Vernita Hall serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories.
Vernita Hall sends the reader on a tour without a tour guide in her chapbook, The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, winner of the 2016 Moonstone Chapbook Contest.
The hitchhiking robot is tossed into Philly neighborhoods, parks, historic venues and cavernous churches with even bigger histories. We are presented with “voices of the immortal dead, whispering their myriad stories”to serve as a map along the way.
We follow these whispers like trails — some marked with careful footsteps, others like stomps. Hall employs a series of voices, like the precise and deliberate speaker of “Shadow Man.” “Were you [Thomas Jefferson] bound instead to your pursuit of happiness, / savoring your fine wines, / your little mounts, / Monticello and mulatto Sally Hemmings?”
Then, there is the emphatic and refreshingly audacious voice of the speaker of “What Goes Around.” “So what if he was president He still a skank … Some father figure / When a cherry got busted wasn’t ‘bout no tree —”
Despite this lightning-like codeswitching, Hall’s tone maintains perfect pitch with instances of captivating imagery. Her intelligent use of local color takes a literal turn in the ekphrastic and meditative piece on a painting by Jerry Pinkney. This poem, “Seeing Red,” offers a blend of blood, communism, Red Sea, red sun and Rutgers Scarlet. Such stirring images are punctuated with rhythm and thoughtful use of sound in “In Pandora’s Box” where hope is “viral as saliva from a flea riding vermin bareback craving a crevice crack the dark.”
Although many of the voices in The Hitchhiking Robot are keen with criticism, Hall’s wit is just as sharp as she implements timely comic relief with WEB Du Bois as Thor and Harriet Tubman as Nightcrawler at her historical rendition of Comic-Con. And the fate of the titular hitchhiking robot at the hands of Dell E. Terious and Ms. Terious reads like an article from The Onion in verse — one that ends with the perfect punch: “And that’s the way it is.”
But interspersed between these jovial moments are Ozymandian reflections on posterity and its worth. Hall ruminates on the both conscious sacrifices and uncontrollable conditions that send identities spiraling — some for mere survival, some for fame. In “To Charles Mason,” she writes in the voice of Ben Franklin: “After one has quit the scene it is perhaps desirous to suppose that history might underline some contribution of merit, or durability, that some of one’s words might bet by-lined in some corner of the universe … But one should not grow proud upon it. The Supreme takes amiss an excess of pomposity.”
In The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, Vernita Hall demonstrates that sometimes a good reputation can outlive its corporeal bounds, but this isn’t always the case. Fame can get lost in the coffin when history decides it’s no longer valuable. Other times, fame comes back as a bad ghost, an ugly twin that lives on and on, haunting cities and nations, flaunting infamy and a full set of sharp teeth.