Review by Jo Freehand: Julia Bouwsma's Midden

Voicing the Past, Grounded in the Present

Publisher: Fordham University Press 2018 Paperback, pp. 96 ISBN: 9780823280988 Foreword by Afaa M. Weaver

Publisher: Fordham University Press 2018
Paperback, pp. 96
ISBN: 9780823280988
Foreword by Afaa M. Weaver

[…] they drove us from our house, loaded us into the boats, the carriage, steered us into the bleach cold hall said, Women go left men go right. Then I knew the line / was about to snap. A pair of white hands plucked him off my breast. I sagged down torn, unfurled, gill-slit. And my sweet William he just […]
(From “Sucker Fish”)

Imagine that the government seizes your land. Says you have thirty days to leave or else you’ll be forcefully removed. You don’t have a choice. You’re told to take down your home or it will be burned down. Imagine that you and your community settled that land. It’s an island. It’s your home. You are part of a cooperative fishing and ship-building community. The land and sea are your resources, your livelihood, your identity. Your entire community is evicted from this land that you settled four, five generations ago because there’s this new science called eugenics that declares you unfit, unacceptable, degenerate, “feeble-minded.” Eugenics declares that you must be culled.

 You and your neighbors happen to be mixed race: Sottish, Irish, Portuguese, Native American, black, and white. Mainland publications have headlined you as filthy. Filthier than dogs, lazy, criminal they say. You are seen as a problem, not a person. Nearby communities have no interest in allowing you to join them. They wonder what would happen to their rising tourism economy. Your community must scatter. An entire family of seven is institutionalized to live out the remainder of their days incarcerated, including their three-year-old William.

 This is the story of Malaga Islanders, a community erased by the state of Maine in 1912 because the governor declared that Maine, “[…] ought not have such things near their front door.” To top off this extermination, graves of deceased islanders were dug up. Bodies were tumbled into five boxes and buried at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. The people of Malaga Island are a part of Maine’s history that has been hushed for one-hundred years.

 Midden is Julia Bouwsma’s history of the people who were Malaga Island. It is poetry of identity and place; place shaped by people and people shaped by place. We see an example of this in “Interview with the Dead”:

Who were you then?

And instantly the tongue becomes the prism
of fracture, land of washed green light –

ferns, wild hops, hemlock, lichen

In this poem, the islanders become the very life-giving green of the island itself.

While writing east-coast Malaga Islanders into poetic form, forms that include: epistolary, persona, instructional, list, erasure, and narrative, Bouwsma restores a neglected grave site on her own land in the mountains of western Maine. The careful attention and introspection that she puts into restoring this gravesite, reveals the level of care and personal responsibility with which Bouwsma restores a people to history.

She approaches the work of righting gravestones and the work of writing the people of Malaga Island with caution and respect. Bouwsma is careful not to overstep. In one of her reflective epistolary poems “Dear ghosts, with a red pencil I draw a map,” she writes:

[…] Blood is a road –
the river we carry inside our skins. The dead are right beside you,
you tell me, but you will travel years to find them. What if every step I take
is a ruin, a heel-dug grave in the crusted snow, a mouth of white?

This overlapping narrative of past and present reveals how connected Bouwsma is to her own land. It’s an intimate connection that’s apparent from the beginning in Midden’s opening poem “I Walk My Road at Dusk”:

  […] The road curves toward
and away. The road spines
the stone walls. My feet stumble inside
ruts my feet have worn.

  All I ever wanted was land: something to press
my fingers into, […]

Throughout Midden, as we take in the inhumanity against the people of Malaga, Bouwsma continually returns us to this well-rooted present. Like the road mentioned above, there’s a constant moving “toward and away.”

Here in “So Many Things” Bouwsma moves toward, zooms-in, to create an intimate portrait of islander Abbie Marks:

They say our family fears water; they think I am afraid
to drown.
I dig clams from the flats, ocean licking
the rolled ends of my trousers, mud squelching
my toes. I chink the cabin cracks with rags. […]

 {…} They will come for us. […]

Yes, bringing us back to the present allows us breathing space as we acknowledge such inhumanity. Perhaps it also serves as a reminder that erasure exists today.

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at:  jfreehand@verizon.net

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at: jfreehand@verizon.net

 

Review by Jo Freehand: Dominique Christina's Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems

Writing Anarcha Alive

Publisher: Beacon Press 2018 Paperback, pp. 95 ISBN: 978-080700921-5 A National Poetry Series Winner Selected and with foreword by: Tyehimba Jess

Publisher: Beacon Press 2018
Paperback, pp. 95
ISBN: 978-080700921-5
A National Poetry Series Winner
Selected and with foreword by: Tyehimba Jess

This is an important book.

But, first, a pop quiz! What do the following three things have in common?

  • The architect of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida

  • The metal speculum used in gynecological exams

  • An eight-year Central Park, NY statue protest

Hint: It might have something to do with the subject of a biographical narrative written by Dominique Christina, a poet who holds five national poetry slam titles and two Women of the World Slam Championships.

 Answer to follow. For now, a warning: Anarcha Speaks is far from a delightful read. I highly recommend it.

 Yes, Christina’s relationship with language, form, and story-telling is beautiful, masterful. To say, however, that this book is delightful would be like saying a movie about the medical experiments of Nazi Josef Mengele was delightful. Anarcha Speaks is deeply gut-wrenching. It will hold and haunt and hopefully make you angry. It’s a necessary book. Anarcha needs to be properly memorialized, and that’s what Dominique Christina has done. Why does that matter?

 It matters because Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and other unnamed enslaved black women didn’t have a say in being unanesthetized surgical guinea pigs of the man exalted today as “the father of modern gynecology,” J. Marion Sims. (inventor of the Sims speculum and grandfather to the architect of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida). He is glorified. Whereas Anarcha, primary subject of Sims’s experiments, who suffered numerous pinned-down slicings and stitchings, has been reduced to far less than a side-bar mention.

Perhaps women’s reproductive health has benefitted from Sims’s discoveries. Yet, and if so, these discoveries were founded on unimaginable torture and pain of women who didn’t have a say in the matter. They were young enslaved raped black women who were considered property. From “Black Gold”:

  slavers say we black gold
highest price for the ones
who make it well enough

 They were young women who were malnourished and too young to give birth without traumatic injury. Resold, they were now Sims’s backyard makeshift hospital slaves. They were now his property, his experiment. “Property” forbidden, by law, to read and write. Far less than a personal diary was punishable by death.

 This is resurrectional poetry. One-hundred and seventy years later, Dominique Christina has richly fleshed Anarcha alive. With each word, Christina offers another vertebra, another vein, another sorrow, another “belly droopin,” another “closed shut melody,” another “rhythmic dread,” another memory. Hear Anarcha through Christina in “The Chil’ren Might Know”:

        we once was warriors
bone sharp and tangling up
wit whatever wild was in the world
before some ships rolled in
wit folk we ain’t never seen
brandin iron and bullet men

 From the first poem of the book “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So”:

  massa come in like he know I caint cry
new tears

 Christina goes deep into the core of trauma and convincingly expresses a lived experience, as in “Don’t Wanna Hear It But”:

  when he left
seem like he stayed
like i kept
some of it
like I ain’t
have no other way

 And as in “Not Dead But . . .”:

this bruise ain’t no girl
she gone
she never gon be again
she too much a ghost even
for burial

Over and over she writes Anarcha alive with deep truths of trauma such as a continual grappling with faith in God and religion. From “The Preacher Give Us the Story of Job”:

i wanna hear it right but
seem like god always
takin somethin
and wantin somethin
all at once and all you
can do is call it his will

She questions why her prayers aren’t answered during such horror. She continues to pray anyhow. Especially convincing in giving voice to Anarcha and true sign of unbearable trauma, are her prayer requests, her longing to die. “When the Quiver Stops, Aint No Jesus”:

i, wordless and wantin heaven . . .
even hell
least i be gone from snatchin hands

 Readers may have to remind themselves that Dominique Christina wrote these words, not Anarcha. Or did she? Does it matter if a reader confuses the poet and the speaker of the poem? Is that not what a biographical poet would want?

 In Section II of Anarcha Speaks, the poems begin to alternate voice between Anarcha and Dr. Sims. I didn’t like the intrusion. It felt abrupt and invasive like a known predator walked uninvited into the room. Why did Christina make this choice? I didn’t want Sims to have a say. I didn’t want him in this space. Does “his” voice amplify the horror? Is that exactly what Christina intended? Are there things that could only be expressed through Sims such as the racist belief that black women and men are “thick-skinned,” too thick to feel pain as whites do as “he” says in “Blood Misbehaves: The Surgery as Dr. Sims Sees It”:

The complication with the Negro
Is how robust they are.           
They confuse you with their bleeding

Does he add things that Anarcha would never say, as in “How Doctor Sims Sees His Work”:

I will learn the diabolical complexity
Of woman: a synonym for ruin.

 I might have preferred the entirety of Anarcha Speaks in Anarcha’s voice, but I’ve come to realize the poetic genius of including Sims in this way. In the end his voice remains distant and overshadowed by Anarcha, as it should be. Dominique Christina has rightfully placed Anarcha in the forefront.

 Anarcha Speaks is a monument to Anarcha and all enslaved women who had no choice in enduring the pain of medical experimentation without anesthesia. These are our Mothers of Modern Gynecology. They deserve to be memorialized. They deserve to stand in place of the relocated statue of Sims that once stood in Central Park. They deserve many monuments; this is one of them. Dominique Christina has illuminated a history that too-many would choose to keep hidden. She has done what Anarcha asks in her closing poem, “First Is Last: How Anarcha Sees It”:

maybe put the sun in my mouth
chew it up til i’m light all over
wouldn’t that be something?

 It would. It is.

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at:  jfreehand@verizon.net

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at: jfreehand@verizon.net

 

Review by Jo Freehand: Sarah Sousa's See the Wolf

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Predator and Prey: The Story That’s Older Than Fairytales

The cover is haunting. It exudes danger, and danger there is in Sarah Sousa’s third collection of poetry See the Wolf. It’s a story that is older than the earliest version of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a story about violence against girls and women. It is the story of growing up female and growing into prey-hood. This time the story, including the retelling of myth and fairytales, is set in the 1980s along with “Cabbage Patch plastic,” knowing that Luke was Laura’s rapist on General Hospital, milk carton images of missing children, and having a secret word in case your mom couldn’t pick you up. As in “Tom and Jerry”:

            I might have enjoyed the quiet, the purpling
sky if I wasn’t so timid, seen some humor
in the scenario that had me terrified: a dark car pulls up,
a man opens the door, says the words
that mean you’re mine.

Little Red-type wolves freely roam on, off, and between the pages. Off the page in a bearable, yet clearly visible, distance. Between the pages, Wolf shadows and lures. On the page, some of the wolves are disguised as a mother’s boyfriend or a stranger in the park who, in “Like a Name,”

[…] pointed at my skinny, dark haired sister and all but said, meh.
But when he looked at me he beamed; […]

Or the man in “Poem Without a Forest”:

[…] in the dark/ space/ between /cement wall/ and stunted pines -
filthy and gripping

And a grandfather in the front room in “PAW”:

            […] Sometimes he wanted to hug me
and I would rise reluctantly,
let him pull me against his sinewy body.

Throughout there is also a literal wolf disguised as domesticated dog whose bite required seventeen stitches. Sousa writes that in her version of “Red”: 

            I’ll include how it feels to be eaten,
the entering isn’t clean –
teeth are like dull keys.
The wolf opens you
to your own red
glister like a docent to the body.

 It’s not surprising that a sense of being one step away from death permeates this collection. It loops and loops, as it does when you know you are prey. It appears in nightmarish daydreams, and it appears in actual nightmares as in “Don’t You Forget About Me,” a poem Sousa wrote about a night at a drive-in theater with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

  […] You were fun, you were young, you
would become obsessed and want to kill us, but this was before all that

Later in the same poem, Sousa writes how this particular wolf became part of her nightmares:

            […] a dark figure in an idling car, a dark figure at the door, in the house.
I was murdered in myriad ways: suffocation, fire, gunshot to the head. […]           

Yes, as the title of the book warns, there are wolves, and there is blood and broken glass and fires and predation and threats and humiliation and devaluing and objectification and loneliness. There is no safety to be found. Unless…

 Unless we go back and start with the first poem in the book entitled, “Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea.” It sets the stage with a once-a-upon-a-time. The stage curtains are opening. They’re embroidered with Sarah Sousa’s dedication:

For Mom and Jess, for the three of us

The three of us. Sousa is on a stool center-stage, slightly lit. She is telling the story of her birth, the story of her name. The stage lights brighten as a single-file and hand-in-hand line of Sousa’s female relatives enter the scene:

            They embody the word habit,
placing a napkin atop my glass
of water, one beneath to absorb the sweat,
carry a magnifying glass
to read menus. With them
I’m always the youngest in the room.

 They form a circle around Sousa and in unison:

            They ask:
do you believe us?
does it help you to believe in us?

With this first poem in See the Wolf, the interconnectedness of women throughout this narrative is established and unshakable. It’s a union of women that is stronger together than alone. See the Wolf honors the power of women united. This is where safety is found. In “To the Comedian Who Called Thelma and Louise Two White Heifers”:

            Don’t laugh. Women have driven off cliffs,
burned men in their beds, to escape.
Her body over my body, my mother and the dog would face off.
I could feel the answering growl start deep inside her,
erupting in a voice not my mother’s,
a voice to make us larger than we were. Stronger

This connection of girls and women includes raped survivors of an 18th century shipwreck in “The Wreck”:

            […] They dressed each other’s wounds,
sewed cormorant feathers into garments with needles
of bone. Each carried a two-note whistle
from the keeled sternum of a gull.

It’s this connection of girls and women that transforms See the Wolf into a mastered craft, a fine weaving.

Maybe, in the end, trauma of prey-hood never goes away. Maybe it remains as the longitudinal warp, fibers of the wolf, that are held taut and ever-stationary on the framework of being a girl, being a woman. And the weft, the transforming transverse weft to be drawn through, in Sarah Sousa’s case, is every woman in her narrative. And it’s a weft created of a wild and free landscape: grass, spider webs, apples and apple trees, “a quartz boulder in the woods,” “that moment of dawn,” “intricate bracts and branches,” eggshells, “under feathers,” “fields of ravens,” birds.

 So many birds. Birds punctuate Sousa’s poetry: bird as creator of a soft place to land, bird as a unit of measure and resolve, bird as a covering, bird as an instrument for protection, bird as companion, bird as song, bird as transformation, bird as myth and magic, bird as a painter’s inspiration, bird as something steady when a partner is away, bird as baptizer, bird as voice, bird as bird, bird as animal other than Wolf.

Over and under, over and under, Sousa weaves her imagery-rich weft through the dark warp of predation. She weaves with a touch of mystery. She draws it over and under with enchantment of language and sound. From “Not the Same Bird Twice”:

When I called for him in the crawl space
I felt a century of domesticated ghosts
undrowse and rouse themselves, some
plastic sheeting rustled,
a long yawn silence stretched.

Over and under, she draws the weft through her hands, often allowing it to wander off into its “own woods.Over and under, Sousa draws the weft until she has created a beautiful multi-fibered tapestry that she has called See the Wolf.

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at:  jfreehand@verizon.net

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at: jfreehand@verizon.net

 
 

Review by Jo Freehand: Taylor Mali's The Whetting Stone

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Dark and Without Despair

The Whetting Stone, by Taylor Mali, is life-affirmingly dark. Life-affirming, not in a “happily-ever-after” or “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” way, being a collection of poetry in dialogue with death and the suicide of Taylor Mali’s wife, Rebecca. It is life-affirming in that, although intense grief is present throughout, Mali remains fully present in that grief. He is committed to whole engagement without turning away. It is an engagement without need to polish, romanticize, sensationalize, solve, or fix anything. It is a fierce and vulnerable full-bodied allowing-for-all-that-life-is, which includes brutal loss and pain. Grief, too, is life and alive. And, as Mali expresses in “Grief Moves”, his opening poem that addresses his father’s death, there is a life-affirming sensuality in allowing this darkness to touch the core of your being:

            how my wife let me fill her full
            of my tears when I came home,
            silent, hard, and broken; 

           […]

           how we came together, loss now
           a moving thing between us. […]

“Grief Moves” foreshadows further loss. But first it is followed by “Making Ravioli,” an extended relationship metaphor that is bubbling over with delicious embodied imagery. There is “holding” and “stirring” and “kneading” and “gripping” and “…together, using all four hands.” The first stanza beautifully echoes “Grief Moves” with a brokenness that appears again and again:

            If you were the flour,
            I would say you hold me like the eggs,
            broken and mixed up as I am.

There even seems to be a bit of humor with Rebecca naming the not-so-perfect piece of ravioli, “deformioli.” Here is a glimpse of Rebecca alive and participating in full ravioli-producing union. And then, third poem into this narrative, with no metaphor about it, in the first stanza of “Six Stories:”

            Years ago, on a Monday morning, my wife,
            dressed for work in a new suit and elegant shoes,
            stepped outside the window and fell to her death
            six stories below.

Mali continues to describe six possible “stories” that led to Rebecca’s death, each story a descending stanza. The first addresses inherited trauma of being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor:

            Perhaps the first is the one about the tattoo on her father’s arm,
            the dark number he never spoke of.

The Whetting Stone is not an easy read. Darkness permeates. Mali does, however, have a way of lightening the weight of the sorrow for his reader. Fine details and clear particulars, which Mali does so well, fill this tragedy and make it bearable. It’s those concrete details that, by the end of this book, have you longing for a stranger, longing to have met her, longing for Rebecca’s survival; and yet it’s those same details that make the sorrow bearable and even call you back to read and re-read.

I’ve come to think of this collection as the Rebecca poems. There are a few poems that read as letters written directly to Rebecca, posthumously. They seem to ground the entire collection. They include: “Twelfth Anniversary,” “Things We Both Know That I Still Have To Tell You,” “Meeting at Monet’s Water Lilies,” and “News of My Divorce Reminds Me of Your Death.” 

From “Things We Both Know That I Still Have to Tell You:”

            You are not ugly, old, broken, broke, or stupid.
            And you certainly are not fat. […]

In “Twelfth Anniversary,” it’s Rebecca’s voice telling us:

            I’m not the type of woman who would drive such a car!
            This car should be driven by someone peppy named Cindi
            who dots her eyes with flowers, hearts, or stars
.

That was possibly another brief moment of humor on Mali’s part as he finds his wife “aghast” to admit that she owns a red “sports car.” It’s also another glimpse into the perpetual dark that infiltrated Rebecca’s life.

In “Elegy for the Lighter Sleeper,” Mali writes of facing that darkness in the darkness of night.

           She the lighter sleeper, needed noise not to think,
           needed it to sink into the rock and tide, even if
           it only be the late-night sweeper come to sweep
           the dust and grime and darkness from the ground

With this entire collection as a whole, Taylor Mali has enlarged the conversation of mental health and suicide with gentleness, dignity, and authority. In particular, I’m thinking of the above poem “Elegy for the Lighter Sleeper” and “Depression, Too, Is a Kind of Fire”.

In “News of My Divorce Reminds Me of Your Death,” grieving now at the end of his second marriage, he lovingly addresses Rebecca, his first wife, in sonnet:

            Lover, at last, please leave me, after all these years.
            You have cried enough. Leave me to these tears.

Throughout this book, we are witness to the reunion or union of Taylor and Rebecca, in grief and in love. And we, too, as readers, must let go of the happy ending, as Mali himself has reconciled in “Sestina:”

            […] I knew she
            was not all right, and I was not
            her knight or savior. […]

“Sestina” is the nineteenth and last poem in this brief, but epic, work. It concludes with three of the most chilling lines I have ever read. Three lines that honor the fullness of Rebecca. This is a book worth having on your shelf, so I am refraining from quoting those and many others so that you can experience them on your own.

Mali does not try to force a meaning upon his wife’s suicide, but by being present and bravely engaging with his grief, he has provided us with poetry that is deeply meaningful and significant. The Whetting Stone is not a work of despair. There is no despair. There are poems, well-crafted poems and a raw accounting. It is clear language given to the unspeakable. Poetry made possible because of the depth of the darkness that Taylor Mali was willing to embrace and bring to the surface to share with us. It is why poetry matters.

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at:  jfreehand@verizon.net

Comments may be directed to Jo Freehand, Contributing Editor at: jfreehand@verizon.net