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Justice-focused poetry allows for self-reflection

A liberal arts education holds multiple opportunities beyond the classroom. Students, faculty and staff at St. Olaf can engage with visiting luminaries who offer intellectual and artistic enrichment. Seeing a renowned or rising star can awaken in all of us a call to possibilities beyond particular disciplines or fields of study.

I took advantage of one such opportunity on Oct. 29 when St. Olaf hosted the poet Justin Phillip Reed. Students and faculty gathered in Viking Theater to hear Reed read from “Indecency,” his collection of poems published in 2018. “Indecency” was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. The slight, African American poet was splendid as he read selections that stretched my sensibilities. In “Pushing Up on Its Elbow, the Fable Lifts Itself into Fact,” Reed muses about the disappearances of Black girls, a pattern that punctuates American history, even to this day:

“To disappear Black girls at a low volume of public panic / is to insinuate the inconstancy of / Black girls. The disposability of / Black girls who are prone to disappearance. A body bag somewhere/waits with little hoopla about its lot. Absence becomes the lot / of Black girls.”

I thought of newspaper articles with the school pictures of Black girls who went missing or were blown to bits in church bombings. All the discourse about civil rights, black power, voting rights, economic justice and microaggressions was in that moment eclipsed by images of little Black girls who disappeared and the suffering of those left behind. Argument cannot address victimage, it can’t comfort grieving parents or siblings. I felt a little of their anger and sorrow. Reed’s poem continues:  

“Unlike missing Black girls, taking Black girls is a Western custom. / it seems likely that such a statement will soon appear inaccurate; the / white space in new textbook editions will have nothing to say about / it, if the white spaces behind those textbooks have anything to say / about it.”

Reed did not indict me in the disappearance of Black girls. But I did feel complicit with the white spaces and wondered why I do not know the names of Black girls who disappear. Grief and curiosity are a potent combination.

“Poetry breathes life into deliberations about policy and institutional values. What we stand for must be informed by what we inherit from the past we share and what we feel when a poet evokes that past.” – Helen B. Warren

As we grapple with issues of equity and inclusion, insights that Reed invokes are essential. They expose a treacherous legacy, an inheritance we all must own. Poetry breathes life into deliberations about policy and institutional values. What we stand for must be informed by what we inherit from the past we share and what we feel when a poet evokes that past.

Another of Reed’s poems, entitled “A Statement from No One, Incorporated” also bears on current deliberations about equity and inclusion. 

“We are not responsible. We have not

the capacity to respond, cannot take

your call, are not obliged. / We live on the unanswerable, assert / that acknowledgement is inartistic, / history is regressive, and aggression looks like no one we know. / No one / is responsible, while we have the luxury/to see ourselves as infinite ones, ocean / of infinite possibility.”

The flat refusal of responsibility that inhabits this poem is not an option for us. Nor is it possible to invoke common humanity, that “ocean of infinite possibility” that remains aloof from real suffering inflicted on our behalf. 

Reed reminds St. Olaf that artistry offers a poignant way into conversations which scare us. The conversations may start with noble purposes, but they do not progress nor gain substance until we depart from noble generalities to ponder what is unspoken or unacknowledged. 

After the reading, Reed signed his book for me and made this inscription: “I hope that these poems let you in.”  His words acknowledge that understanding between us hinges on much more than the language and nationality we share. Little in my life experience bears directly on his poems. But they evoke powerful sensibilities that are as real to me as the life I live. 

His hope that his poems will let me in reassures me. If I can feel and see what is unavoidable or obvious to him, we just might have a chance to live up to noble words about equity and inclusion. I’ll never forget the late afternoon when I met Justin Phillip Reed and his poems in Viking Theater at St. Olaf College.  

Helen B. Warren ( is Director of Government, Foundation, and Corporate Relations.

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