An Arduous Reality: Testify by Simone John

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Simone John’s first full-length collection of poems, Testify, is a remarkable exercise in documentary poetics. Its courageous voice venerates stories of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland—two black people whose lives were cut short by brutal and unnecessary acts of violence. Testify forces readers to see and hear these stories and others. It offers witness to personal narratives scrubbed by a society afflicted with white supremacy.

John’s book begins with a line from Kendrick Lamar’s song, “good kid”: “For the record, I realize I am easily prey.” The genius of the line, and in John’s choice of it as a tone-setter, is in Lamar’s use of the word “easily” rather than “easy.” If something is “easy prey,” there is an inherent weakness in that which is being pursued—something to serve Darwin’s evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest. Lamar’s “easily prey,” however, suggests a victim is overcome by an insurmountable power—one entirely unnatural: a white police officer, for example, with implicit racial bias and a quick trigger finger.

Testify is composed of two sections written in free-verse and traditional forms. It aptly reclaims existing cultural texts to poetically archive the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and other people of color. John’s imagery-rich lines offer details that precede and follow the violent acts, but her poems do not describe the actual crime scenes. Instead, John deftly evokes the crimes and crime scenes by deploying courtroom testimonies, dashboard recordings, found poems, musical lyrics, and relics of her own childhood. The result is that each poem draws a focused attention to the complex and arduous reality of living in America with non-white skin.

The first section of the book focuses on the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. “Order of Events,” the opening poem, links this tragedy to the NBA All Star game by ending the first stanza with a line from a song performed by Pitbull and Ne-Yo at the halftime show: “For all we know, we might not get tomorrow / Let’s do it tonight.”

In the final poem of the opening section, “Unbecoming Language,” John reflects on her reasons for writing Testify in the first place:

My mother tongue is spoken between
gritted teeth full of phrases like:
This motherfucker right here!
Ain’t that about a bitch and sometimes
my poems need to say some shit.

I cannot say nigga. All my words have edges
and I am built of too many sharp corners.
I am undeterred by your wincing. Unwilling
to change my tone. Always muttering
these motherfuckers under my breath.

In between, John creates the poem, “How the Man Look Like,” from courtroom transcripts. In it, the Martin family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, is questioning Trayvon’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, about a phone conversation they had just prior to the shooting. Jeantel remembers Martin complaining about a man following him, and John uses the moment to combine disjointed worlds:

—I asked him how the man look like. He said, “He look like a creepy
ass cracker.
Okay. Lemme make sure we got that: creepy ass cracker. Is that what you
recall him say-
And by that, you mean, a white individual?

“He Said” similarly tracks Jeantel’s deposition, but a court reporter’s inability to hear what she’s saying becomes a metaphor for America’s pervasive social ignorance, and for society’s inability to hear (or see) people with brown skin. The final lines reveal explosive frustration:

BC: Then what happened?

RJ: And then he said, “Nigga is still following me now.”

__________CR: I can’t hear you.

RJ: “That— nigga— is— still— following— me— now.”

More of Jeantel’s testimony is found in “It Mighta Been a Rapist.” Twice more the reporter does not hear Jeantel’s answers, and twice the Martin lawyer coddles the court, ensuring them she will repeat herself: “BC: Go ahead then, repeat your answer. What else did you say to him and / what did he say to you? // RJ: Nahhh, stop playing around wit me like dat.” It is unclear whether Jeantel’s words are a thwarted response directed at the court reporter, who symbolically represents a blockage in the justice system, or if it is an actual answer to the lawyer’s question. Either way, it is telling.

Though “Letter to White People” seems more like an abbreviated tiptoeing, it is still poignant in its commentary: “A conversation about slavery / isn’t the best moment to discuss your family’s / post-Ellis Island hardships.” But the poem is also a perfect segue for the upcoming pantoum, “Nigga du Jour.” These back-to-back poems are a successful bait-and-switch: the first, more digestible; the second, an urgent spotlight on white appropriation.

Everyone wants to be the nigga du jour
For the price of a hoodie, a bandana, a chain
You too can have a slice of the black experience
Co-opt the Harlem Shake; leave Stop and Frisk for the rest of us

The lines of “Small Talk” are taken from a CNN affiliate’s public comment section. In each of its three brief parts, the piercing lines grow more and more trite. Starting with, “I would say the feral groids are / reverting back to their natural state / of incomprehensibility.” Followed by, “Good grief, how did Trayvon / even have a conversation / with this girl?” The poet saves the most trivial comment for the end, and in doing so, highlights the (white) public’s assumption of supremacy and distance from reality: “I couldn’t get past those huge earrings.”

John exposes white America’s need to make Trayvon’s death appear unreal. “On Watching Rachel,” begins with sarcasm: “White folks only appreciate AAVE / if it’s autotuned to a diluted / MetroBoomin beat, with a catch phrase.” But the final line is more direct comment to white readers: “black / pain is a joke and the audience / is waiting for the punchline.”

Section two focuses on Sandra Bland’s 2015 fatal police encounter. Beginning with “Ars Poetica,” the poet writes, “If attention is a form of prayer // these poems are psalms / for slaughtered women.” It also advises the reader how to ingest the words to come, “The poem asks you to slow down. / Pay attention for a few lines.” It concludes unapologetically, “Now you / are burdened with knowing.”

“Cigarette” is the transcript of Officer Encina’s exchange with Sandra Bland. Though many readers will have previously heard this played on various news outlets, “Cigarette” reminds that Sandra, like Trayvon, was “easily prey” to white supremacy and white power.

—Step out of the car.
No, you don’t have the right.
—Step out of the car.
You don’t have the right to do this.
—I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you.

More of the officer’s actual statements to Sandra are catalogued in “Lawful Orders: An Abbreviated List.” His language, even when detached from context, even when separated from the actual dashboard evidence, characterizes a complete disregard for the Sandra’s black body. For her humanity.

You are under arrest.
I said get out of the car.
I’m giving you a lawful order.
I’m going to drag you out of here.
I will light you up!

Interspersed between these poetic lists are elegies for dead black women; here is the first:


The first death comes by
bullet. The second, when they’ve
forgotten your name.

John refuses to forget Sandra Bland’s name. And other names, too, as we see in “Elegy for Dead Black Women #2”: “Miriam Carey. / Shelley Frey. Aiyana Jones. / Rekia Boyd.” And in “Elegy for Dead Black Women #3”: “Susie Jackson and / Cynthia Marie Gram Hurd / and Ethel Lee Lance.” John also writes an invocation for black transwomen murdered in the United States. In “Elegy for Dead Black Women #4,” she adds more to the list: “India Monroe / Jazz Alford, Goddess Diamond / and Rae’Lynn Thomas,” along with seventeen other names. John tells readers, “Pick // a name you didn’t / know. Carry it with you. Bear / the weight of her loss.” She concludes the collection with “The Poet’s Eulogy,” preemptive words to be said at her own funeral. Words that also eliminate the distance between the poet and reader.

Simone did so much so young. Like she knew the clock’s hands weren’t
ticking in her favor. And from where we’re standing, it looks like she
might’ve been right. But Christ said, Do not let your hearts be troubled. We
know better than to let despair sink its teeth into our skin. We know that this
is ultimately part of God’s plan.

___________________________________________________Yes Jesus, sweet Jesus.

Simone John leaves readers haunted. Preyed upon and troubled. She demands that white people and white society see and hear clearly the burden of daily dread. “Things I Don’t Say to the White Audience at the Poetry Reading” summarizes her intended effect:

There is no redeeming nature metaphor here.
No plot twist to leave you feeling lighter.

Just more names
you have already forgotten.
Just more bodies.

Tom Griffen is a North Carolina writer with California roots. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has previously appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, and also in Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, O-Dark-Thirty, The Quietry, and others. In January 2018, Tom is amidst a walk across the USA. Follow him at More from this author →