I’ll start this review by stating that, typically, I don’t like certain types of poetry books. There are some that I can read much like a novel, sitting quietly in my chair, taking in the words as they are. Then there are poetry books like US (a.), the latest by poet/rapper/actor Saul Williams, where I feel that I can only truly appreciate the work in his voice, watching him actually perform the words. It’s the difference between reading a screenplay versus watching a movie, or reading a musical score versus hearing an orchestra play the piece.
Like his other writings, Williams brings his style of slam to the written word. The story begins (a. “Look how they treat us.“) as a reflection on a history of the United States with regards to race and politics, as well as how those older concepts in US history relate to our modern technology and representation. The second portion (b. GLORYBOX: An American Dream) is more romantic, a personal reflection on death and love, interwoven with a story of a man named Ah, his student Aura Purple and her thoughts, his wife Aria and her interpretations of her dreams, and his child Okri and his philosophy of the world.
The third and final portion (c. Sketches of L’Heroine) is primarily a fictionalized account of the romance between jazz musician Miles Davis and French actress and singer Juliette Greco, set against the memories of Miles in wartime-era Paris. Across all three sections of the book, he addresses the ways in which U.S. culture has affected himself and various African-Americans throughout different eras. He tackles racism, misogyny and sexism, representation in media, commercialism and capitalism, and the desire for a better life throughout all of these institutions.
A general theme of his stories could be that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but this is more poignant in knowing that Saul Williams has been out of the country for nearly four years prior to coming back to the United States and writing this book. As many individuals find out in their international travels, how the US is viewed abroad comes in stark contrast to US citizens views on its own country, which is especially shown in the third portion of the book (“…all I can say is… no racist police checking my arms or my privates, no losing my cabaret card. We people over here.“)
This sentiment was popular among many black American writers, musicians, and artists as they traveled to Europe and Africa after World War 2, and current events have shown that many feel the same way in 2015.
But there is a greater conversation had with our connections as a whole. We find ourselves both more connected than ever before, yet disconnected from the humanity that comes with that. He compares the ordering online of goods to the Atlantic Slave Trade (“They ordered us online./Kept inventory like The Gap.”), but that also leads to a different conversation around the slavery of consumerism and corporate greed (“Fought for corporations to be treated as people/using legislation intended to give slaves the rights of humans and citizens.”)
In “Coltan as Cotton” he calls for those to use technology as a tool of seeking truth, rather than just a tool of status and, therefore, an additional means of oppression (“Hack into the unfair advantage of those lucky enough to be born into one family or another one condition or another./Hack into the circumstantial evidence that proves the obvious and wakes the oblivious.“). His ability to comment on the trends of the day while showing these things connect to our past and how our interactions, or lack thereof, are exceptional among the rest of the world.
I want to see US (a.) as a series of film shorts, hearing Williams’ voice echo through the New York City streets and seeing how the times unfold around him and his characters. The picture he paints is vivid, and he includes several notes as to how one should envision each scene and each word. At a time in which social tensions are high, this latest piece comes when beauty and perspective in writing can bring a new, and compelling, perspective.