The weight of returning
Quraysh Ali Lansana comes home
Tulsa Artist Fellow Quraysh Ali Lansana is a poet, nonfiction writer and educator from Enid.
For nearly a decade, Quraysh Ali Lansana didn’t step foot in his native Oklahoma. There was too much pain here. The Enid-born poet, nonfiction writer and educator had just become a father, but the rapid-fire loss of his parents and his two best friends—“my Oklahomies,” he remembers fondly—alongside the death of his mentor, the renowned Gwendolyn Brooks, left him feeling unmoored.
This uneasy relationship to home gave rise to Lansana’s 2012 collection, Mystic Turf, a book that turns loss over in the light. “It’s a book of grieving,” he says. “It was all about trying to deal with re-defining home as a new father, without my two anchors and my two parents in the world, and my mentor in the world ... the mystery of re-defining home, and what you know of home—in terms of geography, and personal geography—in terms of land, and place. It’s me trying to figure out what I’m standing on.”
Mystic Turf is one of the seven collections from which the Tulsa Artist Fellow drew for his latest, The Skin of Dreams: New and Collected Poems, 1995-2019. While its individual poems traverse decades, political climates and locales, Lansana’s warmly surreal collection hangs together as an accumulated emotional knowledge of place and belonging, race and remembering.
“Putting together the new and collected was challenging, because it’s not only about choosing the work I felt was most representative of where I was at the time, and trying to build a cogent narrative not only from within each book, but from book to book,” Lansana says. “But also because my writing has improved since those earlier poems. And also just tracking my own evolution as a man, as a human, as a black man, as a writer—as a historian, as a thinker.”
The collection spans 23 years of Lansana’s life, from Oklahoma to Chicago, New York, and back again—but it also charts an inner trajectory whose terrain is harder to map. “I wanted not only for the work to be reflective of where I was at those times, during those moments, but also that I needed the work to be what I considered my strongest work from those moments. And also for the poems to have some meaning, some resonance to me. The poems that are in there all have a weight for me personally.”
That personal weight gives the work, even at its most experimental, an emotional edge that cuts close to the bone. “Many of the poems in the book I almost never read aloud—either because they’re too personal, or too sensitive, or they represent a period of pain or transformation,” Lansana says. “But I wanted them to be in the book because I felt like they were reflective of the journey.”
The journey of Lansana’s latest collection begins with 17 new poems, taking readers from Eufaula, Alabama, to a basement in Wisconsin and a border check in South Padre. But it’s the histories surging beneath these locales, and the characters populating them, that make the book sing. “Because I’m a student of history and I’m interested in the relationship between the personal and the political—the internal, and the external,” Lansana says. “It has to do with the politics of place, and the personal politics within that place.”
Take, for example, the opening stanza of “tulsa blur: 1921 to 2012,” one of the collection’s most potent and powerful new poems. Here and throughout The Skin of Dreams, Lansana shows us the thin membrane between our present lives and our history, the personal and the political:
red dust simmering below skin of earth,
is how bullet transcends muscle, history
a howling fire gasolined to ravenous mouth
like language, like hate. irritable june heat
in march a trigger, fuse drawn to surface
Quraysh Ali Lansana is now living in Oklahoma for the first time in 30 years—in Tulsa, with its gruesome history “simmering below.” As the city continues to reckon with its own past, approaching 100 years since the 1921 Race Massacre, we may just need a poet like Lansana to show us how to grieve, and how to carry on.
The Skin of Dreams: New and Collected Poems, 1995-2019
By Quraysh Ali Lansana
138 pp. The Calliope Group, LLC.