Telepathologies by Cortney Lamar Charleston: Review

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Review by Roberto Carlos Garcia

In his now infamous speech at the 1958 Radio Television Digital News Association Convention, revered journalist Edward R. Murrow warned his colleagues about the dangers of the television medium:

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities, which must indeed be faced if we are to survive. And I mean the word survive, quite literally…If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then perhaps, some young and courageous soul with a small budget might do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizen from anything that is unpleasant.

Today we can include African Americans, Latinos, poor whites, and the homeless and mentally ill to Murrow’s “Indians.” Murrow’s dystopian prophecy of television’s future could not have been more correct. We live in the à la carte news era: whatever your opinion is, you can find the news corporation that supports it, and become further insulated from reality.

In his first book, Telepathologies, Cortney Lamar Charleston’s speaker lifts the veil to try and reveal what life as a black man in America is like in real life. The poems work to deconstruct media bias, societal and sociological racism, and internalized racism and bias. That being said, Telepathologies overall lean is to show us how these lofty terms create the conditions for genocide.

Americans watch the genocide of black people happen everyday as sound bites, hot takes, YouTube videos of police murders, political rhetoric, and passive aggressive panels and headlines. But if, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, you “think of all the love poured into” the black men and women being murdered and being disenfranchised, the love of their mothers and families, then perhaps you can break the mind control. Break through what Charleston’s book describes as “the argument of sub-humanity levied at specific populations through the selective presentation of negative images or the use of coded language.”

Observe these selected lines from Telepathologies’ opening poem “How Do You Raise A Black Child:”

From the dead…
With a mama. With a grandmama
if mama ain’t around, maybe even if she is…
In the hood. In the suburbs if you’re smart or not afraid of white
fear or even if you are. Taking risks…
Without the frill of innocence. From the dead, again. Like a flag.

Or to put the question another way, how do you [continue] to overcome the pre-ordained roads institutional racism forces you on? How do you walk into the mouth of your apathetic countrymen’s insulated reality knowing you are the gravest of perceived dangers? How do you accomplish all of this while raising your babies to do the same?

Poems like “Pool Party” trigger the film reel of Dajerria Becton, a 15-year old girl from Texas assaulted by a police officer as if she were a grown man. Yet it is the detail and care given to the pool party before the assault occurs that Americans most desperately need to read:

He’s only // going where the girls are going, just like I did, in my extra large
T-shirt and brand new navy blue trunks. And all the girls go there

to be seen if not praised by a pair of hands holding to their hips
in a dim corner of the clubhouse, near a table stocked with chips,

dip and cans of Coke.

It is this act of just being kids at a party, feeling nervous about being around the opposite sex, and engaging in flirtation that is most important. It is this adolescent rite of passage that is preyed upon by racism and leads to:

Black kids learn to /
dance so well moving around the dropping bodies; the situation

can change so damn fast. One moment, I’m eyeing the girl who will
become my girlfriend, admiring the braids on her head, what she

wears during swim season as a way of trying to protect her roots.
And in the next moment, I’m watching her get take to the ground

before me, those same braids torqued tightly in his hands, his knee
a knife sheathed in the groove between her shoulder blades. I make the

mistake of a step towards her to help. I make the mistake of getting
too close to justice, get the officer’s gun drawn in my face. I make the

mistake of watching the video, again and again and again and asking:
how come only our home movies end this way?

What is the cost to our psyches, our souls, now that we’ve accepted this reality? To say otherwise would be a foolish lie. Americans have watched at least a hundred such videos in the last few years alone, and it would appear that Americans, like the speaker in this poem, have “grown / so used to it: sleep so easy at night that I can’t even be sure I’m alive, / or that all of the chlorine poured into the pool didn’t turn me white.”

*

In the poem “American Terrorism In Seven Acts” Charleston examines our indifference to the realities we are actually living. Each stanza explores a different aspect of the terror we live with while the national narrative on terror tells us that it is happening somewhere else. In the first act, mass shootings:

Survival tactic: poor movie etiquette.
I keep my cell phone on silent, never off.

As people file into the theater,
I locate the exit signs. Record them
to heart like a drumbeat.

And, “the seats on either side of me taken by / the silhouettes from gun ranges.” The second act explores the aftermath and the ride home:

The audience claps. Heads home
without a single prayer uttered.

By the time I’m sitting behind
a steering wheel I have forgotten
the value of life, something measured
when fear is on opposite balance.

The seventh act begins with the couplet “Disregard of life by any mode is / a concept that wears a suicide vest,” a line that reads more like a question, how long before our false reality explodes and finishes us off?

If there is one drawback to Telepathologies is that at 125 pages it can run long, for a poetry collection. However, that does not diminish the collection’s importance. James Baldwin wrote “Someone once said to me that people in general cannot bear too much reality,” but they are all too ready to believe the false narratives that recreate reality everyday. Thankfully, much like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Charleston’s first book is acting as witness to our demise and asking us to look deeper at each opening and closing act. So that at least in the end, we will have seen for ourselves.

Roberto Carlos Garcia’s book, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. His second collection, black / Maybe, will be published in spring 2018 by Willow Books. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The New Engagement, Public Pool, Stillwater Review, Gawker, Barrelhouse, Tuesday; An Art Project, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket,  and many others.

He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books, LLC. A native New Yorker, Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His website is http://www.robertocarlosgarcia.com/