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