Paul Beatty started his literary career as a performance poet, dazzling live audiences and readers alike. It is unsurprising, then, that each of the nineteen poems in Joker, Joker, Deuce showcases the extraordinary wit and verbal agility that often characterize the genre of performance poetry. Among other techniques, performance poetry often displays outrageous humor and compelling rhythm in an assault on traditional cultural attitudes. Many of Beatty’s poems do assail traditional culture, but they prove to be equally critical of the popular culture they seem to represent.
The poem titled “Verbal Mugging,” which begins “this is a performance piece . . . ,” is representative in several ways of the volume and of performance poetry generally. As he usually does, Beatty omits capitalization and standard punctuation (“ancestors ive never even known”), as well as the final g in gerunds and gerundives (“lookin for vibrations”). His poetry also embodies multiple meanings, as in the title “Verbal Mugging.” “Mugging” can be either a strong-arm robbery or the act of clowning before a camera. Beatty’s poems are so full of surprise and stunning shifts of meaning that listeners and readers may well feel verbally “mugged,” though this poem’s lyricism keeps one from feeling attacked outright. The poem’s main focus, though, is on the other sense of “mugging”—cultural posturing.
Beatty is unquestionably an angry young black man (thirty-two years old at the time of publication), poking fun at “North American Whitey.” He is also, however, savagely satirical...
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