Portraits of the Poet in Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “Doppelgangbanger” – Chicago Review of Books


It’s been five years since Cortney Lamar Charleston’s debut, and Doppelgangbanger is more than worth the wait: it’s a kaleidoscope of a collection effortlessly combining cultural signposts with philosophical ruminations about identity, place and self-determination. 

Charleston explores the ways that spirit and body can be restricted, harmed, and too often obliterated in our society with language that is both scalpel sharp and as chill and musical as a 90s hip-hop track. These are immensely intimate poems, particularly due to Charleston’s candor and insistent vulnerability, which parallel his strength and resiliency as someone who “…grew up too fast. // As we dark ones tend to do. / As we have to. Do.”

With pitch-perfect analogies, Charleston is especially deft at underscoring the challenges of being a product of multiple environments—the South Side of Chicago, the suburbs and later the Ivy League, among many other temporal and literal spaces—which will be resonant for many. He expresses these frictions in “A Brief History of Poetry,” how he “Doesn’t use the same / words, or uses the same words differently.”

The stakes of these intra-societal maneuverings are high, underscoring the hazards of being young, of being Black, of being an individual who doesn’t fit in neatly into one category. With all of these dos and don’ts, where is the room to be oneself, safely? How can a psyche, a soul, grow into its full reach? Charleston offers a contemporary instruction manual:

                     “Strategy guide: bad things aren’t bad
if you wear a white man to do them.

[…]

                     Strategy guide: your default is “scary,”
so be smart about when you smile.”

With wit and emotion, through memory and observation, Charleston considers what it is to be rooted without being imprisoned, which will speak to many of those marginalized or living in a variety of societal constructs that make them object rather than subject. “

“…Where I’m from
has always been the harder question for me to answer than why
I’m from there: the aspirational cultural cliché of better schools,
less crime, less violence, less us but only because they would
never allow any more, which is an incomplete truth that we use
to convince ourselves we haven’t left our own behind, including
ourselves in a metaphysical sense. Every place I’ve ever been
I’ve touched like a friendly ghost,…”

Charleston’s subtle and natural use of sense memory is especially effective, and his conversational style belies a confident control over language and timing that increases our intimacy with the poems. He’s particularly adept at capturing the voice of a younger narrator, through the contemplation of the adult, doing justice to both and creating a temporality where both exist simultaneously, to great effect.

“Tell me how you entered this poem, how you even got in / here.” This question as statement exemplifies both the scope of Charleston’s investigations, and the manner in which he conducts them. How do we end up in where we are? What do we ingest as truth, that we should instead question? What is it to feel visible only through the eyes and perspectives of others? Do we end up feeling as ephemeral as a hologram? 

“…And all of this is to say that
I don’t know what to say anymore or never did. I don’t know what
I did to deserve being looked through as though my organs aren’t
here to hide my naked blood. That’s how it feels, truly, so believe
me when I tell you this: there really is no hell on Earth quite like

standing right in front of you.”

With a critical eye and emotional tenderness, Charleston is interested in how we are named, shuffled and boxed in by the larger world, our communities, our histories and ourselves. He understands that where we come from—familial, cultural and geographic—matters, as well as the shadows that follow us, and the shadows we in turn become.

“If a person can love and hate themselves
simultaneously, then surely I can
be two definitions of the same word.”

Though in the last lines of the collection, Charleston writes: “…I’ve always been / more comfortable being remembered fondly than being needed,” his voice and verse is necessary to the poetic discourse of our times, speaking to and for all those who weave together a multiplicity of selves to form a cohesive and fully-realized individual. Like a favorite album you return to repeatedly, these poems offer new facets and insights with each re-reading, with an underlying circulatory system that is uniquely Cortney Lamar Charleston. The accumulation is a spellbinding portrait of this artist, as a young man, now, and into the future.

POETRY
Doppelgangbanger
By Cortney Lamar Charleston
Haymarket Books
Published February 9, 2021

Mandana Chaffa

Mandana is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters that will launch in spring 2021, an Assistant Managing Editor at Split/Lip Press, and a Daily Editor at Chicago Review of Books. Her essay “1,916 Days” is in My Shadow is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora, (University of Texas Press, 2020) and she edited Roshi Rouzbehani’s limited-edition illustrated biography collection, 50 Inspiring Iranian Women (2020). Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in The Ploughshares Blog, Chicago Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, Asymptote, Split Lip Magazine, Rain Taxi, Jacket2, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Born in Tehran, Iran, Mandana lives in New York.



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