Ernesto Mercer’s Poems Burn in GUNPOWDER + a MATCH

Though I was never good at math, even I know that GUNPOWDER + a Match can only equal trouble. But in the case of Ernesto Mercer’s poems, it’s good trouble, sweet trouble, funny trouble, and  sad trouble. Ernesto Mercer’s limited edition chapbook certainly ignites. Or rather it shows us the results of ignitions of all sorts. The poems in this chapbook are beautifully crafted and they take a careful reader to both good and challenging places. Ernesto Mercer’s poems invite the reader to think of race, religion, history and more– in new, crisp ways.

The chapbook opens with a poem titled “DREAM IN WHICH I AM BLACK MAN, a poem by_________________.”  These poems often tell neighborhood stories, drawn from his own rich experiences. But they pull the reader in too, even if the reader has never been “a black man.” Many of these poems are built around places, like “Bembe in Bed Stuy” and “Butt Naked,” which takes us along Rhode Island Avenue to 15th and Euclid in Washington, D.C. These poems emerge from a poet whose eyes are keen to watch and draw insights from what he sees.

Ernesto Mercer’s craft is rich in these poems. His lines, often short, break in fresh and surprising ways. He plays with words at times, and his play rings true. He uses everything at the poet’s disposal, from parentheses, to plus signs, bold, and even the pages’ blank spaces. One poem I particularly enjoy is “e-FLAT BOOGIE” which opens:

every dude
loved M + she
knew it & fine
by me because
she talked to
me (unlike
the rest of
the 9th grade

This poem goes on to tell a sweet teenage story, with tones of sadness that anyone can relate to. Characters emerge in these poems, characters you’d like to have a drink with sometimes. But sometimes they’re characters you’d watch a little warily too.

Many of Mercer’s poems reference Congolese and Yoruba spiritualities. While this is not an area I know a whole lot about, he uses these images in his poems lightly, in ways that make me wish I did know more about them.

Perhaps the most beautiful language in this book comes in the book’s final poem “TURKEY IN THE STRAW” which opens with the magnificent line: Whores make good neighbors.” Yes, that poem goes on from there to tell a fascinating story too.

His poems sometimes feel like Edward P. Jones short stories told in verse, with more evocative language. Mercer’s poems live where people sometimes have a hard time living. It’s a good place for readers of poetry to go.

I’m looking forward to a new book from Ernesto Mercer. I think many readers will benefit from his poems. Ernesto Mercer’s work deserves a wide readership. You can explore more of his work at



Published by

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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