Amulet (Write Bloody Books, 89 pages), the first poetry collection from East Bay Area native Jason Bayani, is a blistering examination of American life, as seen through the lens of a poet struggling to define himself. The poems are lyrical yet direct, with a clear voice that evokes humor while scuffling with questions of racism and artistic identity.
Bayani, who’s Filipino American, doesn’t shy from the blunt racism he’s experienced. In “Playgrounds and Other Things,” he writes: “And the old lady leaning into the wood / at the corner of Sutter and Stockton: / I heard her tell it like broken glass, / ‘Go back to your own country.’” Yet within the same poem, the author is willing to accept that racism is a complex issue, and one for which, despite his unfortunate experiences, he doesn’t have the answer: “What is more difficult / is the velocity of how I love you. There, dawg, / is all the complex racism any of us can handle.” The juxtaposition of love within a poem about hate exemplifies how Bayani is able to move past the injustices he’s seen in his own life and write delicately about the process.
Addressing racism is not the defining theme of Bayani’s collections. He also voices his anxiety about being raised a millennial in America. “Surviving America is learning / the limit of want,” he states in “Strange Velocity.” The poems capture a young man struggling to identify the goals of adulthood. In “After Manny Pacquiao,” he writes “We were born to outrun / ‘nothing.’ So we’d never have to say it like / they did. ‘We come from nothing.’ But nothing / never did nothing but keep coming for us.” Some of the poems in Bayani’s collection speak to an unavoidable problem for an entire generation of Americans—the empty feeling that accompanies being young today, For those who share in his feelings, though, solutions are not offered, simply the chance to commiserate with another lost soul.
Despite the multiple struggles it addresses, much of Amulet focuses on Bayani wrestling with his identity as poet. “A lot of people say that writing is their therapy. / Me, I go to therapy,” he writes in “Depression.” Bayani deftly uses humor to leaven such sticky topics as racism, drug addiction, and a looming empty existence—and witnessing him as he wonders why he chooses to write proves cathartic, especially when the answer encapsulates the sweetest of our emotions. “Maybe all this living comes down to the encryption—,” he writes in “Sonnet for Lauren.” “(T)oday I’m working with simpler mathematics: / ‘Jason + Lauren.’ I wrote that shit on a tree.”
Even as his poems touch on various social and artistic tribulations, they are united by Bayani’s voice. A veteran of international slam poetry competitions, the verses come at the reader as if he’s performing each piece in front of them, his speech resonating through each line of the book. The words permeate with self-doubt, rage, and compassion, yet the poems themselves feel measured and perfected. There’s also his referencing of the East Bay, where he was raised and whose culture he clearly loves. In “History of the Ardenwood B-Boys,” he writes: “I’m from Fremont, California. That shit was no South Bronx.” He namedrops his elementary and high schools, and writes a sonnet to rapper E-40. It feels as if his hometown has his back while he, a poet, boldly navigates social problems and an uncertain future.