Review: “Raising King” by Joseph Ross

I have a confession: I was meant to write this review of Raising King in September. Time got away from me in this bizarre, pandemic isolation vortex we all find ourselves in, but in all honesty, I’m gad I waited to read this collection. Is there a more appropriate time for Joseph Ross’ manuscript than right now, coming at the end of a summer of racial reckoning that made some feel like maybe—just maybe—we were moving forward, and then an election that firmly answered, “Not so fast”?

I don’t know if there is.

Ross, a past contributor to Little Patuxent Review, has given us a gift in Raising King. He blends scholarship with lyricism with social commentary to create a collection of poems that is heartbreaking and stunningly relevant. The central thesis, if that’s the right word, of Raising King is that the world would be a better, more compassionate place if more people understood the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ross uses Dr. King’s three political autobiographies—Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community—to structure the collection into three sections. Most of the poems are in Dr. King’s voice, but the last poem of each section is written from Coretta Scott King’s perspective. These serve as a sober reminder of the cost this country exacted from her family.

Image from Willow Books

Each poem in Dr. King’s voice is paired with a quotation from one of the three books. By doing this, Ross creates a conversation between the epigraph and the poems. To me, it felt like watching an actor perform a soliloquy, then turn to the audience to speak directly to them in an aside. The poems become a more intimate, personal look at Dr. King’s life, far beyond what I was familiar with, at least. It was an experience I enjoyed as a reader very much, although the poems themselves deal with very difficult subjects.

Picking a favorite poem—or even narrowing the list down to ten—from this collection is impossible because they are all striking and so relevant to where we are as a country today. “Imagine This,” for instance, could be about so many problems confronting us now. “We know exactly / how to do it,” the poem’s speaker says about solving poverty, “But imagine this: / we choose not to.” The same could be said of racism or the climate crisis or the pandemic. That idea of choice is woven into many of the poems in the last section of the collection, perhaps most overtly in “Chaos or Community.”

Community is not

a world without

stones. It is a world

where we choose

never to throw them

at one another.

The epigraphs and the poems both remind us that it is our choice not to act on racism, on poverty, on inequality. Just as it is our choice to love, to be compassionate. We as a country have to decide which path we’ll take. “We can admit our / country’s errors and not / melt into nothing,” “Our Country” reminds us. Failure to do so could result in dire consequences. “If we choose not / to build, there is another / way: / burn.”

Some of the poems are hopeful, some are heavy with grief, some are brimming with fury. Many take white supremacy and white privilege head on. One of these, “Eye to Eye,” took my breath away:

              The bones within are

              the same as yours.

              The same but for

              one difference:

              my bones know how

              to carry your dying

              privilege.

It was one of many poems that had this effect.

The same struggles, the same harms that Dr. King was fighting define America today. These poems could have been written about the Black Lives Matter movement, about the Say Her Name campaign, about far too many instances in our immediate past.

You don’t need me, a middle-class white woman, to tell you that we still have work to do. Instead, turn to Raising King. You’ll be challenged, but you’ll also feel incredibly lucky to be reading this amazing collection.

Order your copy of Raising King from Willow Books.

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