Esteban Rodríguez reviews Imperial Liquor by Amaud Jamaul Johnson

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Esteban Rodríguez

Imperial Liquor

By Amaud Jamaul Johnson

80 pages. University of Pittsburgh Press.

It’s often said that looking to the past can teach us not only about the present, but the future. But examining the past doesn’t always have to be strictly a lesson; rather, it can serve as an opportunity to reminisce and tease out the moments that, upon reflection, we realize were more meaningful then originally assumed. Set in 1980s Compton, California, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s third collection Imperial Liquor sorts through memories of masculinity, fatherhood, race and racism, and the daily journeys of survival, love, and triumph.

“Smokey,” the opening poem, is only nine lines, but even with such brevity, it so thoroughly sets the tone for the collection:

            the most dangerous men
            in my neighborhood
            only listened to love song

            to reach those notes
            a musicologist told me
            a man essentially cuts

            his own throat.

            (p. 3, ll. 1-7)

We don’t get a description of these men, or what their lives were like growing up, or what their current circumstances are, but we know that they are listening to a love song by singers who’ve had to push their bodies to the limit, which mirrors the pain that these neighborhood men have undergone, are undergoing, or will undergo. At the end, the speaker thinks that upon hearing a falsetto, he should run, perhaps because he knows that he will—if not soon—then someday experience the hurt and love that these men experience.

We see this pain concretely in the poem “Don’t Forget You(r) Lunch,” which echoes “Smokey” and adds nuance to the anxiety a black father feels for his son:

            there are children and
            there are no children. i think
            i’ve failed to teach you how
            to protect your heart. every
            decade now i grow more quiet
            like sound is folding itself
            and cutting dark shapes into
            corners of my throat. sound
            being thumbed down to fit
            into some undersized box.
            and i feel angrier.

            (p. 26-27, ll. 25-35)

The father believes that there will be times when it doesn’t matter how friendly, honest, educated, or well-intentioned his son is. He will, because he is Black, always be treated differently, and that pain inevitably leads to anger. That anger, however, must always be accompanied by preparation, especially when there is no way to predict what might happen when you encounter someone whose prejudices come into full view:

            since whitey don’t sleep, even if
            you just taking out the garbage,
            you best have enough money
            in your pocket for the locksmith,
            and to get something good to eat,
            or can cover at least one night’s rent.

            (“Like a Natural Man,” p.33, ll. 1-6)

What could result from a white person being suspicious of a Black person, even if they are just taking out the trash (and we have seen results similar to these countless times in phone recordings, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer), is an unexpected night where survival is at stake. Johnson is able to connect the personal with racial anxieties of the past that still extend into the present, and in doing so, he reminds us that forgetting or overlooking injustices is not an option.

Johnson doesn’t merely focus on male perspectives, however, but also takes a lens to the women that were influential and important in the speaker’s life, often through the power of song:

            my mother turned up

            every love song and sang
            as if the notes were liquid
            filling her lungs. I think

            what scares me most
            is that I’ve never seen her

            (“Doo-Wop,” p. 56, ll. 9-15)

The speaker’s mother doesn’t have to drink to feel a certain amount of jubilation when she hears those love songs, which, like the men in “Smokey,” the speaker here fears. What does, however, provide some source of comfort is the fact that even in death, there is music that the women provide:

            My mother’s mother was nicknamed Lucy—
            It’s been twenty years since she went away.
            Married twice, she kept on trying,
            She dyed her hair, or never went grey.

            Can’t believe how time keeps flying,
            I know why my phone won’t ring.
            She speaks to me in those dark woods,
            In my sleep the shadows sing.

            (“When Miss Lucy Sings,” p. 36, ll. 1-8)

Even when the speaker feels lonely, and is facing dark times, he can rely on his grandmother’s melody and the reassurance that despite her physically not being there, she is spiritually present. Although it borders on the religious, such a connection finds its roots in tradition and familial encouragement that’s been passed from generation to generation.

In the middle of the collection, the Texas relatives in the poem “Grief” question why there are bars in the funeral parlor’s windows if “the dead don’t have nothing left to give” (p. 22, ll. 3). But what Johnson has shown us is that both the past and those who have passed still offer the chance of understanding the importance of moments and people that might not have been as thoroughly understood initially. Fathers, uncles, and neighborhood men prepare for tragedy and loss as much as they do for love, while mothers, grandmothers, and women in the family set the tone for the good and comfort that is possible in this world and beyond. Johnson may have an eye on the past, but his concerns, language, and poetic approach are relevant to the way we look at the present. Johnson’s poems show us what it means to care about others, how to love despite personal and social anxieties, and how drawing back memory’s curtains reveals a world worth remembering and retelling.

Esteban Rodríguez  is the author of  Dusk & Dust  (Hub City Press 2019),  Crash Course  (Saddle Road Press 2019),  (Dis)placement  (Skull Wind Press 2020), and the micro-chapbook  Soledad  (Ghost City Press 2019). His poetry has appeared in  The Gettysburg ReviewNew England ReviewTriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.