Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps - Aaron Levy Samuels

Today's book of poetry:
Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps.  Aaron Levy Samuels.  Write Bloody Publishing.  Austin, Texas, USA. 2013.

In this book of poetry culture, race, ethnicity and youth all get an energetic joy ride from Aaron Levy Samuels.

Mr. Samuels is both Jewish and Black and plays off of the stereotypes of both in a smooth dichotomy and intimate fervor with poems such as "The Black Penis Talks Shit to the Rest of Aaron" and the equally illustrative "The Jewish Penis Talks Shit to the Rest of Aaron".  Samuels is nothing if not dexterous.

These pile-driving poems have different voices, structures, styles but the choirmaster Samuels is consistent with challenging the status-quo of racial identification and racial socialization.  These poems are full of ideas, challenges, solutions, observations and pleas.

What Really Happened on Mt. Moriah

There was no lamb

struggling in a hidden thicket
horns clawing
the brush;

no angel,

     no gust of wind
     thunder to make the hand


just the blade

just / the throat


as the servants watched

their eyes—
a silent covenant

to tell the story



This could all be very pedantic stuff if it weren't for the many exciting voices Samuels is able to exorcise, the variety of poetic styles - and all maintaining a sharp sense of purpose.

Totem: Malcolm X Dog Tag

When I was fourteen I got a dog tag chain
with Malcolm X at the end of it—a totem
to remind the world how black

I was. Malcolm X was the blackest person
I knew, except maybe Denzel Washington
but then again, well, you know.

I figured that as long as I wore this chain
nobody could steal my blackness from me.
Before Malcolm, people used to just help themselves.

Used to reach into my thighs, the blackest body part
I owned and grab a fistful; watch it pour like ash
into the atmosphere—a cloud of high top sneakers,

and claps on 2 & 4. When it was gone,
they would act like it didn't just happen
like there wasn't ash underneath their white nails,

tried to play it off, in their full body velour jumpsuits
tucked into Timbs.  They'd be like:
you're not even all the way black

like that wasn't the same as reaching into the meat
of my other thigh. But with Malcolm around my neck
they couldn't touch me. I tested it out:

put my chain on over my cornrows & watched
the fist slowly un-punch my nose,
a thick maroon stream creeping into my left nostril.

The books flung themselves into my backpack,
which was ripped right onto my shoulders
when I ran towards the group of boys

waiting for me after school.
After they un-jumped me,
we all gave each other daps

the way black boys do—
one hand extended to meet the quivering embrace,
the other clutching the black Malcolm

on my chest, just so the world knew
I wasn't dreaming.


How do you blend a hip-hop sensibility and a bar mitzvahed young man slinging Malcolm X cool with concrete poems, poems made of charts, other poetic paraphernalia?  There is almost too much happening in Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps.  But this is poetry and more than enough is sometimes just the right measure - what I am so clumsily trying to say is that I found Samuels to be an exciting poet and his poetry thoroughly engaging.

Samuels isn't using a microscope for his examination, extended riff, on race and perception.  He's doing much better than that.  He's holding up a mirror.

The Multiracial Asian German Woman

who is destructively attractive, tells me
because my mother is Jewish, I don't really count
as Black.  In her country, Germany—

not Taiwan, where her mother is is from—
everyone just treats her as German.
People aren't "mixed."

a bead of cabernet escapes her mouth.

She says
there is not much diversity in Germany

with no wind—
a well-rehearsed answer:

     Yes I am sorry.
     No, my family did not have any involvement.
     Everyone in the whole country
     feels really bad about what happened.

She swills, sips a thick red glass, smiles,
& says words like Dachau and iPhone.

My face is a Molotov cocktail.
Each freckle: a concentration camp
joke. Each curve: a shipping route.

Her mouth is a train car. My grandmother's face
poking through its enamel bars.
Maroon liquid rise to the cabin roof.


Aaron Samuels is a native of Edgewood, Rhode Island, and a Cave Canem Fellow.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is his first full length poetry collection.

Covered in Grass - Aaron Levy Samuels

Louder Than a Grenada - Aaron Levy Samuels


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