The Sealey Challenge: Flight

FLIGHT by Chaun Ballard set against sunlight and aloe

I close out my 2022 Sealey Challenge with bittersweet beauty: Chaun Ballard’s chapbook Flight, which takes on structural white supremacy and anti-Blackness and American history while still creating beauty, which nods to poets past and present while creating something unique.

Every poem in this slight collection carries weight and depth and breadth, and every poem carries meanings—more than I can grab in one reading. Reading Flight on the heels of Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, however, made me think about the ways in which we conceptualize “dark,” be it night or skin or earth. Gorman refers to “shadows” where someone else might refer to darkness. In “Twelve Ways of Looking at Darkness,” Ballard takes on the same concept. The word “white” becomes almost a cudgel, makes the reader catch their breath:

I’ve known the whites of too many / eyes in passion & flame // those whose souls eternalize everything / even the darkness

Ballard’s spacing and (ha) white space give weight to that phrase; I really didn’t think that I’d be reading “too many / eyes” the first three times I read through the poem. Because, yes, I read this one repeatedly on my lunch break, combing it for meanings. It’s difficult and beautiful, the sort of thing that could be, I think, a concert piece, or an aria, that would never quite leave its listener alone. (The last line of this poem made me think of the brilliant, painful Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which I saw at Lyric last season.) When Ballard writes that “never once have I heard one say / how lovely the dark is,” it hits hard.

The dead-too-soon, and those whose innocence was stolen too young, are memorialized throughout Flight, delicate reminders of people who should still be alive and whose innocence should have lived another day. “How We Are Made to Feel Small” might start with basketball, but it moves to Rodney King, and the way in which a little Black boy learned white supremacy, and lost his innocence. “We Sing” is deceptively joyful, a protest anthem. “Pantoum” is an exercise in imagination and in heartbreak, built with layered delicacy.

Flight is beautiful and sad, a layered hymn of protest and revolution that honors the voices of poets past and present while building something new. It is tender and harsh and delicate, far too complex for a single reading.