The writer Jay McInerney once said that every generation needed a Manhattan novel, one that captured the culture and sentiment of the time. While his novel Bright Lights, Big City was quite innovative with the use of the second person, as well as with its insight into the publishing industry and New York’s vibrant night life, it by no means captures all of New York. Ryan Black’s The Tenant of Fire might not be a direct response to McInerney’s novel, but it is a response to the narrative that life in New York only happens in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Black examines life in the outer boroughs, specifically Queens, and with narrative poems that always seek to explore the entirety of a situation, event, or memory, what results in an important collection that adds voice to the eight million that call New York home.
In 2011, controversy hit the American poetry scene when Claudia Rankine critiqued Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” The poem is told from the perspective of a white narrator who, upon walking though a lobby, gets sucked into a tennis match playing on the TV screen. The match is between a black female tennis player and a white player, and the speaker so candidly expresses that he wants the white player to win because she is a part of their “tribe,” and the cultural changes that are happening in the country are coming as a shock to them. The poem, apart from the license it takes with the speaker’s prejudices, is insular in its perspective, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly attempt to adequately explain the cultural surroundings of the moment that led to this point. Black tackles what is pretty much the same moment, Serena and Venus Williams achieving success and stardom, in “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” and he allows his speaker to spend time looking at what the Williams sisters endured when they arrived at that moment:
The city’s split. It is what it is, Serena admitted. At the French Open,
the crowd boos, but they’re young, they’re kids, she added, thinking back
to California, to 2001 at Indian Wells, where the sold-out crowd,
retirees and baby boomers, serenaded the sisters with worse than insult.
Venus had withdrawn minutes before her semifinal match against Serena.
Two days later, at the finals, walking down with Venus to the players’ box,
Richard Williams turned to face the heckling crowd, nearly delighted
by the scene, grinned, and raised his left fist in the air like a wild John Carlos.
Serena publicly thanked him. She’s never returned to defend her title.
Black doesn’t merely say that the Williams sisters won their matches but goes into the racial and misogynistic insults they were subjected to because they were beginning a new era in a sport that had few people of color. Simultaneously, the speaker relates this changing era to the change that his parents and parents’ friends are experiencing, not to mention his own growth and understanding of the world, which he views partially through the lens of Nick Carraway and The Great Gatsby (a book he is reading for the first time). The speaker is no doubt experiencing the events on the periphery, but he knows he is a witness to something he will soon play a bigger role in.
While Black is concerned with moments of historical importance, he doesn’t overlook the personal moments that are worth reflecting upon. In “Via Negativa,” the speaker remembers when he and his friends were pretending to be soldiers in an imagined war, one that has them shouting “Remember the Alamo!” and “Omaha” and “Utah” because those phrases and words sound foreign enough to give their movements and actions a sense of authenticity. The speaker and his friends, at the time, are still too young to understand the meaning of death, but later, as the speaker questions why his friend Alberto would die from a stray bullet, he comes to know that ultimately we “learn to ask of what we can or never learn at all.” The speaker might not know exactly why the doctors couldn’t save Alberto, but he accepts that no moment should be taken for granted, regardless of how unimportant it may seem at the time. Sometimes we receive the answers to our questions; other times, we are left knowing nothing will illuminate the darkness.
With a keen eye on the past, Black never forgets the nuances of being raised and living in Queens, and in the title poem (a multi-page sequence), we get a more intimate look at Malcolm X, Duke Ellington, the 1964 New York World Fair, and growing up in a community that is no longer recognizable. Although the speaker is white, and the community he grew up in was predominately black, he can’t help but remember the how he was seen and what it ultimately meant to him:
My youth? I can’t hear it anywhere, Larry.
Not in the whippoorwill’s call at Jamaica Bay;
not in a Clinton Hill townhouse, single bedrooms available,
$1850/month. No. For a while I was the only white boy
on the team. Then I wasn’t. In Delaware, they thought
Puerto Rican. In Virginia, light skinned. That these men
could mistake a tight fade for Spanish Harlem, mistook
a handle for code, as if context were the only determinant.
Ryan? Shammgod joked. Motherfucker’s grandfather
still try to own us.
Regardless of how the speaker sees the joke now, he knows he was different. But it was acknowledging this difference that solidified his place on the basketball team, and that allowed him to look back at these scenes and understand he is who he is now because he experienced all this his childhood, and Queens, had to offer. Queens, like many boroughs, may be undergoing extreme gentrification in certain parts, but the memories remain, and they are what’s left when we can no longer view the world through the same lens.
There are books that you read, put away, and only return to when you are browsing your bookshelves, perhaps in search of another book. And there are books like Ryan Black’s The Tenant of Fire that you have no choice but to sit with, think about, and go back to immediately, hoping you captured every detail. Black’s collection might be centered in Queens, but the themes of race, acceptance, and of traversing the social issues of the past as much as those in the present extend beyond any one geographical place; they are, in more ways than one, universal to how we understand the world, and more importantly, each other.
The Tenant of Fire, by Ryan Black. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2019. 88 pages. $17.00, paper.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications, 2021). His debut essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us will be published by Split/Lip Press in late 2021. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an assistant poetry editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas.