Review: Grievance House (A Review of Freedom House by KB Brookins)

By Hugh Blanton

You'd be hard pressed to find a poet that doesn't use their poems to file grievances, even if many of the aggrieved apparently lack any authentic rage. If it's true that a poet's soul is laid bare on the page, one can't help but wonder if some of these poets live a life of nothing but around-the-clock unbearable misery. It's as if the universe has targeted poets—and only poets—with misfortune and bad luck. Pick up any collection of recently released poetry and you are likely to be met with an endless onslaught of complaint, bleating, and mewling. More than a few poets have made a career out of trying to make readers fall in love with their grief. Now it looks like we've found the most aggrieved of them all.

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Freedom House is the latest collection of poetry from KB Brookins. He's currently in the process of earning his MFA from UT Austin and hasn't apparently been told yet not to begin poems with "I". Of the 69 wailing and gnashing poems in this collection, 16 of them start with "I". Like most poets he's his own favorite topic, but Brookins takes it to a whole other level. (Brookins identifies as "they/them" on his social media profile but for the purposes of cogent grammar I'm using he/him here. -HB) Whether he's carrying the weight of a city on his shoulders ("My best barrier is the Black skin I wear/ when carrying a city on top of me") or farting under the covers in bed, Brookins is the center of his universe.
In 2023 Brookins was awarded an NEA fellowship and also a Stonewall Book Award. His confusing metaphor and silly simile are perfect for those who hand out the awards for poetry. "If cameras/ create the crime then I declare my pants untenable by white people..." Then this odd simile: "as the day breaks open like a fungus sent off for lab work." He also includes the word ghazal in titles of ghazals to let the reader know they are in fact reading a ghazal, much like Guggenheim recipient Reginald Betts. (My pants untenable by white people?)
There's quite a bit of protest in this collection—Brookins mentions Texas politician Ted Cruz a few times and of course takes the obligatory shots at Donald Trump. James Baldwin, the acclaimed black poet writing during a time when the USA was conscripting young adults into war and had much bigger axes to grind, despised protest literature, saying it's "concerned with theories and with the categorization of human beings, and however brilliant the theories or accurate the categorizations, they fail because they deny life." Baldwin wrote from a place of deep thought and introspection, Brookins writes from social media reactionary outrage. In his poem "Sexting at the Gynecologist" Brookins writes: "Between my legs is a national treasure or at least what gives/ republicans wet dreams during seasons of political theater." He makes use of trendy erasure poems to protest a Texas senate bill, and another untitled erasure poem may be a protest as well but has been so erased no meaning can be discerned. In the book's titular poem he protests against prisons, repeating "no prisons" eight times. He does not, however, offer an alternative for what to do with people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Derick Chauvin.
There are eight poems here titled "T Shot #1" through "T Shot #8" about the weekly testosterone injections he takes every Wednesday at 5 PM (Brookins is transgender). It's impossible to tell if he's happy, sad, or outraged at transitioning.
           Every man treats me like I'm living
           now. Somehow, when this life is over, I will have lived both sides
           of the offensive line—throw me the ball, fam. I'll be sure
           to run into a teammate, tell them how men
           are the silliest things since touchdowns were invented.
Brookins also suffers depression, "I take Zoloft/ so the depression isn't lurking." He's apparently a walking pharmacy—hopefully his insurance plan has low co-pays.
After the 2016 Presidential election Brookins felt traumatized enough to compose poetry. In "Notes After Watching the Inauguration" he writes:
           When the white folk come for me,
           When the state troopers come for me,
           When the graveyard comes for me,
           When the Starbucks comes for me,
           When the cameras come for me,
           When Republicans come for me,
           When Democrats come for me,
           When my own demise comes for me,
           Who will answer the door?
When Starbucks comes for me? This is paranoia at its finest.
Protest poetry continues to get weaker with time and it's becoming more and more difficult to discern between it and simple run of the mill whining. "Fuck anybody that wants to muzzle my genius till it quiets," Brookins writes, as if he has a too-heavy dose of self-esteem to go along with his paranoia. In 1963 the inimitable James Baldwin did a lecture tour for the Congress of Racial Equality. Time magazine described Baldwin's ideology as between the muscular approach of Malcolm X and the nonviolent program of Martin Luther King, Jr., saying in their May 17, 1963 issue that "There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of racial ferment..." And 60 years later there still isn't.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5