Cruel Realities: Racism through Lyric in Dior J. Stephens’s Cruel/Cruel

reviewed by D.D. Deischer-Eddy

Poetry | Single-author collection. 104 Pages. Nightboat Books, 2023. Available here.

Colored pages are not new to me. So when I was handed a copy of Cruel/Cruel, I flipped through the section of black pages—they are fully black with white words—to sate my curiosity. Naturally, I had to smell the pages, and I did. Then I smelled them again. Unable to put my finger on the smell, I passed the book around to friends, the consensus being that it was the smell of ink. A lot of ink. Every time someone walked into the room while I was reading, I would stick my nose in those darkened pages and inhale, then cough. There was so much ink on those pages, the scent overwhelmed me the way a Sharpie does when held too close to your face. “What did you expect?” I was asked each time. I knew to expect the strong, almost pungent odor, but I inhaled it anyway. I think that experience—coughing while deeply inhaling the scent of the pages—sums up my experience reading this collection.

Although I am an English student (soon to graduate) and an occasional poet (I try things), I do not consider myself a poetry expert. I will admit to completely missing references in the classics or well-known poems. That does not change the fact that while I cannot always articulate my thoughts about poetry, I know how poems make me feel. And oh, did Cruel/Cruel make me feel. In three sections and less than one hundred pages, Dior J. Stephens did what usually takes novelists much longer to do. What did he do? I’m still not sure. I even have a sticky note on page 25 that reads “I have no idea what is happening 😊.” Lyric poetry is not usually my wheelhouse, but Stephens helped me fall back in love with the form.

The ride through the sections is enjoyable, a museum of thoughts. Every single page is arranged just so. There are patterns of recurring words, and there are vaguely hieroglyphic symbols on the section title pages. Throughout the collection, Stephens shows off marvels of clever wordplay, with my favorite being “left, PLIGHT/left, left,” reminiscent of a marching call. Then there are the less playful examples, such as the “sickle cell/ular devices,” invoking the blood disorder and phones in one breath. Whether playful or not, there’s an undeniable skill to how many words Stephens can break or replace. Another amusing one includes “jocks/traps,” or “jockstraps,” followed a few pages after by alliteration in the line “syncope ain’t synced in since the/sunday…” The first section of Cruel/Cruel relies on the repetition of “once again,” and the poem “UYP 3” invokes the Arabic phrase “inshallah” throughout. Stephens constantly proves his skill in subverting and playing with language, which extends to the way the poems are arranged.

No poem is the same within this collection, in words or arrangement. Even within sections, no arrangement truly repeats. One poem may take up the top right corner of the page, while the next may hug the left side. Some poems even take up the whole page with their stanzas. Stephens seems to experiment with something writer Brenna Womer recently said at a reading I attended: he explores how to take up space rather than fit in the space. One page, in a line starting with “firecracker encores,” does a staircase effect down the page, emulating an arc that a lit firecracker may take. For this collection, arrangement is just as important as the words contained within the poem.

It behooves anyone who plans to read this collection to understand the importance of race to the collection. The third section mainly focuses on this theme, but there are inklings spread throughout the preceding sections. Stephens talks of “ancestry lined/with diamonds in/ivory blood” and making “a white man cry at/the/waterfall of/their/exception” in different poems, but they all contribute to an overarching conversation on race. There are even entire poems that meditate on it, such as “UYP 9”. The left-facing page ends with “how do you swim?” and the right page simply says, close to the spine, close enough I nearly missed it, “we don’t.” Whether this references the former exclusion of Black people from swimming pools or the transatlantic slave trade, I cannot say for sure. Even when discussing an age-old topic, Stephens finds new ways to

approach it, making each new invocation unique and original. Though he is not the first poet to discuss these issues, he is certainly the first to approach them in this particular way.

Of all the poems in this book, of all the words that made me feel things, I think “UYP 12” really takes the cake. It is the final poem of this book, utilizing multiple pages. Every stanza has a different form and a different shape, all starting with “wanna.” What does the speaker wanna do? They “wanna see Floyd/breathing and/don’t wanna talk about it.” They “wanna stop feeling; white gaze white gaze.” They “wanna give/every black body/a medal—/&/a collection/of/plastic bags/from under/the sink/(you’ll need/them)”. (I wrote “goddamn” next to this line, thinking immediately of all the innocent Black people shot by police.) They “wanna see/smooth skies/lined,” and they “wanna see/twist be-/come shout.” Stephens expresses the urges, worries, and frustrations of a Black American citizen as desires for change. He does not hold any punches, taking advantage of his experimental lyric forms to lure the reader into facing hard topics directly. There is no mercy here, though there is a hint of celebration in lines such as “wanna wear scandalous skivvies/for an audience of one.” Cruelty versus celebration. The bluntness may be cruel, especially for white readers like myself, but it is necessary. Only when we’re faced with the issue can we even begin to do something about it, wanna do something about it.

When I finished this book, I prostrated on the floor of the English department suite, as I often do when overwhelmed with feeling or feeling silly. I was not feeling silly at the end of this collection. I was feeling anything but. I may have only just discovered Dior J. Stephens’s work, but I can honestly say he might be one of my favorite poets I’ve read. With all the brutal honesty of Claudia Rankine and the playfulness of Ross Gay, Stephens’s declaration that “a poet is a poem is a keeper” is my new motto. This one’s definitely a keeper.

D.D. Deischer-Eddy is a senior English & Creative Writing major at Lebanon Valley College. She has an unhealthy obsession with anime and marching band, but when she’s not playing alto saxophone, she is often reading or writing. Her collection of books is getting dangerously close to library status. For the past year, she has been working on a collection of short stories that center around retellings of Greek myths as her Creative Writing honors project.