by Abdul Ali
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Review by Rochelle Spencer
Trouble Sleeping, Abdul Ali’s first poetry collection, is cinematic in scope, with many of the poems positioning film or photography as something akin to participating in a waking dream. Ali claims “Spike Lee narrates my dreams,” and ironically, Ali’s often dreamy references to pop culture saturate his collection’s “real-world” depictions of racism, loneliness, and alienation with truth.
Divided into five sections titled “blink,” Trouble Sleeping mimics the rush and exhilaration of our rapidly changing technology. When the poem “Broken Sleep in Four Parts” describes how a natural body reaction—the blink of an eye—becomes a “ten-minute film/scratching behind the eyelids,” we better understand our bodies’ deep connection to technology. Trouble Sleeping is an AfroSurreal text, one unafraid to describe the multiple ways present-day technologies (film and music) affect the way we live.
“How to Begin a Short Film,” the first poem in the collection, describes the sights and sounds of a young New Yorker’s life, in cinematic terms. From allusions recognizable to Gen Y and Gen X (9/11, the deaths of Biggie and Tupac) to older memories commemorated through the technology of records and photograph (Billie Holiday’s wail, flashy zoot suits, the sounds of Donny Hathaway and Miles Davis, and the images Gordon Parks), the poem is a collision of sight and sound. Ali intersperses a personal narrative—a mother’s cruel remark to a son, an uncle seeking salvation through art—with these larger cultural images. In this way, an individualistic poem represents something broader and more human: our complex negotiations with technology—we want our lives to be remembered and recorded, not as they actually are, but how we wish they were.
“How to Begin a Short Film” explores an idea—a photograph’s ability to steal your soul (“cameras stealing/all those hungry faces”)– replicated in other poems such as “American Classic” and “Amistad.” In “American Classic,” the poem’s narrator views Birth of a Nation, and in “Amistad,” he watches the Steven Spielberg film and experiences “[h]istory so close it hums.” No recording can capture the actual experience of a lynching or the trauma of Middle Passage, but Ali’s poems suggest technology’s ability to allow us to share and relive experiences.
Yet how much of Ali’s argument can we embrace? WPA recordings have given us access to the voices of former slaves but how much do we know about their day-to-day lives? With our smartphones and cameras, we can record our voices and memories; still, how much emotional content do we actually share? How much of our souls have been lost or transmitted through our media?
Trouble Sleeping indicates we actually transmit a great deal. In fact, Ali’s poetry is at its sharpest and most truthful when highly realistic images are juxtaposed against music’s recorded sounds or the simulated imagery of film and video games.
“Elegy (for Troy Davis),” the longest poem in the collection, and perhaps the most earnest, somehow feels less poignant than “South Ozone Park,” though both poems pay serious tribute to Black lives and what those lives mean in a nation that continuously limits Black people’s freedom. But while “Elegy” poses a series of rhetorical questions (“Why are our mothers crying?/Why am I not crying?”), “South Ozone Park” takes on the more daring task of investigating them. By comparing Black lives to “a pinball game” and realizing that real-life gangsters and street hustlers do sometimes behave like “a superhero/unafraid of bullets,” we understand the surreal nature of our own lives. And the idea that our lives replicate the over-the-top violence produced by our films and music is unsettling. Ali’s poetry is sharp and visceral because it’s so unexpected.
Perhaps the poem “Counting Sundays” is the best example of how Ali’s cultural references add new meaning to a familiar idea. In it he pays homage to Robert Hayden’s classic poem “Winter Sundays,” returns to the idea of Black fatherhood and masculinity. When Ali remixes lyrics from a mournful Mary J. Blige song and shows a father-son’s shared appreciation for 1990s hip-hop (Biggie and Heavy D.), he reveals the depth of a relationship that’s both painful and loving.
Trouble Sleeping includes a foreword by the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, and it’s no coincidence that Ellis titles the foreword “A Mighty Mise-en-Concern.” In Trouble Sleeping, Ali directs a cinematic collection, one that’s post-1995 understanding of black masculinity is defined by gentleness and enriched through references to hip-hop, film, and pop culture.
Rochelle Spencer is co-editor, along with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: An Anthology of Award-Winning Fiction by Women Writers of Color. A co-founder of the Harlem Works Collective, she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center and Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.