“I / am a black woman / tall as a cypress,” Mari Evans writes in “I Am A Black Woman.” “Look / on me and be / renewed.” On the adjoining page, Sarah Webster Fabio’s “I Would Be for You Rain” wards us off wryly: “I would be for you rain; / insistent, persistent, yet / intermittent.” Drought, she writes, “has kinder hands.” She’s followed by Julia Fields’s “High on the Hog,” with its majestic indifference to anyone’s appetite or needs but the speaker’s own. “I want aperitifs supreme,” she writes. “I’ve been / Urban-planned /Been monyihanned / Enough / And I want / High on the Hog.”
These are moments of wit in a book where darker continuities preside. In her 1989 poem “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses,” Toi Derricotte writes about murdered Black women turning up in fields, on highways.
Am I wrong to think
if five white women had been stripped,
broken, the sirens would wail until
someone was named?
Aja Monet takes up this call in “#sayhername”: “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth,” she writes. She names them: Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Pearlie Golden and others.
Read this way, the book feels like a powerful volume of American history, in which poets beginning with Phyllis Wheatley, the country’s first published Black poet, comment on their times. Here is the potter David Drake, who, at a time when literacy was proscribed for enslaved people, inscribed his work with rhyming couplets about family separation in slavery (“I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all — and every nation”). Here is the birth of jazz, the Scottsboro trial, the murder of Emmett Till, the Vietnam War, the murder of Malcolm X, the killings of Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland.
The poets address America directly. In 1853, James M. Whitfield wrote: “America, it is to thee, / Thou boasted land of liberty,— / It is to thee I raise my song, / Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.” And the poets address each other. One of the most moving aspects of the anthology is to see writers in earlier sections — Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan — become beloved ancestors, become the occasion for poems in later sections.
If this anthology reads like a form of history, it is also a history of form. It traces the tributaries of English and folk traditions, the rhythms of jazz and the Beats, the influence of modernism and the Black Arts Movement. Whatever the style, whatever the shape of the vessel, the particular holding power of the poem is clear. More efficiently than almost any other form, a poem can convey a feeling of simultaneity; the past can saturate the present, the future can rear up behind us, a mood can tip between lament and praise song. The poem itself becomes a site to discuss the costs of transforming struggle into song, as Young puts it. Poets grapple with the urgency to document violence but also chafe at the compulsion. “This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black pain. / this movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt,” Danez Smith writes in “dinosaurs in the hood.”
Or the poet is moved in the opposite direction, sitting at her window, contemplating a poem about sky or clouds and stopping herself, like Nikki Giovanni in “For Saundra”: “Maybe I shouldn’t write at all / but clean my gun / and check my kerosene supply / perhaps these are not poetic / times / at all.” In “Wednesday Poem,” Joel Dias-Porter writes, “I open my folder of nature poems, / then close the folder and slump in a chair. / What simile can seal a bullet wound?” “Surely i am able to write poems / celebrating grass,” Lucille Clifton says and then asks: “why / is there under that poem always / another poem?”
Always: the poem behind the poem, the stakes in the smallest things. It is overwhelming to contemplate the variety and history contained in this volume. The poems gathered here have the force of event. They were written as acts of public mourning, and as secrets; they are love poems and bitter quarrels. They are prized company. Closing this book, June Jordan again comes to mind; one might say, as she thanked her love in “Poem for Haruko”: “How easily you held / my hand / beside the low tide / of the world.”