Roger Bonair-Agard’s collection Where Brooklyn At? shines with its attention to detail of a life lived in transit and intersection. This intersection expands beyond the concrete ones in Brooklyn; it moves into the intersection of race and class, nationality and ethnicity, home and home-away-from-home. Each intersection bubbles in the varying sections of this collection, starting with its loaded answer to the title’s question: gone. In the collection Where Brooklyn At?, Roger Bonair-Agard offers questions of movement as it relates to gentrification, identity, and home.
In general, gentrification is a process that renews and revives poor neighborhoods, typically by moving in new businesses that increase employment and property values. This drives out small businesses and current residents, and brings in more affluent families. Bonair-Agard discusses the gentrifying of Brooklyn in various poems, setting up the collection to hinge on the intersection of both the demolition and renewal of Black life. In “Nina,” for his daughter, the speaker discusses the changes within the neighborhoods he used to haunt while living in Brooklyn. Reading like a flash prose piece, the sentence structures repeat to enhance the seriousness of Brooklyn’s gentrification process. “The bar / with jars of MandMs on the counter used to be a candy store. This park / used to be a park—with crack vials and pot holes on the running track, / and dirt in the center of the field where grass should be. And that dog / run was a field of geraniums. The Dominican restaurant used to be cheap. / Used to have a line out the door. I used to be able to afford to live above / it.” The repetition lulls the reader into understanding how loss and nostalgia intersect. The poet furthers this idea in many poems, but none more so than in the revision pieces, “Where Brooklyn At?”
Seven poems in the collection claim this title, and each is a desperate attempt to answer the question. As a series, the answers vary with each stab: Brooklyn is where it’s dangerous, where the church is your woman’s holy body, where summer youth are young and free, where your people can safely congregate, where the bartender knows your name, and finally, “where your life begins to be saved again.” Bonair-Agard revises his definition of Brooklyn as Brooklyn is revised in real time: new businesses, new residents, new cops. He starts to lose parts of himself as the city is “revitalized” and “renewed,” forcing him to redefine his identity.
Bonair-Agard asks not just where Brooklyn at but where he’s at as well. What does it mean to be Black, Trinidadian, an immigrant, and a father? These intersections color most of the poems, almost inescapably. In “claim—for the ocean,” the speaker muses, “So many of us bones blanched at the bottom / of this ocean, and still we take to it like / it loves us, like we family these 500 years / of float later.” To be from the Caribbean is to know the ocean like a lover, and yet, to be from Black America is to be “angry / and home and not home,” as the speaker explains in “Bifurcate.” The resolution of these intersecting identities comes most honestly in “Our Bodies are Made of Stars.” The speaker describes the bodies of his people as “re-imagined” and “re-designed” beings constructed from stardust. “I’m the stellar one,” he asserts, “I’m the star-builder.” And Brooklyn in all its glory is “where we move from stardust to / trigger-finger to supernova again.” To be pushed out of the “center of the starburst / I made my goddamned self” through gentrification assaults the speaker’s identity: turning his star-constructed body into nothing. Such cosmic excellence cannot be ignored.
In this way, identity and gentrification meet the concept of home. The speaker struggles to define home as more than a location on a map. In “All-America(n),” John wants to know what part of America is Trinidad, and even after the speaker provides an elaborate drawing, he still cannot understand. John’s America, it seems, is white. It cannot include “sovereignty, using words like independence / and island-nation, saying six miles / off the coast of Venezuela” because his America is “full of white people, and fields, and basketball / and highways in his mouth—America of chitterlings / and blues.” If home is buried within identity, what happens when it’s dismissed?
The poet tries to answer with such poems as “Coming Home” and “A Perfect Slice.” Brooklyn is home through her courtship; Trinidad is home with her siren call and map for love. But home is also where his daughter is, in the things he can take with him to Chicago, and in his ancestry. “I need all this,” the speaker pleads in “Things to Take with You When You Move 807 Miles Away from Home,” and it’s true. At first, one might assume home is a place with a mailing address, but it becomes clear by the end of the collection that home is versions of yourself reimagined while forces beyond you restructure the landscape and skyline.
The entire collection of Where Brooklyn At? reconceives traditional themes. With form, free verse, and prose poems, Bonair-Agard brings in dreams and imagined conversations with Jay-Z to demonstrate the collection’s greater need to reconcile with loss: of family, of identity, and of home. The tone shifts only slightly between poems, but each one sounds like a person from Brooklyn—the use of profanity, the references to streets and celebrities, and the friendly way he relates to the reader. They are not on the outside; in fact, he speaks to the reader like someone he’s known his whole life. This can almost be alienating, especially if one has never been to New York. But overall, the tone strikes honestly—carefully and completely realizing the sacrifices that are voluntarily and involuntarily made in honor of urban renewal.
Gentrification, identity, and home act not only as themes for Where Brooklyn At? by Roger Bonair-Agard, but as life lessons for the coming generation. As we reach a turning point in American history with race relations, this collection mirrors the speaker’s life as he experiences the same issues as a new father. In a country where being alive and being colored is still a metaphysical dilemma not yet conquered, in the words of Ntozake Shange, it’s necessary to address personal questions of struggle and triumph: where do I fit, where do I come from, how will I survive? Roger Bonair-Agard ultimately deems the answer simple: gulp hard, keep moving, and forget nothing.
Monica Prince received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University in 2015. She has been a teaching artist in Georgia, Texas, and now Colorado since 2012. Her work has been featured in The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, The Sula Collective, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, and MadCap Review. Her choreopoem, Testify, was performed by the Cutout Theater in Brooklyn, NY this past December. She currently writes, performs, and works in Denver, Colorado.