London Grip Poetry Review – James E Cherry


Poetry review – BETWEEN CHANCE AND MERCY: Kimberly K. Williams reviews an uncompromising state-of-the-nation collection by James E. Cherry


Between Chance and Mercy
James E. Cherry 
Aquarius Press/Willow Books 2024
ISBN  9781733089821

Between Chance and Mercy  is James E Cherry’s second book of poems. The poems in this collection give an unflinching account of where the world finds itself in the middle of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Many of these poems also take a historical view, reflecting on how we arrived here. For example, “Pass” and “A Survey of American History in 7 Minutes and 46 Seconds” are two poems that examine how – as much as people would like to believe otherwise – so much hasn’t changed in the twenty-first century, especially in terms of race relations:

…you are not terribly surprised
by anything anymore, how a hundred lashes
across your back feels no different than a single bullet
exploding inside your chest. 

“A Survey of American History…” is concerned with George Floyd. And the giant frame that is the poem’s title offers the reader a glimpse of what it means to be a black male in the United States, with the final lines reminding readers of the lack of progress over hundreds of years:

… Instead, they stand
around and make you watch your own death,
make others unsee a history that daily reinvents itself,

Ultimately, the poem’s final lines tell us

       … that you are responsible
for your own noose and gasoline …
for not knowing the difference 
between fire and air. 

“Between fire and air” might have been another apt title for this collection that ultimately examines the fraught spaces in our human relations that are so hard to put into words. And yet, somehow, Cherry manages to do it poem after poem. And he does so in a way that compels readers to use their own imaginations, so that when an insight occurs through a poem, the reader must own it at least through the duration of the read.

Cherry’s poems illustrate how in complex world where so much is recorded, broadcast, shared and “liked,” very little is actually felt or appreciated with understanding. These poems show us that between “chance and mercy” might metaphorically be the same place as “between fire and air.” And in doing so, they ask big questions: when so much –for example, a human life – depends on chance, what is the role of mercy? They remind us again and again that we humans dwell in a complicated slippery place where the illusion of change and progress is much greater than its actuality.

Indeed, capturing the complex nuances of this kind of reality may well be one of poetry’s primary contemporary roles, offering a kind of invitation of understanding to the reader. Cherry’s poems have this poetic capability. And in embracing this role, Cherry is keeping a roll of significant names. There are poems for Tyre Nichols, Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Eric Harris, and George Floyd:

I heard a black man cry 
for his mother today. Another black man. 
	Just an ordinary day. Listen. 
                                     (“Poem for Tyre Nichols”)

While many of the poems name specific boys and men and pay tribute to their memories, the unnamed are remembered as well. The poem “Freedom” is “after the 61st regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops.” And it is not only men who are remembered; there is the poem about Eliza Woods, an African American domestic worker who was accused of poisoning her white employer in Jackson, Tennessee (where Cherry is from), and who was hanged by a mob in 1886.

The poem “after Mike Brown, who had his hands up and didn’t even know it” itself gives an accounting:

instead. At your feet lay Shawn Bell, Oscar Grant,
Eric Gardner and to your right the faces
of my nephew, my brother, my son unborn. 
                                         (“The Ninth of August”)

It is both an accounting and a kind of reckoning. It is both general (the troops) and highly personal – “my nephew, my brother, my son unborn.” Most importantly, this is a book about remembering. The reader cannot get comfortable reading these poems. Their subtle rhythms and images may temporarily lull us, but they will also hold us accountable.

These lost men aren’t the only ones who the poems shine lights on. Donald J. Trump has a poem dedicated to him entitled “Grab ‘em by the Pussy.” The poet/performer Gil Scott-Heron does too, on a poem that Cherry wrote initially for a historical marker dedicating the house Scott-Heron was born in.

In this book that observes travesties that are regularly normalized or forgotten, it is clear that no one gets away with anything, including the poet himself:

You wonder who tipped AARP 	
to this date when you came screaming
into the ear of the world…
                                                      (“Joining the AARP”)

Even the humorous poems (which lighten the tone from time to time), are often highly imaginative. “I Want a UFO,” built around anaphora, contains lines “about white folks in outer space / who carry a catechism of colonialism,” echoing aptly Scott-Heron’s most well-known spoken word poem, “Whitey on the Moon.”

This is in many ways an easy book to read – the narratives have movement, and the images carry along our imaginations. We can guess what might be in the next poem on the next page, but then we’re surprised. There are segregated libraries and, towards the end of the book, poems about COVID. But even with Cherry’s facility for language, this is also a difficult book to read in that it doesn’t flinch. It doesn’t look away, and in its directness, the reader is also unable to look away. As it doesn’t flinch, it also doesn’t forget. Within these pages readers will likely learn about American history from angles that are generally uncaptured or ignored.

Ultimately, Between Chance and Mercy is one of the most necessary books of poetry to come out of the United States since the turn of the century. In a quiet but insistent way, poem after poem, it is a call to action. Twenty-four years into the century, with progress that allows humanity to curb a pandemic after only a handful of years, this book illustrates how humanity cannot yet curb its social ills or the effects institutionalised and historical racism.

Between Chance and Mercy is highly personal but it is also highly universal. And while it is also strongly political, somewhere amongst the lines and stanza breaks one senses hope for mercy, but ultimately Cherry lets the reader decide:

Shafts of sunlight filtered your remains, cast shadows
on a silver crucifix, trampled in the broken earth. 
                                                           (“Eliza Woods”)