In the first work that spoken word poet Michael Lee performed last Thursday night in Goodrich Hall before a crowd of about 150, he recalled names, regret and drugs – and whiskey and science and addiction. His words seemed to build upon one another, the rhythm of them growing louder and more insistent as his hands gesticulated in illustration. “We called ourselves scientists,” Lee spat in almost self-disdain. “We did not remove the emptiness, but became it.” And then: “Addiction is the ethereal art of forgetting that you are still here.”
This is how Lee performs – he cumulates, layers and slams snippets of metaphors and anecdotes without leaving you much time to catch up. He floods you with intensity, emotion, movement and everything in between, sometimes unexpectedly slowing the tempo, beaching you.
“Some days, your death is all that stands between me and a drink.”
When you hear this, you feel yourself pulled under a wave of grief and loss, guilt and love, overwhelmed by the sheer power and pain of which he speaks. More than that, there is something incredibly jarring about the second person, about the fact that this is a poem punctuated by the words “you” and “we” and “us.” You know that this poem is not addressed to any living member of the audience. It speaks to the past. It speaks to the dead. And yet, at the same time, it is directly spoken to you, transmitted to you, implicates you. At the end of the poem, his hands quiet, arms held stock-still at his side, Lee said, “You didn’t deserve life, but you got it, so what are you going to do to keep it?” The question posed is unavoidable. This is no longer a performance but a dialogue.
A great deal of the poems Lee performed Thursday night centered on questions of relations – how we are affected by one another, how we are connected to one another, how we have the capacity to hurt one another. In a piece that spoke of a boy with a violin, Lee said, “This poem is only an extension of that song.” Another work described the experience of seeing a dead man, the narrator observed, “Like so many others, is part of me now.”
There is something very beautiful in this notion of connectivity, and something potentially dangerous, too, something that smacks of ownership. Lee is not unaware of this and his poems do not shy away from speaking of it. One piece referred to a wish that an alcoholic uncle would die so that the narrator “can write about it.” The audience, too, was forced to question the kind of profit that they might be receiving from the performance. One work referred specifically of the poet’s refusal to render pain “prettily” or “poetically.” To be sure, Lee’s work is both pretty and poetic, and yet it is a beauty that is neither comfortable nor simple, but sharp and real and haunting in its specificity. As the poet observed in a question-and-answer session that followed the performance, there is “beauty in naming.”
Lee did not only speak to the audience in verse. He also spoke at length between poems, adding anecdotes of past shows and telling funny stories. At such moments, his voice changed slightly, so that a few “y’alls” slipped in and he became comic, self-deprecating, this slim Norwegian-American man with sleeve tattoos and brown leather boots. Despite their informality, these moments were hardly less compelling and seemed to add to the kind of artistic dialogue he held with his audience. Lee believes in the capacity of poetry to be a conversation, he acknowledged during one such interlude, adding that this conversation should not remain in the original performance room, but ought to extend beyond it. If poets aren’t willing to engage in such back-and-forth or such critique, he remarked, “What’s the point?”
The issues that Lee wants to see move beyond the performance room are ones that are often discussed on this campus during Claiming Williams Day: race, place, nation, identity. His writings document his wish to discover an America that will honor the sanctity of physical labor – an “America [that] has never existed,” one poem reads – as well as his attempt to deconstruct whiteness, which he compares to a “luminous bullet hole” in the fabric of America, an identity that sheds no light of its own, but is only ever defined as an opposition. There is a sense that in addressing these issues through art, Lee seeks to challenge them, maybe even to heal them. It is not a task he undertakes alone.
“Our job is … to set something free,” one of Lee’s poems read. The “our” is not rhetorical. It is a call to action, a call addressed to the people in the room and beyond it, on this Claiming Williams Day and on all the days that come after too.