

        …excused from officiating any more matches…after she made five bad calls against Serena” because “Serena’s black body…was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Yes, the poet concludes, …the body has a memory…The body is a threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.

Until all these bad calls, these coded expressions of the racist objection to this black woman in this white world, are unleashed into occasional vents of well-documented Serena fury. But the white world remains relentless in its refusal to comprehend the source of the anger. When, having learned how to contain or at least channel this anger, she won every match she played between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, the media suggests

       She has grown up…as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was  free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.

There’s a willful blindness to the way the white society, as if needing to shield itself from ‘anguish’ or guilt, responds to its own actions. In a poem about Mark Dugan, the innocent black youth gunned down by the police (and the catalyst for days of rioting that followed), Rankine observes:

       As the rioting and looting continued, government officials labeled the violent outbreak “opportunism” and “sheer                       criminality”, and the media picked up this language. Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death

At the center point of the book, the voice changes. The easy flow of bitter anecdotes morphs into a more troubled, almost arrhythmic syntax (…because words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes). It’s as if these memories, these years of encrusted slights, rejections, dismissals can no longer be contained in the shaping form of narrative. The poetry becomes more abstract, darker, as if pushing itself deeper into the poet’s consciousness. Here is a nocturnal encounter with the police:

       In the darkened moment a body given blue light, a flashlight, enters with levity, with or without assumptions, with desire, the beating heart, disappointment, with desires –

        Stand where you are.

The vignette suggests the synapse between the action (the police car with its blue light) and the emotional codification of the action (the beating heart, disappointment, with desires). The need to contain the emotion, as Serena occasionally fails to do, is almost mandatory. For these emotions are the carriers of memory…and not just the memories of yesterday’s slights…darker historical memories which have shaped the racial consciousness. The poem ends with a dark reverie

       No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads”

This is the memory of slavery, of the Atlantic crossing.

The second half of the book shifts from the itemisation of the mannered slights and dismissals to vignettes of physical violence. Centuries of aggression finally explode. A short poem that begins in a spirit of a Romantic idyll of a young boy walking in his school playground:

       As he walked across grass still green from summer walking out of the rain a step beyond into a piece of sky all day for him in this moment a shelter as he sat beneath the overhanging branches of the “white tree”…

But the grass still green soon becomes

       a darkening wave…a dawn sun punching through the blackness…” and the sheltering tree becomes a limb for a noose…” the rope looped around the overhanging branches of their tree.

The dawn sun turns into

       a fist punching through the blackness…forming knuckles as they pummeled the body being kicked and beaten until knocked          unconscious…

The violence so easily meted out is (like Mark Dugan) easily excused…

        boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity…righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence…”

The invisibility with which the book began when you were either not seen or seen merely as a color, now takes a turn for the worst. The refusal to see beyond race is also a refusal to differentiate. Black is simply black.

She describes one of the many meaningless arrests…
       

       Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the                   description”

The need is not simply to arrest, but to humiliate:

       The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked.  It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home

So where does this all end? These centuries of hurt, these needs that branch accommodation with anger? How does the scarred body of one race find benediction, if that is what it seeks, in the uncomprehending gaze of the other? The American lyric can only shift from its rhythm of blues to a song of joy through

       …a share of all remembering… when …a measure of all memory is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce-

       a truce with the patience of a stethoscope