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By Dior J. Stephens

At first glance, the poems in CRUEL/CRUEL, the debut collection by Dior J. Stephens, appear scattered and patternless: emphatic all-caps and inconsistent spacing preponderate, tiny blocks of text huddle in corners, thin columns sidle down margins, and oddly kerned zig-zags splash across the page. But Stephens’s beguiling book puzzles out the interconnections of seemingly opposing forces as it wrestles with issues of race, language, and legibility in the wake of 2020’s twin cataclysms of police violence and COVID-19.

The book’s interior design mirrors the dual-tone cover, with the eponymous second section printed in white text against black pages. Stephens stamps entries in this section with dates from early in the pandemic, and among them are some of the collection’s most captivating passages. In “04/12/2020,” beyond a “wet spring,” the speaker observes 

[…] the end
of the
& metastasized hydrangea

“04/14/2020” interjects unexpected humor in quarantine doldrums:

stay in church
   at least four
      hours too
        long reflection,

              hide 'n'
              go get
              me a

“4/15/2020” seems to elongate time:


   stare into


It’s often difficult to tease out clear meaning, which tracks with the early, precarious months of the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the epidemic of racist police violence, Stephens puts forth a bold speaker who seeks “to dream past the past of / shackle men and / liberation lost. to / dream in black neon.” This speaker is “rewriting history to see theirself in it,” as they imagine

flowing into futures of black uprising
and bloodbath cherry streets. to
see a future with violence; restorative.
feigning no outline of peace — sangin’
we shall overcome with automatics tucked in
arm; black fists raised. to not see
any more fourths, nan more -olumbuses’. just
me and huey and ms. davis shooting the
shit after shooting some —————————

Reviewed By Diego Báez
Publisher Nightboat Books
Pages 104
Date March 14, 2023
Price $17.95