Why We Chose Derrick Austin’s Tenderness for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Derrick Austin’s second collection, Tenderness, is complicated, just like all good books of poetry are. I don’t mean complicated in the sense of disjunctive language or obfuscation of meaning. I mean complicated like back in the early days of Facebook when that was one of your options to describe your relationship status. I mean complicated like the lives we’ve all collectively lived for the last half-decade, if not longer. I mean complicated like the fullest possible range of emotion one can experience in fifty-some pages of poems.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Tenderness, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Derrick Austin, you’ll need to subscribe by August 15!

Take for instance the poem “Late Summer,” which begins with images from the murders at the Pulse nightclub and of Philando Castile, and of people sharing video of the latter on social media. The poem then turns inward: “I cloistered myself in grief. I didn’t shave. / Mom said I looked like a wildcat. Was I an I?” The stanza ends there, giving the reader a moment to linger on that question, on how one’s sense of self could potentially be shattered by repeated violence against your community.

Then the poem moves us to another place completely, sailing on a lake with, as Austin says, “a man I’d been fucking,” and that language is important because Austin wants the reader to know this isn’t a boyfriend or lover, even though some may use those words to cover people they’re having sex with. The scene, while it could potentially be romantic, is anything but. “We heard the disordered drums and yelps / Of a woman who shouldn’t sing marimba music.” The two of them have sex, but Austin ends the poem this way: “I stopped desiring him months ago. / My pleasure was in his not knowing and wanting me still.” I don’t know what word to use to describe the emotion coming from the end of this poem but I know I’ve felt it before, and that I’ve never seen it expressed this way before.

Compare that to the poem “The Marina,” which begins with the speaker wanting “a veil / the color of gulls,” but not a wedding veil, a “veil as in shield and haven, as in / service to a lord who, without harm // entrusts his hand to me, allows / my intimacies and silence.” He’s alone there, watching the bustle around him. A wedding party returns; gulls and boats approach, but not to engage him, just to move along with their day. And then he notices a Black couple on the pier, “bubble and rush, flirt and withdraw—kissing, stroking their arms, / dissolving what they perceive / into biography and flesh and dream.” They don’t know he’s there. The other people in the world might as well not exist in this moment. The poem ends with them craning their heads and looking toward the sun, such a beautiful and peaceful image.

I haven’t even gotten into the poems for and about friends, or the one about when, as a child, the speaker was chased by a white man on the second floor of a Sears, or the many times that honeysuckle appears in this book. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by August 15 to receive your early copy of Tenderness, and to take part in our exclusive online chat with Derrick Austin in early October. I hope you’ll join us!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →