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…


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