This week, I’ve been spending time with Francine J. Harris’s second collection Play Dead. Harris’s words, no doubt, are magic. The poems surprise you again and again, and just when you think you know what’s coming next, Harris dazzles you with her unique play on language, as well as the excellent rhythm in each line.
“our mouths / got us our bitter ass whipped, pick our own – / ers, our switches, our licks, our shut up. our shut up. our shut up” (“in case” lines 33-35). Every line break in this collection is well timed, showing that the level of command at which Harris has over her craft is exceptional.
Leafing through Play Dead for the first time, readers will notice that each poem takes its own shape. Harris is not a poet that utilizes the same moves or form time and time again. Instead, the collection reinvents itself page by page, and demands to be heard.
What I’ve been especially impressed with while reading Play Dead is the layering of images in each poem. “I have light in my mouth. I hunger you. You want / what comes in drag. a black squirrel in a black tar lane, / fresh from exhaust, hot and July’s unearthed steam” (“low visibility” lines 11-13). The poems do not hold back on craft, style, or imagery. They go big, and readers will be thankful for this.
I was lucky enough to be able to see Harris read on Tuesday, June 7 in Cleveland, Ohio. There was a packed house of over 150 people to see her and Terrance Hayes at the monthly Brews and Prose event lead by founder Dave Lucas. Harris has a warm personality, and listening to her read cued me into the voice behind the collection.
One element that I was thankful to hear by the poet herself is the use of repetition that drives so many of the poems in Play Dead forward. The poem “afterwards the boys stand in the kitchen” continues to be a favorite of mine: “they all / adjust themselves and move around like soft dirt planets. they all / adjust themselves in constant fidget” (4-6). The repetition of the statement “they all adjust themselves” is not just a vehicle that is used to push the poem forward, but it is also critical to the overall statement Harris makes in this poem.
Other poems in the collection that I really enjoyed are the “Suicide Note” poems that appear in section two, as well as the “pink pigs” poems that act as a thread throughout the collection.
Although I think all poetry needs to be read out loud, it’s especially important for this collection. I spent a few days reading these poems, and I took my time moving through the collection in order to adequately embrace everything Harris puts on the page.
This is a collection that stirred something inside of me, as it will for you.
Photo cover courtesy of Alice James Books.
Buy the collection here.