‘Boogeyman Dawn’ by Raina J. León
“I am lash and silence / hurt and belief”
In Boogeyman Dawn, Raina J. León peeers between the cracks of life’s traumas. Her incendiary poems confront religion, prejudice, education, and family. Like a modern griot, León croons her sorrows as an adult who still feels with the soul of a terrified but visionary child. While her speaker edges closer to the socially constructed gates, those that hinge primarily on institutions that institutionalize, she grates against boogeymen truths until raw songs explode from their cages.
Often narrative and sometimes personal, the poet cracks open her dramas until catharsis and epiphany result:
I am lash and silence
hurt and belief
I know His name
He knows mine
the mirror reveals His face
(“Surviving the Burn”)
Something divine seems to ooze from her serious, image-anchored work. These pages exist in a world of myth, fog, and urban grit, mirroring the face of a very real boogeyman—humanity itself.
León’s second book opens with a dedication page, an epigraph page, a second epigraph page, and a prelude poem. While perhaps heavy handed, these thematic stamps begin a strong narrative arc. The drama in these poems bears the weight of both social and personal concerns. The first dedication, “For the children / who will always hold the world,” creates a humanist message reiterated throughout. A question ensues: can childlike innocence ever be stronger than boogeyman evil? Perhaps actually drawing upon the Greek Atlas, the poet additionally becomes a spokesperson here for the abused child, inferring that parents sacrifice their children when they force them to handle their emotional baggage. León also nods to Marvin Gaye in the first epigraph: “Father stop / criticizing your son / Mother please / Leave your daughters alone . . .”. In the poet’s world, which is surely ours, there is no “I” without the victimized “you” that is controlled and savagely colonized.
These poems interrogate social ideologies that puncture the pure-hearted:
Huddled together, they transform, a saint’s flag, blue and white. Boys become Catholic fists, set to pummel each other . . .Where the fuck did you come from with a nigger family . . .And then the spit, more spit, he cannot wipe away . . .The boys made him believe in something different, that his fists had more power than God. (“On the football field,”)
Here, hatred creates a cycle of violence in which the innocent transforms into the boogeyman once feared. León universalizes the potential trauma of any childhood experience, especially one that unfolds within a Catholic school experience. Despite Jesus’s supposed love for all, the boy’s white playmates jeer, “That your mother over there? Jumping up and down, looks just like a monkey.” Such chilling lines ask many hard questions about the lost innocence, sexism, bullying, and racism inherent to some religious, or human, environments.
In the dreamscape prelude poem, “Amancer,” León sets a thesis for the book, suggesting that perhaps the Boogeyman and the Dawn are one and the same (or, at least of one body and ever linked). In this poem, Dawn is a seductress who beckons evildoers “through a wicked tongue,” bewitching and “taunt[ing]” onlookers to “singe their own eyes” on her silken skirts. León turns the archetypally innocent dawn on its head, illustrating how light cannot live without darkness, without the “sky-rock cracks” that will “reveal its bleeding.” Such paradoxes are major motifs in the work, along with gates, fences, and other figurative prisons such as marriage and standardized tests. Other motifs besides children include flowers, stars, virginity, the color red, mythology, the womb, and other religious icons not limited to Christian theology. Muslim, pagan, and Greek ideologies are also explored and often satirized throughout.
“Wolf Rock School, October 2006” deftly maneuvers flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dialogue, portraying the madness some institutions not only create but sustain and support. Depicting a real life executor of several young girls, the narrator relays, “He thought / to dip his finger in here and taste. He’d pounded / ten eyebolts into a wall spaced ten inches apart / . . . so he could touch them in a line. / How efficient. A siren wail thwarted his saliva drip / desire, so he shot the girls himself . . .” Such prosaic lines are broken with similarly synesthetic and disturbing imagery in other poems as well. In this poem, the poet fiercely questions interpreted Christianity. The speaker continues, “A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth / because we believe in the hereafter. The children / are better off than their survivors.” León’s lines also bleed with a disgusted tone as she peels back the worldly categories that hide children who are murdered in more ways than one.
Moreover, León founds her book upon a marvelous number of forms. There are narrative prose poems; poems made of neat couplets, quatrains, and the like; a gazelle; wondrous poems tipped on their sides; monologues; odes; and even a long lined prose poems interrupted by interlineal space, Spanish, and/or dialogue. These forms are as wildly mercurial as her topics, but in content, all poems are essentially coming-of-age pieces that explore marginalization. León’s topics include rape, ballet, a squirrel’s suicide, classroom teaching, daydreaming, and pillow talk.
Arguably, cutting seemingly stray poems or some of the many dedications and epigraphs within poems could project her visions more clearly. Using sections or some kind of formal unification might have better served the intensity of her major subject matter. In rare cases, lines could be versified with a sharper and more consistent eye. Yet ultimately, León’s seeming inconsistency becomes intention as she navigates these many forms and their play with content. In the particularly successful gazelle “Philomel teaches a Child to Sew,” the word “cleanse” is repeatedly sewn as an end-word, engendering a lyrical incantation. The speaker, a modern Philomel, reports, “After he poisoned me with his sex, he cut off my tongue from the root, / watched it flop on the floor. An unstringed guitar is meant to cleanse / . . . We will braid hair and sunlight into this colored thread, / make a woman’s robe of twisted beauty, a woolen memoir, meant to cleanse . . .”. The word “cleanse” cuts open this fabric-as-poem while seamlessly sewing it into a moving story. León gives a located voice to the dislocated, abused person here and throughout the book. Furthermore, the poet’s originality is not limited to this poem’s tipped position on the page. She writes of blood that “slip[s] from your ears,” and a needle that becomes both the invasively phallic image of Philomel’s rapist and the redemptive possibility in the seamstress-poet’s hand: “A single strand can be alchemy.” Such lines may lead readers to understand this book as León’s own triumphant, woolen memoir. In these ways, the poet’s echoing and leafy abundance root her to something real and magical.
It must be noted that this work sounds best when read by León herself, who captivates her audiences when she literally breaks out into song. Her performances envelop an awareness of the joys and drudgery of big city life while also evoking an aura of ancient poetic traditions. She gives life to Philomel’s lost tongue as her songs channel Greek bards, pagan druids, and African griots.
Does the speaker ever reconcile with this boogeyman—the emotional crises— that’s so linked to the dawn? She yearns for a bridge between darkness and light, yet this terrible boogeyworld is the very primary, if primal, source for her Art, and even for her prayers: “We count the droplets / and the hours and this is how the children learn / their numbers, how to pray, to sleep light.” However, the last lines of the book do not assure us, as the same narrator shrugs, “who knows if the baby’s cry / is really a banshee’s scream.” These fifty-four poems stand against closure, and it is their lack of knowing that lends them their truth. León takes a humanist, often open-book stance, ready to be honest about a “God [that] lives in mirrors / [with] one perfect blue eye / one black hole.” Somewhere in between the Boogeyman-turned-Dawn, this poet salvages a space where beauty can remain.
Hear the poet reading selections from Boogeyman Dawn at Salmon Poetry.