weekend reads: the black maria

If you’re not already familiar with 2015 Whiting Award winner Aracelis Girmay‘s poetry, now would be an excellent time to fix that. Her first two collections, Teeth and Kingdom Animalia, are flat-out incredible. They’re two of my favorite books of all time; Aracelis writes in a resonant, powerful voice and looks unflinchingly both at life’s brutality and its beauty. She has that rare talent that doesn’t rely on the easy redemption beauty can bestow.

For example, check out this passage from the final stanza of one of my favorite of her poems, “Arroz Poetica,” in Teeth (2007, Curbstone Press).

                                      ….& I will not
have ever seen your eyes, & you will not
have ever seen my eyes
or the eyes of the ones who dropped the missiles,
or the eyes of the ones who ordered the missiles,
& the missiles have no eyes. You had no chance,
the way they fell on avenues & farms
& clocks & schoolchildren. There was no place for you
& so you burned. A bag of rice will not bring you back.
A poem cannot bring you. & although it is my promise here
to try to open every one of my windows, I cannot
imagine the intimacy with which
a life leaves its body….

The lyricism of her poetry isn’t sweeping anything under the carpet nor providing an elaborate sandbank to bury one’s head – if anything, her poems place reality under the microscope. The power and elegance of her vivid language and fecund images give the reader the strength to try to see as clearly as Aracelis does as she examines being-in-the-world in its many heartwrenching permutations.

So, you can imagine how excited I was to get her latest collection, the black maria, which came out last week from BOA Editions. Aracelis’ voice and poetry continue to evolve, while retaining everything I already loved about them. I’m still reading it for the first time, but already the book is opening all the windows.

the black maria‘s brief foreword states in part, “This cycle of poems focuses on Eritrean history, as this is a history I am somewhat familiar with as someone of its diaspora. But, of course, the history of people searching for political asylum and opportunity (both) is much larger than Eritrean history alone.” Reading history through Aracelis’ poetry is an intense experience. It is honest, real; her poems plunge the reader into the deep, living emotions of tragedy, memory, loss, and love.

For me, the last four stanzas of the long poem “prayer & letter to the dead” say it all:

I am marked by the dead, your sea-letters
of salt & weeping.

Now I am ready to lay my self down
on the earth, to listen to the instructions

for how to talk of love & land, to sing
of home in the horrible years, & to fill

my language, like the stars do,
with the light, anyway, of a future tense.
All I’m saying is, you should only read her poetry if you want to read profound, real, relevant, and beautiful work. If that appeals, you can order the book here. (And no, I’m receiving no compensation of any kind for this review, except getting to read some damn good poetry that I myself bought. 🙂

What are you reading this weekend? What poetry is setting your soul on fire? Give us your book recs in the comments…

 

Thoughts on Tactile Image

So I’m reading After Babel, by George Steiner, and came across this:

Work done with patients who have recovered eyesight
after long periods of blindness or first acquire normal vision in mature age
does suggest that we only see completely and accurately what we have touched.

 After Babel 2nd ed. p. 131

I confess I am a little obsessed with the tactile image. We live in such a visual world, ever-increasingly-so, and when I read poetry or other writing that uses images created with a multiplicity of senses, I find it an insanely effective craft technique.

We experience the world in so many ways. Smell and taste, even sound, are generally considered far more evocative of memory than sight. To me, touch is a way that we constantly interact with the world, and we’re so rarely aware of it. So when a poet locates me as a reader in their specific emotional-experiential continuum by letting me know how something physically feels, it frequently gives an intensity, a vividness to the image that can startle.

It makes me think of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival,” which you can find in his books Copacetic and Neon Vernacular. He’s got two repeating lines that form the backbone of a complex, evolving metaphor through the poem:

bad luck isn’t red flowers
crushed under jackboots

The metaphor (or anti-metaphor, since he’s negating the comparison as a way of making the comparison) changes slightly throughout the poem, but that resonant image of the “red flowers / crushed under jackboots” is powerful in part because the reader can imagine, perhaps, both how it feels to be a red flower with a jackboot coming down on you, and how it feels to crush a flower under the heel of your boot. However you experience this image, the tactile, in-motion image of crushing is an evocative part of one’s understanding.

we only see
completely and accurately
what we have touched

Thanks, George. So here’s a useful exercise. If you have a poem (or other work) with a dominant image, and you’re feeling stuck with it, take a new page and start describing that image with the sense of touch, using as much detail as you can. Move on to other senses, if you wish.

Natalie Diaz talks about creating such a deep image of an apple that the reader can feel the crunch, can see the five-petaled cross-section of its core. If you’re looking for more books with intense, multi-dimensional imagery, her book When My Brother Was An Aztec is also phenomenal. Vievee Francis’s Horse in the Dark makes incredible use of other senses in bringing the reader into the poet’s world. (Well, basically every craft element of Horse in the Dark is on point, but more about that on another day.)

Another good exercise, if you’re in need of a prompt: try writing a poem that describes a single object vividly – without the use of sight.

What do you think? Do you actively work at building other senses into your poems? What poets and other writers you love do this well?

Note: please excuse the super-embryonic website. It will become much better written and more developed in the coming weeks. Thanks. 🙂

Welcome to Maven Editing!

Welcome to Maven Editing!

Ready to take your craft to the next level?

We offer a wide range of editing and writing services. Need a thorough critique of your writing? Want genuinely constructive criticism with specific recommendations? Dreaming of empowering your creative voice with a craft-focused workshop? Looking to develop your literary translation skills? Want professional help getting your manuscript submission-ready? Whatever the need, we’ve got your back.

Your writing deserves an editor who’s dedicated to you. Please look through the many services available from Maven Editing, and don’t hesitate to email us with any questions. Thanks for visiting.