Poems by Cortney Lamar Charleston

Art file-Nephew outside Conflict
Nephew Outside Conflict, Doren Robbins

Over Everything—

an expression my friends from the area affix to the rear of Chicago
like a train car Pullman porters worked way back when, the words

meaning, when strung together like links of a gold chain, our roots are
unrivaled in greatness, and if this makes us municipal supremacists,

so be it. If it rubs all the New Yorkers raw, so be it. We welcome
the sucking of teeth and the wisecracks saying we talk too much

just so we can talk good smack back in reply, we, the most natural-
born haters, big-shouldered with chips on them that had fallen

where they may a generation ago, and so here we are standing
between the egos of the two coasts to remind you fools we matter,

we’re alive. If one definition of a person is a place that a place makes,
then we’re made borderline brothers and sisters depending where you

draw the line on a foldout map. As a youngin’, I had anxiety about
that kind of thing around my kind at school and church, but the homie

draws an arm around me and I know not where I’m traveling from
but where I’m returning to like blood back to where it came from;

heart is where the home is or something like that and something
like nostalgia comes over me every time I speak the city’s name:

the six rings, the daytime talk show, the then-world’s tallest building,
a time we were at the center—me, at the center—a bygone era where

the bylines that went national weren’t written on the backs of black
and brown boys’ bodies, and girls’, and grown-ups’ who maybe never

had what one might call a “proper growing up.” Ghosts are back in style
but we’d prefer it to be starter jackets; another person down and another

shot burning in our throats, our talk about anything but the dead body,
all about books, ball, baes. It’d be fair to say we’re over everything—

but it wouldn’t be true because, as said before, we’re here—or they are.
At any moment in the city I adore above all, I’m likely nowhere found

and that’s a lifelong story: a strain hanging over everything, shaming me
for the miles between us I’ve only seemed to add to, and that ain’t love.


In Defense of Jawn While Offending Elitist Sensibilities

Calling a thing a thing ain’t a thing at all―or shouldn’t be.
A thing by another name is a noun, with the exceptions

of a place or a person; in other words, it’s a part of speech.
And a part of speech, of language’s own life, is innovation,

which conjures, to me, turns of phrase spun on turntables by
people with permanent tans in cement basements. And this is

kind of like that in that this single word I lawyer for becomes
what is modified by either this or that when referring directly

to a thing whose name is unknown, inconsequential or slips:
jawn, the economical option to employ in casual conversation,

resistance against unnecessary ornateness. But don’t worry
grammarians! If black people could ever be things instead of

people under the law, then the English language was already
broken, and so it only makes sense our tongues could become

slings when we set the bone of urbanity in our mouths, hence
slang, hence the mending of something into our own in the way

our bodies struggle to be to this very day. Now, in the manner
dark people mark a place as dangerous or destitute, the word

jawn marks a place people gloss over on their way to DC or
New York, a word unlike any other for a place unlike any other;

as in calculus, integration by substitution, something that leaves
linguists scratching their heads the world over. They say the word

is probably derived from joint like how I’m derived from slaves,
became something wholly different and amorphous how I became

a bright black student in a muting white school, this, referred to
as semantic bleaching by leading linguists, but a term that I find

alarming for its imagery. As a transplant, freshly arrived to Philly,
I leaned in and fell in love with how the brothers and sisters were

talking, like there wasn’t anything they couldn’t claim. I ponder now,
actually, how over the years I’ve routinely entered the city limits by

way of the Walt Whitman Bridge, named for the man who famously
wrote I am large, I contain multitudes; if jawn was his invention, it

would be called poetry, but it is what it is: a plentitude of meaning,
meaning the only language that can measure up to who my people are.


Author Photo - Cortney Lamar CharlestonCortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and Doppelgangbanger, forthcoming in February 2021 from Haymarket Books. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Winner of a Pushcart Prize, his poems have appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, Granta, The Nation and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus and on the editorial board at Alice James Books.

doren robbinsSpuyten Duyvil Publishing has produced Doren Robbins’ monograph, Apocalypse Contemporary, on Sharon Doubiago’s book Naked to the Earth. His art has appeared in Otoliths, Caliban, Empty Mirror, Angry Old Men, Agave, Houston Literary Review, Quora, and The Signature of All Things.