You have to look at the real cover to get the full impact of the title. ‘WE MADE IT TO SCHOOL’ is in black ink and a pretty standard font size for a cover. ‘ALIVE’ is close to twice as big and in orange. There’s no need for an exclamation point; it’s already there. And then it hits – what a thing to celebrate.
The orange used in the word ‘ALIVE’ is picked up the orange of the butterflies, strapped like angels’ wings to the two young black boys pictured on the cover.
And this leads the reader to “Butterfly in the Flesh,” a seemingly gentle and innocent story of boys slowly moving closer to butterfly to take a closer look. To do so, “they raise their hands / to prove their unarmed,” and the image of black boys with hands raised indicates there’s much more at stake here.
Then you might turn to “Alive,” a depiction of a classroom with children at play. “stefon,” for example “blows bubbles across the classroom” and “marshawn stands on his desk.” I’m not usually a fan of using italics for emphasis, but Harris’ italics in the last line – “my god, my black students are alive” – is less about emphasis and more a kind of quiet revelation. One can almost hear the teacher, perhaps Harris himself (I don’t know his biography, but a number of poems suggests that he knows the inside of a classroom from both sides of the desk) exhaling the words as a kind of prayer.
As I meditated in the white space that follows the poem, I realized that the teacher almost certainly is black. A white teacher who saw that kind of behavior would likely be the screaming one we find in “Cultural Literacy,” who “ties her students’ name tags around bullets, /trains them by feeding their tongues candy / wants their mouths as quiet as a curfew / [because] black mouths are black holes,” and that is so threatening that the lawmakers – in “What Lawmakers Really Mean When They Say ‘High Poverty Districts'” want to “install new locks inside their throats.” These boys grown up to be the ones Harris describes in “Boys” as hanging around “trying to build a muscle out of anything” and “waiting for a reputation to / justify [their] rage.”
There’s a motif here about the efforts made to control the voices of black students. They are, in “162 VS 537 (1896),” “taught how to obey rules / & unlearn their own handwriting.” There are signs that say “no talking.” This applies to teachers as well. In “On Whether I Should Smile on the First Day of School,” the speaker says, “when we, teachers of color, are told not to smile, what we really / are being told / is be careful when opening our mouths.”
There are bullets throughout this collection as well, but one thing Harris does so well is to turn an expected image enough to create new meaning and invite the reader to notice what he was expecting. (See the use of the rope in “After the Atlantic Post Article” and the framing images of the water in “Ocean.”) This shift can be as simple as the apparent celebration of a “Good Day,” when “not a single bullet pierces the sky.” And then you notice that a good day also includes “no kids pulled over.” “boys make snow angels” in “When God Sees Us” and the stanza break makes the reader return to innocence only to find that they make the snow angels “in gun powder.” Bullets are personified in “Another Funeral” (and hear that word, ‘Another’) when our teacher says, “no teacher guides prepared me / for all the bullets / that would feed upon my classroom.” The 2nd grader who is exhausted by standardized testing “crawled back inside the computer” (“Testing Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story”) becomes, in “I Feel You,” the “kid beat the shit out of his /school computer. fuck these test scores. school called the cops. said he was a bullet. you made me one.”
So why go to school at all? For one, the mother in “When the Morning Comes” “said a prayer /to herself – to gain the power to wake me up every morning / even when her worries to try to pin her /down.” (It just occurred to me; we pin butterflies, don’t we? We capture and collect them, then pin them and put them on display.) But a student gives her own perspective in “Where It’s Warm”: She says, “i go to school because my classroom in where it is warm.”
There are parents here too. The “black father” in “Parent Teacher Conference” who says, “i would have carried a pistol for this /conference, but the school seems coo.” And the mother who walks into a meeting at school in “a room full of jotting pens: ‘i have been through this shit before.'” (As a teacher, I have been one of those jotting pens; no more.) The way “pops” loses his faith in “When God Sees Us” is just heartbreaking.
In “On Whether Black History is American History,” Harris states that “much of the genius of black children is below the / surface.” These minds may be grenades, as in “Ocean.” This image is similar to the one in the first part of “Tamir in Three Parts” in which the speaker tells a police officer that Tamir has been “reincarnated as a lightning bolt.” Consider the potential energy of both a grenade and a lightning bolt.
As much as I wanted the collection to end with the last lines of “Butterfly in the Flesh” –
in the beginning
he said let there be light
& a butterfly boy, as black as beginning,
appeared, in the flesh
Harris doesn’t stop there. The child – whose sole ambition for the summer is to make a tent at home that will help cool his mother, sister and himself – has to get home and, in a way, Harris joins him when he concluded the last poem, “Walk From School” with this reminder: “we, the sons and daughters of black mothers and father /can run out of blood / but we’ll never run out of meaning”
Harris does not include a period to end his collection and neither, should we – as readers and, for some of us, as teachers – try to insert one.