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The Study of Human Life

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Winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and longlisted for the Griffin Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award

An acclaimed poet further extends his range into the realm of speculative fiction, while addressing issues as varied as abolition, Black ecological consciousness, and the boundless promise of parenthood

Featuring the novella “The Book of Mycah,” soon to be adapted by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions & Warner Bros. TV


Across three sequences, Joshua Bennett’s new book recalls and reimagines social worlds almost but not entirely lost, all while gesturing toward the ones we are building even now, in the midst of a state of emergency, together. Bennett opens with a set of autobiographical poems that deal with themes of family, life, death, vulnerability, and the joys and dreams of youth. The central section, “The Book of Mycah,” features an alternate history where Malcolm X is resurrected from the dead, as is a young black man shot by the police some fifty years later in Brooklyn. The final section of The Study of Human Life are poems that Bennett has written about fatherhood, on the heels of his own first child being born last fall.
Trash

I

All the men I loved were dead
-beats by birthright or so the legend

went. The ledger said three
out of every four of us were

destined for a cell or lead
shells flitting like comets

through our heads. As a boy,
my mother made me write

& sign contracts to express
the worthlessness of a man's

word. Just like your father,
she said, whenever I would lie,

or otherwise warp the historical
record to get my way. Even then,

I knew the link between me
& the old man was pure

negation, bad habits, some awful
hyphen filled with blood. I have half

my father's face & not a measure of his flair
for the dramatic. Never once

have I prayed & had another man's wife
wail in return. Both burden & blessing alike,

it seemed, this beauty he carried
like a dead doe. No one called him Father

of the Year. But come wintertime, he would wash
& cocoa butter us until our curls shone like lodestone,

bodies wrapped in three layers
of cloth just to keep December's iron

bite at bay. And who would have thought
to thank him then? Or else turn

& expunge the record, given all we know
now of war & its unquantifiable cost,

the way living through everyone around you
dying kills something elemental, ancient.

At a certain point, it all comes back
to survival, is what I am saying.

There are men he killed to become
this man. The human brain is a soft

gray cage. He doesn't know what else
he can do with his hands.

II

The Knicks were trash. Head colds
at the outset of a South Bronx summer:

trash. The second hour after she is gone,
the moment the song you both used to slow

-dance through the kitchenette
to comes on, moving on: all trash.

Death is trash. Love is a robust engagement
with the trash of another.

Monthly bills of any kind are trash,
although access to gas and electricity

is not, so there is that to consider.
Blackouts are incontrovertibly

trash. Much like student loans, or the fact
that we live in a culture of debt such that one

must always be behind to make some semblance
of what our elders might have called living.

My friends often state in the midst of otherwise
loving group chat missives that life is trash, though

we all keep trying to make one for some reason
or another, and the internet says my friends are trash,

that black men and boys are trash, and it makes me think
of the high Germanic roots of garbage-which

is perhaps the first cousin of trash-that part of the animal
one does not eat, and we are sort of like that, no?

Modernity's refuse, disposable flesh
and spectacular failure, fuel and fodder,

corpses abundant as the trash
on the floor of the world.

Aging is trash. I am years past thirty now
and so any further time qualifies

as statistical anomaly,
you can't expect good

results with bad data, trash
in, trash out, they say,

and I'm really just searching
for better, more redemptive

language is the thing,
some version of the story

where all the characters
inside look like me and every

single one of us escapes
with our heads.

III

Saturdays, it was my job to pick the bones
from cans of fish which became the unwieldy

piles of pink flesh that, once fried, became the cakes
we ate for dinner that night, breakfast the next

day, dinner again to close the loop. Decades passed
before I saw the beast in real time, realized, like Baldwin-

who once saw his mother lift a yard of velvet, say
that is a good idea, and for months thought ideas were shocks

of black fabric-that salmon lived outside
the bounds of Foodtown shelves

we searched for deals in the early '90s,
supermarket circulars held tight

in our too-small hands, armaments
against American cost. Older now,

a literary type with insurance
to boot, I tell you this story

at our kitchen table, unsure of what
I am trying to convey, exactly.

Something about the flexible
nature of human knowledge,

perhaps: a speed course in semiotics
over poached eggs. Or maybe

some version of the same tale
I am always telling, that the wall

between the world & me
grew weaker once I left

what I loved. Children
of the poor, their small words

& smaller sense of scale.
Back then, life on Earth

was Yonkers, NY,
& my grandmother's salon.

Every leather-bound book
was a Word of God. And there I was,

an affront to history, creative, even
in my ignorance, sketching planets

in the air as my big sister sang soul outside
my bedroom window, her voice

like something ancient and winged,
pulling summer into being.
© Rog Walker
Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), which was a National Poetry Series selection and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is also the author of Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), Owed (Penguin, 2020), The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), and Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023). He has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is a Professor of Literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities at MIT. View titles by Joshua Bennett

About

Winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and longlisted for the Griffin Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award

An acclaimed poet further extends his range into the realm of speculative fiction, while addressing issues as varied as abolition, Black ecological consciousness, and the boundless promise of parenthood

Featuring the novella “The Book of Mycah,” soon to be adapted by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions & Warner Bros. TV


Across three sequences, Joshua Bennett’s new book recalls and reimagines social worlds almost but not entirely lost, all while gesturing toward the ones we are building even now, in the midst of a state of emergency, together. Bennett opens with a set of autobiographical poems that deal with themes of family, life, death, vulnerability, and the joys and dreams of youth. The central section, “The Book of Mycah,” features an alternate history where Malcolm X is resurrected from the dead, as is a young black man shot by the police some fifty years later in Brooklyn. The final section of The Study of Human Life are poems that Bennett has written about fatherhood, on the heels of his own first child being born last fall.

Excerpt

Trash

I

All the men I loved were dead
-beats by birthright or so the legend

went. The ledger said three
out of every four of us were

destined for a cell or lead
shells flitting like comets

through our heads. As a boy,
my mother made me write

& sign contracts to express
the worthlessness of a man's

word. Just like your father,
she said, whenever I would lie,

or otherwise warp the historical
record to get my way. Even then,

I knew the link between me
& the old man was pure

negation, bad habits, some awful
hyphen filled with blood. I have half

my father's face & not a measure of his flair
for the dramatic. Never once

have I prayed & had another man's wife
wail in return. Both burden & blessing alike,

it seemed, this beauty he carried
like a dead doe. No one called him Father

of the Year. But come wintertime, he would wash
& cocoa butter us until our curls shone like lodestone,

bodies wrapped in three layers
of cloth just to keep December's iron

bite at bay. And who would have thought
to thank him then? Or else turn

& expunge the record, given all we know
now of war & its unquantifiable cost,

the way living through everyone around you
dying kills something elemental, ancient.

At a certain point, it all comes back
to survival, is what I am saying.

There are men he killed to become
this man. The human brain is a soft

gray cage. He doesn't know what else
he can do with his hands.

II

The Knicks were trash. Head colds
at the outset of a South Bronx summer:

trash. The second hour after she is gone,
the moment the song you both used to slow

-dance through the kitchenette
to comes on, moving on: all trash.

Death is trash. Love is a robust engagement
with the trash of another.

Monthly bills of any kind are trash,
although access to gas and electricity

is not, so there is that to consider.
Blackouts are incontrovertibly

trash. Much like student loans, or the fact
that we live in a culture of debt such that one

must always be behind to make some semblance
of what our elders might have called living.

My friends often state in the midst of otherwise
loving group chat missives that life is trash, though

we all keep trying to make one for some reason
or another, and the internet says my friends are trash,

that black men and boys are trash, and it makes me think
of the high Germanic roots of garbage-which

is perhaps the first cousin of trash-that part of the animal
one does not eat, and we are sort of like that, no?

Modernity's refuse, disposable flesh
and spectacular failure, fuel and fodder,

corpses abundant as the trash
on the floor of the world.

Aging is trash. I am years past thirty now
and so any further time qualifies

as statistical anomaly,
you can't expect good

results with bad data, trash
in, trash out, they say,

and I'm really just searching
for better, more redemptive

language is the thing,
some version of the story

where all the characters
inside look like me and every

single one of us escapes
with our heads.

III

Saturdays, it was my job to pick the bones
from cans of fish which became the unwieldy

piles of pink flesh that, once fried, became the cakes
we ate for dinner that night, breakfast the next

day, dinner again to close the loop. Decades passed
before I saw the beast in real time, realized, like Baldwin-

who once saw his mother lift a yard of velvet, say
that is a good idea, and for months thought ideas were shocks

of black fabric-that salmon lived outside
the bounds of Foodtown shelves

we searched for deals in the early '90s,
supermarket circulars held tight

in our too-small hands, armaments
against American cost. Older now,

a literary type with insurance
to boot, I tell you this story

at our kitchen table, unsure of what
I am trying to convey, exactly.

Something about the flexible
nature of human knowledge,

perhaps: a speed course in semiotics
over poached eggs. Or maybe

some version of the same tale
I am always telling, that the wall

between the world & me
grew weaker once I left

what I loved. Children
of the poor, their small words

& smaller sense of scale.
Back then, life on Earth

was Yonkers, NY,
& my grandmother's salon.

Every leather-bound book
was a Word of God. And there I was,

an affront to history, creative, even
in my ignorance, sketching planets

in the air as my big sister sang soul outside
my bedroom window, her voice

like something ancient and winged,
pulling summer into being.

Author

© Rog Walker
Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), which was a National Poetry Series selection and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is also the author of Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), Owed (Penguin, 2020), The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), and Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023). He has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is a Professor of Literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities at MIT. View titles by Joshua Bennett

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