makalani bandele
from vandals of knock city

Author’s note: “the unit” is a prose poem form i invented to explore the boundaries of language, syntax, form, and musicality in poetry. It was inspired by virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor’s groundbreaking 1966 album Unit Structures in so far as it desires to embody the feel of collective improvisation encountered in Free Jazz as a poetics. Even as a prose form, “the unit” approaches the lyric with the precision and abandon of an instrumentalist free improvising.

The video that accompanies unit_75 is a part of a collaborative project producing videos for poems in the unit form rooted in the same free improvisation principles that undergird the form. Visit here for more details on the form and its video project. 


        falling upward or the megapolis as an upside-down skyline. can you start us off with something in your outer pocket? before there was rosa parks, there was claudette colvin. give it up smooth. the cloudbank has the character of a canyon. in search of something that feels like something.
        why i keep hearin’ footsteps, baby, in the dark?[1] when and where both renewal and rupture are generative. the truth doesn’t matter so much as that it be gorgeous. be aware of your surroundings. nurse, the pain is only getting worse. something, something about feeling upward on the upside of the city with search. when the doxology is crispy, she put the screws to him. the time on top is so much shorter than the time it took to get there. art as a way to process contradictions. jaws be droppin’, at the ways these custom wheels be choppin’ and spinnin’.

[1] The Isley Brothers. Lyrics to “Footsteps in the Dark”. Genius, 2020, https://genius.com/The-isley-brothers-footsteps-in-the-dark-lyrics


         line ’em up, count time. night cuffed the dying light. no one considers the violence sound does to the silence at noise’s wake. the sentence-makers doing their level best to take you there and beyond. is this seat taken?
        freedom is to be free of the need to be free.[2] according to federal bureau of investigation statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. the green glass buildings are not swaying back and forth so much as they are challenging the eyes to think for themselves. this is the day the lawd has made for you to get your first lesson in black metaphorical expressions. blown off the overpass into traffic.
        to be black as the apocalypse and death around the corner in a patrol car or just taking a little commercial break. time is out of joint in this joint. that time jopappy was in the cut cutting line to get him some free stuff don’t count. typically, it takes anywhere from twenty to ninety minutes for it to kick in. side-eye witness: white business suit on the train ogling that black girl in a miniskirt one-third his age. put that chocolate city on layaway and cashed out of them vanilla suburbs. that’s when the room went up, routine had to pirouette and stop, met a new connect got it 18 a whop[3]. killa.

[2] This is a paraphrase of Funkadelic lyrics to their song Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow. Produced by George Clinton. Album: Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow. Westbound, 1970.

[3] This is a line from a Cam’ron lyric on the track Fantastic Four, Pt. 2, Featuring Nature, The LOX, Fabolous & Cam’ron. Produced by Ken “Duro” Ifill & DJ Clue?. Album: The Professional 2. Desert Storm: Roc-A-Fella: Def Jam, 2001.


         the sentence-makers love to shut it down. hands just out of reach of one another—the hands are subconscious things that signal what we are feeling. release the sentences. hard choices: use up your last bit of gas keeping the car you are living in warm or use it to go look for a job in the morning. read this or die a lady-in-waiting. in a direction contrary to the natural one, especially contrary to the apparent course of the sun or counterclockwise: considered as unlucky or causing disaster. got your wig on tight? the faintest spray of blood splayed from cheek to ear as a little black girl in the back seat just watched a man in blue with a badge shoot her gentle father just inches from her.
        evanescent like sugar maple leaves on a bough in autumn or the idea that whiteness is superior. point well taken. if you don’t know, now you know.[4] shut it down especially contrary counterclockwise or causing disaster. quick apprehension of the concept is the beginning of stupidity. white buttercups neatly folded away for the night. not as advertised. now when we get up in here you play the back, jopappy et al. will do the heavy lifting.

[4] The Notorious B.I.G. Lyrics to “Juicy.” Genius, 2020, https://genius.com/The-notorious-big-juicy-lyrics.


            think you can get your mind over all this matter? how far is too far? does the study of philosophy lead to answers or just more inquiry? how do you stand in relation to the gentrification of your block? will there ultimately be a criteria for who gets it in the end? sound familiar to you? where are you going dressed like a stock broker? what’s your bid? written critiques or strictly oral ones? who is in charge here? are we going to have rules about how often you have to attend to be considered an active member? think you can get some sound familiar to you? how do you recharge your neurons? would you forgive me if all i ever played was stella by starlight? under what conditions? was it via a poetry board?

a fundamental unit

         holding the breath at the top of an inhale. nuthin’ from nuthin’, leaves nuthin’. translation: bet it all on black. too little emphasis on what’s beneath the surface. to be fo sho wit it and other textual bodies that play on your expectations. mama ninety-five and still supervise how much butter we put in our pies.
         blacker than black ops. of or in the future: potential, likely, or expected. the air and sky shouldn’t be soft and singing eerily familiar tones of greens and pinks. them streets can smell the punk in ya. an acoustic scene of forms in the rotunda. mama been gone, but she left her recipe for the stillness of breath she found. they callin’ me, to come back to the atrium. a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. stopped and frisked lil’ daddy for not fitting the description of monteverdi’s l‘orfeo. you can’t make this up.

makalani bandele is the author of hellfightin’ (Willow Books) and under the aegis of a winged mind, awarded the 2019 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Other poems in the unit form have been published or are forthcoming in Ocean State Review, Washington Square, and Inverted Syntax.