Review: The Dozen by Casey Rocheteau
Author: Casey Rocheteau
Five books in my lifetime have made me throw them across the room while still reading them: Jericho Brown’s Please, Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (the act almost hitting a coworker in the face), Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and now Casey Rocheteau’s The Dozen. The instinct to put as much distance between literature and your soul is impulsive. It happens with immediate regret once the shaking or hyperventilating stops. Words should be that powerful. Poetry should do something to its readers. Rocheteau’s The Dozen does more than inspire shot-put aspirations—it awakes the body. It calls the soul. It says, All you have known was not a dream. Through the tradition of playing the dozens, pop culture and historical references, and intentional language, The Dozen tackles mental illness, historical trauma, and self-care for a community in crisis.
With 24-hour news cycles, it’s easy to believe the world is burning. Casey Rocheteau addresses this concern head on, asserting that yes, the world is on fire, “but here we are, together.” They try to take the reader back to a time of childish games, specifically the African-American tradition of “playing the dozens.” This particular game is rooted in the trading of insults, usually in the form of “Your Mama” jokes. Rocheteau takes this game, which is meant to be played in good fun as a demonstration of the competitors’ wit and knowledge of history and pop culture, and applies it to their collection’s form. In the Introduction, they note that the four sections each have twelve poems that participate in the dozens itself, “playing off of each other, scraping against each other messily, harmonizing, clowning each other and sometimes themselves.” Their collection is meant to be a game “that grows outward” but also a display of the truly awful things in this world: police brutality, the media’s demonization of Black bodies, the ignorance surrounding mental illness, and the fight against the silencing many have experienced due to age, race, gender, and sexuality.
Part of the game requires a knowledge of pop culture and historical references. Rocheteau combines history with pop culture by assuming the identities of literary, Greek, and modern day figures. In “Cassandra Clowns Lady Tiresias,” Cassandra, the mad prophet from Troy, takes on Tiresias. Knowing their histories creates a line like “Ya mama so basic she couldn’t save you / from her own goddess.” Rocheteau reimagines Cassandra, the “pretty-but-crazy bitch” she was known to be because no one believed her prophecies, changing her voice to match that of a Black girl playing the dozens. This craft device returns in other poems, specifically in “Sun Ra Speaks to Gucci Mane” and “Guitar Bains Interviews Kanye West.” It’s not fun if you don’t know the characters; some may find this device challenging or distracting. But the demonstration of wit is the point of the game: if you don’t know the reference, you lose.
Thankfully, the reader isn’t playing the dozens with Rocheteau—we would be decimated. Rather, the reader is just trying to keep up. The poems move so quickly in their clowning at times, it’s hard to find balance, as in “Unfinished Letters From the Most Popular Kid in the Psych Ward.” The reader walks through the speaker’s psychiatric hospitalization and the struggles of navigating mental illness as a person of color. As much of the collection discusses, there is a collective trauma suffered by people of color and the queer community, especially when those identities intersect. In this lengthy poem, the speaker takes a step back from the dozens and starts spitting truth.
To all my QTPOC who struggle with mental health issues, which is to say
most of us, because the multitude of oppressive systems we face would rather
that we disappear than thrive:
I love you. Take care of yourself. Let yourself be taken care of. You
deserve love. You deserve care. These words are not enough, can
never be enough. You are not invisible. You are not a problem. You
are not your illness.
You are. You be. We gon be alright.
It’s in these moments that all of Rocheteau’s speakers rise and take flight. Their truth bubbles beneath the surface of the game—as long as we’re here, we’ll fight. In “Unlucky Building for Charleston Emanuel AME Church,” a form poem about those slain in Charleston, the first line is one many were thinking: “And couldn’t it have been my father’s house of worship?” So close is each poem to the edge of being the victim of violence: police raid gone wrong (“Aiyana Stanley-Jones Reported as ‘Disposition: Criminal’”), lynching (“Two Byrds”), extinction (“Requiem for the Bees”), and so on. The reader is reminded that the world is full of painful things, and that remaining here is sometimes a very difficult choice.
So the game collapses. It’s impossible to keep playing the dozens without someone actually getting hurt. Someone throws a punch or pulls a gun or a knife. Everyone scatters and hides. In the case of The Dozen, many people die—uncles, fathers, little girls, elephants—but their voices live on as echoes in these poems. Casey Rocheteau takes a childhood game and turns it into a survival technique—a sort of laugh-through-your-tears therapy. Through their poignant language and deep well of historical and pop culture references, Rocheteau offers solidarity in the struggle to remain upright and breathing, while detailing experiences outside of their self to stabilize the game. By the end of The Dozen, no one wins—but most importantly, no one loses. If we have the courage to call out pain and injustice, if we stop trading insults and start providing healing, Kendrick Lamar and Rocheteau are right: we gon be alright after all.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Monica Prince.
Monica Prince is the managing editor for the SFWP Quarterly and an assistant professor of activist and performance writing at Susquehanna University. Her debut collection of poetry, Instructions for Temporary Survival, received the Discovery Award for an exceptional first collection by Red Mountain Press. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, was published by [PANK] in spring 2020. Follow her on Twitter @poetic_moni and check out her website for readings and performances.