The Three That Speak to Us: “Decoded,” “Conspiracy (to breathe together),” and “Masticated Light”

The 2014 edition of Best American Poetry with guest editor, Terrance Hayes, is filled with poems that many, especially Mr. Hayes, would consider to be “great.” Because of this, the choice of finding the three greatest poems from this volume was an extremely difficult task. In the process, I decided to focus on the poems that evoke an emotional response and accurately represent 2014’s poetry as a whole. Jon Sands’s “Decoded,” Camille Dungy’s “Conspiracy (to breathe together,” and Jamaal May’s Masticated Light” clearly stood out to me as each of them exceeded these standards.

Jon Sands’s “Decoded” tells of the huge impact that Trayvon Martin’s death had on the American public. His killing became a catalyst for change. The majority of people were furious about George Zimmerman being declared not guilty causing many to lose faith in The United States of America’s justice system. Both white and black Americans saw a major problem with how the case was handled and Sands reveals the two different yet connected reactions of these two divisions. Each line in the poem tells two stories, one of a white person and one of a black person, both reacting to the depth of the history of racism in this country. The particular line that stood out to me is when the white girl “prayed Trayvon reached for the gun” while the black boy “knew Trayvon left despite a prayer.” I love how Sands highlights the duality between white and black people with the slashes, yet still maintains a certain connection between the two groups by using “prayed” and “prayer” in the same stanza, showing that despite the different ways in which his killing has affected them, they are united in the fact that it has an effect on both of them. Trayvon’s death sparked an intense emotional response, with people demanding justice and thinking about all of the other times where black people haven’t been treated equally or justly by the law. Overall, the 2014 edition is very political, and this poem with its themes of race and pain on a national level fit right into that category.

Camille Dungy’s “Conspiracy (to breathe together)” also tells a story mainly about race issues in America, but is not inspired by one main event. The inspiration for this poem comes from the day to day life that black women in America, especially mothers, live. Although we would like to think America has reduced its racial prejudice against black citizens, there is still a certain division between the different races, which is notable in the way the speaker feels as she walks down the street carrying her child on her back. She is aware of how people view her when she walks down the street, the “self conscious” feeling she gets, the “pressure of [her mother’s] body,” and all of the other black mothers who came before her. She is trying to balance becoming a grown woman and caring for her child in the traditional ways with the society in this modern world where people assume she is her child’s nanny. This poem evokes a very emotional response I think because it is extremely personal yet also widely accessible as it delves into the bond a new mother wants to have with her child. While not every reader is a mother, or is of African-American descent, it forces the reader to think about their own mother or their own possible role as a mother in the future, and the challenges that they faced or might face.

Jamaal May’s “Masticated Light” is a truly great poem because it has such vivid imagery, depicting a man struggling with his being legally blind in one eye due to a fight in which he feels shame for participating. The poem closes with him “try[ing] to squint that monster into the shape of a man.” The “monster” refers to how he sees himself, with “horns [which] sprout[ed] from the head of [his] silhouette.” May peels away at the layers of the speaker’s complicated feelings which start out as him almost feeling sorry for himself at the doctors, to his pride in fighting the kid who damaged his eye, to the horror that he could do just as much damage to another living being, that he could “[drag] him like a gazelle … so “easily.” I love this poem because reveals both regrets and fears that arise from a man’s harsh but truthful self view. He admits to “how easily [he] owned his face, its fear,” wanting to claim the pain of another person, wanting to be responsible for another’s suffering. He realizes how twisted this makes him, and that no matter how hard he can try, he will always be more of a monster than a man. Although “Masticated Light” does not seem to fit into the political atmosphere of the 2014 edition of BAP, it stood out to me as a great poem because it explores the mental struggles of an impaired man, something that I would consider unique and important to read.

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