University of Pittsburgh Press (paperback, 02/25/2020)
With seasoned virtuosity, and through a remarkable array of lyric poems, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s third full-length collection, Imperial Liquor, paints a layered portrait of 1980s Compton. Singing—in this American setting menaced by police violence—is a survival strategy, a hoped-for salvation, and a harbinger. Outside of the speaker, the city exists in the form of popular films, actors, and songs from the era; within him, as a haunted psychological landscape. The reader is quickly pulled into the world on the page where this exterior and interior collapse. Full of pain and frustration, ultimately, this book is about love: the complicated, anxious love from a particular Black man for his city, his neighbors, his sons, and self. I fell in love with this book from the very first poem, a short lyric titled “Smokey,” which establishes many of the collection’s central themes with astounding concision.
the most dangerous men in my neighborhood only listened to love songs
to reach those notes a musicologist told me a man essentially cuts
his own throat. some nights even now, i’ll hear a falsetto and think i should run