A Poetic Tribute to Queens
A new book of poetry aims to immortalize the multi-ethnic beauty of Queens. The Tenant of Fire, by Queens College Professor Ryan Black, focuses on the borough’s sundry denizens and locales. “In our current political climate, where the plurality of a place like Queens is viewed as a threat to national security, an honest reckoning with the reality of cultural diversity feels paramount,” says Black.
Black portrays that cultural diversity, in part, through language and sound. In “Why Bother?” the narrator calls attention to “streets where Hindi, Russian, Korean, and Colombian Spanish, by which/ you must mean Jackson Heights, are spoken in equal measure.” Another poem, “The Lemon Ice King,” ends in a cacophony after Brazil wins the 1994 World Cup. “Corona erupted. Elmhurst. Jackson Heights,” Black writes. Amid that noise, the titular Italian ice shop, known for colorful treats, shifts under his gaze, becoming “an asylum/ whose patients look down through barred windows/ at the Grand Central and call it a river.”
Black grew up in Queens and has lived for the past 10 years in Jackson Heights. Writing about the borough became an important task, but one that required care. “Most representations of Queens have ranged from racist and classist dismissals of the borough as a cultural wasteland to a fetishization of its ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity,” Black explains. “In my work I hope to undermine the self-congratulatory tone that so often attends the word ‘diversity,’ as well as the consumption of cultural capital it advertises, while foregrounding the complex, often contradictory, lived experience of ‘hyper-diversity.’”
Black’s gaze doesn’t always turn out to the borough. “This Is Cinerama” mourns a relationship by recounting the places that informed it. “We walked North Beach, talking about adaptations, about Flushing Meadows, La Flor Bakery,/ about your mother, who was gone, and, what more, I can’t remember,” he writes.
Personal memories punctuate Black’s poetry, offering an anchor amid his sweeping panoramic views of Queens. But, turning back to language, recounting those moments is no easy feat. As he writes in “Motherless Children,” “It cost everything to sing this, now watch/ me give it away.”