León, Raina. Boogeyman Dawn. Cliffs of Moher, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2013. 93 pp. $13.00 (paper).

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Reviewed by Brian Gilmore

Raina León’s latest poetry collection, Boogeyman Dawn, ultimately wonders about our shadowy thoughts and impulses and where these ideas disappear to when the daylight, or perhaps the daylight within all of us, arrives. León explores this expansive human journey in many ways but mostly through tiny sketches of life, her own travels we must assume, and experiences she knows or contemplates.

Boogeyman Dawn stands somewhat in contrast to León’s first book, Canticle of Idols, published in 2008. In Canticle, León explored questions regarding mythologies, fashioning her verse around the periphery of life to expand or pierce the crux of these ideals. In Boogeyman, despite allusions to the elusive figure who was introduced to many of us in childhood, it isn’t the mythologies that are expressed by León but troubling sketches of life, especially those experienced by our youngest people.

Boogeyman Dawn’s thrust is characterized by poets Evie Shockley and Francisco Aragón who present two of the book’s three blurbs. Shockley notes that the book “explores the space between some of our worst nightmares and the awakening of hope” while Aragón zeroes in on León’s methods of delivery, writing that “there doesn’t seem to be a device or register that León will not explore.”

As in music, labels can be, at times, problematic in examining writing and writers, but not so here as for León. From Boogeyman’s beginning, León’s Afro-Latino heritage is more prominent than it is in Canticle but not necessarily more than in her other works published over the years. She sets the tone by beginning with “Amanecer”—a poem whose Spanish title actually translates as “dawn.” León writes in the poem that “in Spanish, the word effloresces” and is “so much more than to dawn or sunrise in English” (p. 13). This provides the entry point through which León can caution the reader that her dawn is very different:

the world begins in blue
the deepest hue on the palette
so dark as to be almost black
with specks of primed board to peek

The book’s second poem, “Conversascion: to dance without words,” also advances the Afro-Latina literary legacy considering that the poem is a mixture of shifting English and Spanish verse, musically delivered and arranged for reader as almost a challenge. The two languages in “Conversacion” alternate between short English stanzas providing context and order and ultimately, identity:

his hazel eyes roll, first
offer. she counters with natural
brown hair, red highlights

escucha la musica, un hijo no nacido canta tu arrullo con mi accento abajo el ritmo
____my body bathes itself in an ocean, secret places open to be kissed. (p.15)

There are poems here that attempt to explain complex moments with simple everyday language such, as “Living together separated” which muses, “when my lover says that to marry/ means to enslave, i forget my want/ for rings and babies [. . .]” (p. 18). And in “The disappearance of fireflies,” a poem of setting darkness and youthful discovery, León writes, “We used to catch them in Mason jars/ or beer bottles by the park where the junkies/ hid with their works and fire spoons when it darkened enough to sink unseen” (p. 22).

The “boogeyman” appears throughout the collection, frequently in poems involving children. The poems that do not directly embrace this thematic path might spur readers’ curiosity about the disappearance of the myth. One offering in particular, “All around, he’s there” seeks to name him more than others. The poem shifts in and out of ultra-dark imagery. León’s boogeyman “sinks through bogs, travels in crud waters to pristine streams and mirror lakes where cow drinks” (p. 54). He eventually manifests in such beautiful places because he must go somewhere; he does not remain suspended in our dreams. León tells us at the poem’s end, “It’s easy now to blame the boogeyman. Blame the boogeyman. It’s not anyone’s fault” (p. 54).

A number of narratives appear throughout Boogeyman. “On the football field (for Tito)” is a disturbing fragment that explores bigotry and religion, set against the backdrop of high school sports.  León acts as a witness—a reporter seemingly writing for a local newspaper—though the work is personal because its subject is her brother. The poem—dominantly prosaic—presents a moment of human dysfunction and offers no flights of symbolism nor of solace in its familiarity.

______The jeers begin. That your mother over
there? Jumping up and down, looks just like a monkey. Another
chimes in with sound. My brother’s lurch forward soon
follows. Off sides. (p.23)

“Tracks” is another predominantly prose narrative that provides a morsel of the brother’s life. It is a poem of loss and innocence that is lengthy but also abbreviated given that the story is far more detailed that what the poem’s retelling offers.  The introductory passage declares:

There is a train coming and my brother runs as fast as he can in his business slacks and crisp cotton shirt. His dress shoes slap their distaste at the pace, but there is a train coming. He runs from the tears, those he would never weep at work for a girl he hardly knew. (p. 58)

“Wolf Rock School, 2006” draws upon León’s investment in the field of education as it incorporates the darkness she exposes throughout the book.  It follows in the manner of “Tracks” by seeking to bring immediacy and specificity via a real event. The poem recalls an October 2006 shooting at an Amish school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Such a setting is, of course, where such violence is never imagined—as exhibited by León when she writes, “Five little girls executed in Paradise” (p.48). This poem elicits a bit of want in the book. There are other poems here that explore dim moments, but they do not venture into the same degree of detail as “Wolf Rock School, 2006.”

The tributes in Boogeyman Dawn are both subtle and direct.  “Lately I’ve grown accustomed” is an homage to the late Amiri Baraka. The poem is an imitative riff upon one of his most famous published poems, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” and it seeks its own meaning of the ideas Baraka pondered more than five decades ago during his Beat period.  León also includes a “bop” in this collection, an nod to the work of Afaa Michael Weaver, creator the African-American poetic form many years ago.  León’s bop, “Bop (Extinguish) the flame,” uses an extended refrain that channels neo-soul singer Erykah Badu to accomplish the great challenge presented by the form—selecting a unifying song lyric that follows each stanza.

Ultimately in Boogeyman Dawn, the boogeyman is never too far away—reappearing in shifting approaches, stories, and dreams. Though he is a fictional figure, Raina León employs him in her attempt to define the here and now—the real, not part of any myth.

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Brian GilmoreBRIAN G. GILMORE is the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, a 2014 NAACP Image Award Nominee in poetry.  He is a long time columnist with the Progressive Media Project, and is both Cave Canem Fellow and Kumbilio Fellow. Currently, he teaches public interest law at Michigan State University.