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Milwaukee poet shares visions of the American Dream in 'Come Kingdom'

Portrait of Derrick Harriell
Courtesy of Derrick Harriell
Milwaukee poet and professor Derrick Harriell

You'll find lots of stories about chasing the American Dream — starting a family and living a life of prosperity — in American literature and film. But what happens when that dream fails to uphold its promise?

That's one of the key questions behind Derrick Harriell's latest collection of poetry, Come Kingdom. Harriell is a Milwaukee poet who has lived and taught in Mississippi for the past eleven years. His new book challenges and reimagines the possibilities and opportunities within "the kingdom" of America.

Many of the places mentioned throughout the kingdom are recognizable: Milwaukee and Chicago, Memphis and Mississippi, Houston and New Orleans — each city or state will bring to mind unique cultural associations. But Come Kingdom, the place most frequently mentioned, may be difficult to imagine. So what kind of place is Come Kingdom?

"That's a question I've never been asked," Harriell says. "Thinking about the symbolic landscape that Come Kingdom represents, I would say that it represents the American Dream and the trope of what that means for all of us. I think it varies for each and every one of us. But for my American Dream, or the dream I believe was directly or indirectly promised to me — that's what I believe would be a manifestation of living a certain kind of life and walking a certain kind of path, be it going to school, be it marrying your high school sweetheart, all things that I've done. And then you believe there is this promise at the end of the rainbow, and then that promise becomes a little bit fluid or a little blurry. So essentially it is an invocation to desire for the kingdom that has been promised to you."

Book cover of "Come Kingdom"
Chase Browning
"Come Kingdom" by Derrick Harriell

Come Kingdom is treated as a refrain throughout the book, and Harriell creatively explores its depth and dimension through inventive wordplay. "It functions as a throughline in the book. There's the obvious play with 'kingdom come.' But the idea was to play with the word 'kingdom' in a lot of different ways, and also to play with the word 'come' in a lot of different ways. One is an invitation, and sometimes even a longing, or when the poems get very vulnerable, a begging," he shares.

Bringing careful attention to the different emotions of Come Kingdom allows Harriell to consider the formative impacts Milwaukee as had on him as well. "Sometimes I don't know if I exaggerate or if Milwaukee is really this vital to me, [but] it's a fluid emotional connection I have with Milwaukee. For one, it's where I was born and raised. I was living in Chicago while pursuing an MFA at Chicago State, so I was there for about three years, but then I moved right back to do doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. So I spent 29 of my first 32 years on this planet in Milwaukee! So much of my writing, my tools, my character, my heart, my philanthropic attempts to matter in this world has been a result of the people in Milwaukee and the place of Milwaukee, the heartbeat of Milwaukee."

 Portrait of  Derrick Harriell
Courtesy of Derrick Harriell
Though Derrick Harriell has lived in Mississippi for the last 11 years, he views Milwaukee as home.

Having lived in Oxford, Mississippi and taught at the University of Mississippi for the past eleven years, Harriell has come around to feeling that "Oxford is home to me, too. My son was born here. But it's been a second home to me. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is my actual home."

"But it's a weird thing. Because when your child is born somewhere, and your child is being raised in a place, you have a strong connection with it. So the poems I'm writing now, I would never be able to write without having had the eleven years in Mississippi, and having met the people that I've met in Oxford and surrounding communities, or in Jackson or the Delta," he says."

"These are all experiences that have deeply informed me as a person and really broadened my levels of empathy. The ways in which I look at the world on a holistic scale, the ways in which I think about the Civil Rights movement and the Black arts movement. Because you don't know the South until you lay foot on the soil. And once I got here, it became a completely different experience."

Derrick Harriell reads his poem "Optometrist."

In writing about his experiences of attaining stability and familial attachment to this second home in Mississippi, Harriell opens up channels of vulnerability and uncertainty over the choices involved in long-term family planning.

One poem, "Optometrist," taps into what Harriell calls "the genesis of the collection" in that conversations about family planning become conversations about individual self-care. Harriell describes the scenario playing out in Come Kingdom: "So there's a couple who have a child and they are attempting to conceive another child. And I was speaking earlier about the idea of the American Dream — no matter what your American Dream is, that's what you expect to happen, right? But their attempts aren't going well for them, and it's the male in the situation who finds out that it's his health that has prevented this from happening."

Writing this poem was "a cathartic experience" for Harriell in that he began talking with more of his friends and realized that "men just weren't having general health conversations. So I started thinking about all the health responsibilities that I have, as a husband and a father, that I'm not paying acute attention to. So I started thinking about my hearing, my sight, my blood pressure."

He continues, "And I was thinking about how to translate this [dilemma] between what's unseen and what's seen throughout my experiences with family planning — I started to realize, I'm not seeing my seven-year-old. I'm so focused on what's absent that I'm not seeing what's present. So [in the poem] we get to the point where I say, 'This morning my child burrowed inside my chest and became another heart.' I realized something about the ways in which what we give our attention to can very much effect our happiness."

Derrick Harriell is the Otillie Schillig Associate Professor of English and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi. Come Kingdom was published in 2022.

All of Derrick Harriell's books are available for purchase at Boswell Book Company.

Chase Browning was a production assistant with WUWM 2021 to 2023.
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