Books

Poems that Make You Aware of Your Skin

With dystopian fear and fierce warmth, Rindon Johnson’s book, illustrated by Ser Serpas, is an evocative encounter between image and text.

An illustration by Ser Serpas, part of Rindon Johnson’s new poetry publication, Shade The King (all images courtesy the artists and Capricious)

The title of artist and writer Rindon Johnson’s new book, Shade The King —published by Capricious, released in September, and illustrated by Ser Serpas —is, Johnson told me in an e-mail, “a poem all by itself. It’s also a bit of a call to action: ‘Shade him!’ We all know of those that think they might be kings, let’s make sure they cannot see the sun when they are around us, something like an anti-portrait.”

Like their e-mails, Johnson’s poetry is evocative and fluid. Shade The King is a long poem, reading like a scroll, punctuated with songlike moments of vulnerability and musings on the unraveling and unfolding of a world that’s at once tender and cruel. “What happens when I’m 50?” Johnson asks, toward the poem’s beginning. “Will I be living on a boat with a green house because the caps have totally melted and all the fish are dead? I refuse to go to Mars. I hope, at least, they find a way to make dogs live as long as humans so that I can have my dog forever — we will die together at a time of our choosing.” Here, one paragraph encapsulates dystopian fear and fierce warmth; there are few that don’t.

Scan from Shade The King, featuring excerpts of the poem by Rindon Johnson and illustrations by Ser Serpas.

Shade The King is moving, in the most physical sense of that word. Johnson works with many mediums, including sculpture and virtual reality, and is good at building spaces that have their own physicality. Consider the VR piece, “My Daughter, Aaliyah,” a mediation to the tune of a Christian mother saddened by Vince Staples — it’s a reflection on an angry white reaction to rap and a virtual dip in the sea. When you leave Johnson’s work, you’re suddenly aware of your skin, of the thoughts stirring below. The planet is unsettling and sad, and yet it is less so because you are in it. “A quotient is the result of division,” begins one stanza. “For example, when dividing a nation by its own bigotry, the quotient is dead trans women of color. Where will we go now that they have thrown us off course?/These are just the pants that we are wearing today … Rarely do we remember what happened to our previous pants, we send them to the landfill to be churned and buried. Their chemicals seep into our water supply and then we drink them. I do like the chemicals inside of me. I would like it if you were all inside of me. I digress.”

Shade The King book covers.

Johnson “digresses” often: “I’ve never been a cutter but it must be a relief to watch the blood come out as though it was always meaning to do so. Look this lover in the eye wonder what your children might have looked like – would they have had these eyes or yours. I digress.” Johnson’s train-of-thought is tender and critical, reflective — not unlike “My Daughter, Aaliyah.” Comparing the Book of Genesis to the space between bodies, Johnson writes, “Just like the beginning it’s a rib in your body. You can feel that it was missing and you can feel when it is as near as replaced. Are you the rib from my body? Am I the rib from yours?” Later, after questioning the types of formaldehyde used on farms, it says, “How many herbs do I have to take so that I can drown out the drone of white supremacy in my body? (Not to mention the formaldehyde.)”

A self-portrait by Rindon Johnson.

Serpas’s illustrations—thick curlicues, amorphous forms, and anatomical shapes—are interspersed throughout, both meditative and contained. Johnson explained in our e-mail exchange: “We got nine yards of canvas and some paint pens and I read Ser the entire book cover-to-cover and she drew the illustrations as I read.” A video of this process was screened when the book launched at the New York Art Book Fair. It’s unsurprising that Johnson allowed Serpas to foster her own world in Shade The King; if empathy is, at its root, caring enough to understand another’s feelings, then Johnson is an empathetic poet in the sense that they engender empathy in the reader.

Scan from Shade The King.

When an artist maintains a very specific thread in all their work, like a home to which we might return, it’s comforting. “I think the more I keep doing all the things I like to do the mediums in my practice fold into each other, writing included,” Johnson wrote me, adding: “I’m starting to limit my physical materials in my sculpture. I just use leather, light, Vaseline, video, photography and wood right now. It’s liberating in a sense, the same as proposing to my partner. It’s a statement of commitment, in a way. ‘This is what I’m doing, I want to know it and feel it and be inside of it all the time.’”

Shade The King, written by Rindon Johnson and illustrated by Ser Serpas, is available now through Capricious.

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