Ekphrasis and the Lennon Lyric: A Review of Lynchings: Postcards from America

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Lynchings: Postcards from America
by Lester Graves Lennon
(WordTech Editions, 2022, 128 pp, $20)

After forty years as an investment banker, Lester Graves Lennon understands risk, and, as a poet, he leverages a keen ear for music, his formal poetic talent, in Lynchings: Postcards from America to extract art from tragedy. He chances the label of “misery literature,” but couching the horrific American legacy of lynching and current social injustices with the author’s life experiences tempers loss with creation. Lennon offers us wisdom as he laments a brutal racist history and the ruthless realties connected to it while acknowledging and honoring life’s gifts. Through form, the poet guides us into complex emotional spaces and leads his readers not only to catharsis but also to discovery.

Lennon lyrics, the poet’s invention, account for twenty-one of the seventy-two poems of the collection. These are blues-like eighteen-line poems divided into three six-line stanzas. The first word of a line is the last word of the same verse, though the initial and terminal words of the last line in the first and second stanzas may vary. The poet writes that these words “hold familiarity.” For instance, Lennon echoes “truth” with “truths” and “no” with “none” in the sixth and twelfth lines of “Postcard Showing the Lynching of Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Thomas Jones, and Joseph Riley.” Such repetition is reminiscent of a blues refrain and highlights not only the word that bookends a line but also focuses the reader on the imagery within. The last three lines of the poem reveal the power of Lennon’s framing technique.

One friend, three brothers, four lodge members; one faces camera. In background two black faces staring, one man one boy, carefully staring.

Understanding the power of the past demands examining how it has influenced the present, so the poet begins Lynchings: Postcards from America with “Under Church Roof,” a poem concerning the 2015 massacre of congregants at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This poem and all that follow it in the first section are Lennon lyrics, setting up a juxtaposition with the collection’s second section from which the title of the book comes. Save four poems, this part of Lynchings contains the same form, underscoring the dialogue between past and present that describes the ghosts that still haunt the American mind. “Under Church Roof” parallels mass shootings and lynchings and establishes that such racial violence has never really gone away, that it has only really taken on different forms. Through blank verse, the poem establishes a sanctified, safe tone in the first two lines, a tone which then becomes consumed by the shooter’s violence, mirrored as the meter takes on substitutions throughout the piece. The seventh through tenth lines provide context:

One witness left to tell the worst of one. No screaming audio; no, “Please, no!” No last calls to Jesus as nine bled their last. Slaughter-stained battle flag flies after slaughter.

Notice that the poem returns to a regular iambic pentameter in the seventh line to only resume with metrical variations, the overwhelming rhyme of the long “o,” and incessant punctuation that repeats like a rifle by the second line. Lennon permits the reader a sonic entry, an embodiment of the carnage through the disruption of sound—headless and reversed feet, piles of secondary stresses, and extra unaccented syllables reflect the brutality. Indeed, the poem exemplifies the poet’s skillful use of form. The reader leaves “Under Church Roof” feeling history’s horrors within today’s devastating tragedies.

The emotional core of Lynchings: Postcards from America centers around the ekphrastic poems of the second section, mostly Lennon lyrics inspired by postcards made from photographs of Black Americans who were lynched. Lennon’s poems, through excruciatingly brutal imagery, confront the reader with the horrific reality of those killings and elicit grief, shock, and empathy. Four Poems—“Postcard Showing the Lynching of Allen Brooks,” “Frank Embree Standing on Buggy Facing Camera,” “Photograph of Lynching” and “Lynching”—are among the strongest of the entire collection, employing similar techniques as “Under Church Roof,” but Lennon’s poetic skill is not one-dimensional. In fact, he even reinvents the Lennon lyric, condensing it to a sonnet in “Frank Embree Standing on Buggy Facing Camera.”

He’s a lynch knot waiting to tighten. He’s standing on buggy’s bed, backbone-tall, standing. Hands, genitals last guards, cuffed in front. Hands, wrists swollen, handcuffs biting captured wrists. Hats: bowlers, straw, soft brim; white men wear hats. Hatless black Frank, no listed crime, just hated.

The first stanza of the poem showcases all the elements of the Lennon lyric with the added complication of rhyme. “He’s” and “wrists,” “hats” and “hated” are slant rhymed, and of course, the poet offsets the rhyme of “standing” with “hands.” So much repetition and rhyme replicates Embree’s restraint, binding the reader and verse to each other and the lynching. Observe that the poet also removes most of the articles one would expect to see. He employs this technique in his Lennon lyrics, too. In this case, “the” could come before “buggy’s bed,” but the poet avoids the use of an anapest that would disrupt the constrained feeling and voice created by and working with the form. This level of craftsmanship is found throughout the collection.

Additionally, Lennon dedicates an entire section to the haiku, providing the reader with touching moments from his life. He includes haiku for his daughter, wife, and even Lucille Clifton, providing space for the reader also to contemplate love and the small things that make life worthwhile. “Woman Gazing Out Window,” an ekphrastic poem inspired by a photograph his daughter captured, serves as a reflective counterbalance to the violent history of lynching witnessed in the previous section.

Wistful curve of back Summer rains announcing fall Still time still time

The haiku operates within the expectation of a 5-7-5 syllable format while working with the iambic foot. The first two lines begin with a headless iamb, suggesting that the woman the speaker refers to is in the middle of her life and past the “unstressed” beginning that youth can be. The intriguing title begs the reader to ask why the woman is gazing out of the window, and the work done by the second line suggests that she is worried, stressed out as we all can be with our desires and goals. After all, summer is ending. Fall will arrive soon. By the last line, two iambic feet offer assurance that there is “still time.” However, the haiku ends one syllable short and implies that life will end before the speaker and the woman expect. The poem exists as kindness for the worried, but what makes it especially compelling is that the haiku reminds us of the brevity of life. It gives us wisdom as well as comfort.

For those who are seeking a collection of poems that address the history of lynching and how it still haunts us, for those who are also searching for a poet with an eye and ear for the quotidian details that give life meaning, Lester Graves Lennon’s poetry can break your heart and put it back together. These are well-crafted poems that are waiting to be felt, that inform us of and advise about a history that still haunts. Lynchings: Postcards from America offers us wisdom that should not go unnoticed or unheeded.