Review: Death, With Occasional Smiling by Dr. Tony Medina

by Alan King

Growing up, my mom hammered Jesus into me and my siblings. But she didn’t know about the Jesus whose stomping grounds were “on 110th Street & Lexington Avenue/ In the crusty eyelash of El Barrio.” (from “Dame in Traguito”) 

This Jesus—without “an accent over the e” because he didn’t need it for folks “to know/ Who he be”—was a conga player “beating back bongo skins” and singing “backup Boogaloo for Obatalá.” 

Instead of working a miracle with pieces of fish and loaves of bread, this god “multiplied wine by sending his little cousin Pipo/ To cop a few bottles from Pepo’s bodega.” 

Jesus is one of the many personalities that populate Dr. Tony Medina’s latest collection, Death, With Occasional Smiling (Indolent Books)—a title as loaded as the duty pistols triggered by fear.  

When first reading the title, the reader might see “With Occasional Smiling” alluding to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask”:

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

We see the masked “tears and sighs” in the poem, “Bert Williams,” where the speaker resurrects the Bahamian-born American entertainer, who was big during the Vaudeville era. 

In the poem, one would find a sad Bert Williams in front of a dressing room mirror, wiping off his black face, “A mask of/ Black slime.” 

Medina allows the reader to be a fly on the wall watching Bert lament about his performances:

Under the stage light glare:
The familiar stare, 

The private mirror

Weary & 

Looking back, 

            Haunting me. 

That haunting also comes by the collection’s other speakers resurrecting the unarmed victims killed by police. Hence the “Death” in the book’s title. 

Usually, when an unarmed person of color is murdered by law enforcement, the dead are posthumously picked apart and discredited in courts and through various media outlets. 

But the speakers allow the dead to bring their own indictment:

Gunpowder blinds
The eye of justice reckless
As a dumb vigilante (from “Senryu for Trayvon Martin”) 

That I am the wolf at my own door
and this Blood splattered/ Across
white hall walls and splintered
sunlight/ Pagan ritual against my
very breath—my audacious breathing
(from “Charleena Lyles”) 

Back to the book’s title, another way of seeing the “With Occasional Smiling” is as a foreshadowing of Medina’s sarcasm that gut checks the reader, especially in the poem “From the Crushed Voice Box of Freddie Gray”:

See, Ma? No hands! 
I snatched the pistol
From the white man’s
From the back of the 
Patrol car—

The poem’s sarcastic tone mocks the ludicrous cover up use by officers who killed their detained suspects. This practice was common enough that a Google search of “handcuffed victims shot themselves” yielded an exhaustive list of headlines including the killings of Chavis Carter in Arkansas; Victor White III in Louisiana; an unnamed teenager in Austin, TX; and Sarah Wilson in Chesapeake, VA, just to name a few from the over 11 million search results.

That this practice was so common speaks to the nature of sexism and racism—how it makes what would otherwise be farfetched believable when it comes to the actions against women and people of color.

But this collection is not all Fernet. Like the best mixed drinks, Medina’s Death, With Occasional Smiling has a good balance of the bitter with the sweet (light moments).

With the latter, let’s go back to the poem, “Dame un Traguito” (in English: “Give me a Drink”), which was inspired by the popular Cuban song of the same name by Juan Almeida Bosque—the late Cuban politician, an original commander of the insurgent forces in the Cuban Revolution, and songwriter.

In Medina’s poem, “Jesus spoke in 4-4 time/& guaguancó.” He also:

Tapped his dusty rusty patent leather
Zapatos to a rhythm only the children
Of Africans & Indians understand

Another bright moment is “Ode to Bodega Cats,” one of my favorite poems in this collection.

They help you pick the wrong
Winning Lotto numbers,
Scratching a random claw drawn
And retracted from an unseen paw
As you scrutinize the card in the dim
Bodega light having forgot your
Reading glasses, once again.

At 141 pages, Tony Medina’s Death, With Occasional Smiling is hefty and sumptuous like a giant “slice of pound cake wrapped/In what resembles the sofa slip-/Covers your grandmother bought/Just before summer […]”

Alan King is a Caribbean American poet, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago in the early ’70s. He’s a father, husband, and author of two full-length collections of poetry: Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016) and Drift (Aquarius Press, 2012). Plan B Press published his recent chapbook, Crooked Smiling Light. King’s poetry caught the attention of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo who said: “Alan King is one of my favorite up-and-coming poets of his generation. His poems are not pop and flash, rather more like a slow dance with someone you’re going to love forever.” King is also a videographer and motion graphics artist. The video he produced for his poem, “Gluttony,” was an “Official Selection” of the 2021 International Video Poetry Festival in Athens, Greece. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, King is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He lives with his wife, children, and mother-in-law in Bowie, MD.