One of the toughest jobs for a poet is to assemble their work into a collection. There is a list of factors that must be considered: theme, style, content, the arrangement between poems and/or sections. And there is the question of relevance, the doubt that poems written weeks, months, and years before might not hold the same cultural and literary weight they did when they were first composed. However, there is something to be said about a book that always attracts new readers and that is just as enduring as the subject it centers on. With Frank Ocean making his way back on stage this year at the Coachella Festival, Shayla Lawson’s I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean reminds us that there are indeed collections that resist the “dated” label they are often unfairly given. Written with the lyrical stamina required to make a single topic both original and universal, Lawson’s third collection is a timely and timeless work that both complements Ocean’s music and offers new poetic commentary about living in today’s ever-increasing isolated world.
I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean is composed of five sections centered around Frank Ocean and his albums (including his debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra and his visual album Endless). The titles of the poems come directly from the titles of Ocean’s songs, however, Lawson’s content is much more nuanced than what you’d find in Ocean’s oeuvre. Expanding on the themes already laid out in his songs, Lawson explores love, death, loneliness, spirituality, and religion, as well as that ever nagging issue of how to make meaning from an otherwise meaningless life. In the poem “Thinkin Bout You,” the speaker contemplates the manner in which love can test our patience, and how the often one-sided nature of it leads us to question the purpose of our existence:
None of us know what makes
the world go round anymore
than we know if love is
the deflated beach/-ball we keep
blowing up & putting our ear against
just to hear The Ocean inside
“The Ocean” (purposely capitalized) represents not only Frank Ocean and his music, but the vast mysteriousness of the world (which in different poems throughout the collection, is reformulated slightly to fit multiple subjects). At times, it might read as though The Ocean is referring to a celestial being, and its lack of response does certainly fit the mold of a deity (how often does God directly provide the insight needed to life’s most pressing questions?). However, Lawson aims not merely to elevate her subjects and themes to the status of religious institutions and figures, but to critique them as well. This happens most noticeably in “Pyramids,” where the speaker highlights the reluctance of Jesus to accept his destiny (if we are to assume the biblical narrative is true).
I know died on a pole. He
was not a God; he did not want to
be. He told
the thief hanging
beside him “Welcome
to Paradise,” but all the man
could see were pyramids—cheetahs
like a wild
One can only be reminded of José Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to the Jesus Christ, which portrays Jesus as an ordinary man who wanted no part in God’s scheme. The speaker questions if it’s appropriate to give figures (even those at the moral level of Jesus) a status that is otherworldly, and later on in the poem, after discussing their favorite stripper fantasy and the difference between a “woman set loose/ & a loose woman,” the speaker rids themselves of whatever bodily responsibilities they were given by the big man upstairs:
I disrobe all my God
parts. I crumble.
I fall. I know. I love
only you & you & you
& working out the pyramid
-scheme: my own toned glory.
The speaker doesn’t need a god to provide them with the “glory” they’re aware they already have; they are, after all, their own temple, or “pyramid” if you will.
As is noticeable in “Pyramids,” Lawson drops lyrics (which are italicized) from Ocean’s songs into her poems. Although this technique can seem a bit cliché, and can prompt readers to actively scramble to the notes sections for context (no worries here, you just need to refer to the songs themselves), Lawson doesn’t saturate her work with them, instead using Ocean’s lyrics to fit her overall narrative. This fades completely in the section titled Endless, where the speaker dives into Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism, and how a “prisoner will modify behavior to fit the psychological confines of a space.” The prisoner here is not what Foucault detailed in Discipline and Punish, but the symbol and essence behind his theory carries over to the ways in which people sometimes change their behavior according to certain pop culture events. The album Endless, for the speaker, offers fans a chance to see this behavior for what it is, calling “technology to task for the anxiety its watchfulness puts upon creation while recognizing its significance in connecting artists to fans.” Our modern-day reliance and use of technology is a double-edge sword, one that the speaker feels they must handle properly in order to find some semblance of truth. The section is a good twenty-two pages, and none of it is wasted when the speaker segues into love, sex, fandom, and our interaction with nature, specifically the need for humans to maintain animals in captivity. Toward the end, the speaker questions if something as simple as an album release will impact our culture, since there will “always be a God principle...” and the “need to find something because we can’t accept knowing.”
Not everything is so existential in the book. Lawson varies her pace throughout, offering poems such as “Acura Intergurl,” where we become privy to the speaker asking their significant other, while driving, ““How’d you/ make such a fan/ out of me?”” The question is left unanswered, and perhaps that’s a good thing given the focus of the collection (it’s said, after all, that meeting your heroes will only leave you disappointed). If you don’t know Frank Ocean or his music, I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean could be that perfect poetic introduction, and with Lawson’s style, clarity, and sharp language, she just might make a fan out of you yet.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (word west press 2022), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, Senior Book Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Associate Poetry Editor for AGNI. He currently lives in south Texas.