Book Review: Convenient Amnesia
by Sara Grimes
The sweetness of Convenient Amnesia, Donald Vincent’s debut poetry collection, took me to new heights before unsettling me in the pit of my stomach. Vincent catches us off guard by capturing breathtaking beauty before leveling us with the realities of twisted wrongs against the Black community. The first poem, “Lucky Charm,” sets the tone: “You knew about it but forgot like last week’s newspaper / headline. / I want to whistle whimsical feelings to white women, / Emmett Till’s charm.”
Convenient Amnesia summons all the appeal and literary acumen required of it as a fierce debut book of poems. Yet it also uses that very same blend of scholastic prowess and street smarts to dismantle oppression.
It seeks to awaken us to the history of oppression in a jarring way that we cannot forget. Likewise, it emulates a history of poetry while shaking us to the core of what it means to do the work of poetry. The first poem in Part III, entitled “Trigger Warning,” asks us, “Is art not / capitalist propaganda?”
As an artist himself, it would seem that Donald Vincent holds the inherent contradictions of this statement. It seems like a question he grapples with throughout the book. In one sense, art is capitalist propaganda because it is systematized in a way to fuel complacency. In another sense, the more agency artists—particularly artists of color—have over art, the more art can use elements of creativity, beauty, and wonderment to manifest change.
The book is divided into three sections. Part I is a savage critique of complacency in the face of racism: “When I die, will I see black? Buried in a black coffin—trapped Waiting on Obama to address my situation in his fireside chats,” Vincent asks us in “Black Ink.” Is the author equating Blackness with death, or is he asserting that only once one has escaped from the racism in this life can a Black person be free? Whatever his meaning, there is no room for waffling on the issue of race in this call to arms.
Vincent opens Part II with the words: “Because some things in life are better when we can willingly forget.” This is when the title comes into the foreground. Convenient Amnesia takes hold as the author loses himself to the three distractions of white women (“Somewhere between struggle-fest and jet lag from this year’s Cannes film festival, could this be love at first swoon?” from “Poet’s Portrait of Marie C.”), the beauty of the Western world (“I want to write this poem in French because I am in France” from “La Seine”), and education (“I peek at the Boston U. biddies, who look cute in groups” from “Riding the T.”). Each of these distractions is problematized by the dual threats of racism: violence and ignorance, two sides to the same coin. Even in the throws of the type of convenient amnesia found in French splendor, Vincent takes a trip to the graveyard and is reminded, “Death makes us feel alive, an orgasmic hoax.”
In the final section, Vincent returns to chronicling a history of oppression, but this time he does so by cracking open the lens of poetry. Vincent pays tribute to a literary cannon of diverse authors from Gwendolyn Brooks to Amiri Baraka to Emily Dickinson to E.E. Cummings. His penchant for summoning charm that leaves a sinking feeling comes into play as he takes us whimsically through Desgas’s arabesques to Maya Angelou’s America as a cage “or a jukebox with no change.”
The final poem, “Waking from Sleep,” is a tribute to John Sexton, but it is also a summary of the activist nature of this book of poetry. It is a call to wake up from the complacency of wavering opposition to racism. Moreover, it is a demand to confront it as lethal with critical urgency.
Sara Grimes is a poet and writer, studying creative writing at UC Riverside. Her poetry has been published in the Dewdrop Digest and Beyond Words Magazine and featured in Kelp Journal. She is an advocate for diverse women’s rights through her work in Expat Women, is active in immigrant education through her work at Literacy Source and uses her writing to empower neurodiverse individuals. You can find her on Twitter at @UrbanLimrick.