LOOK, SOLMAZ SHARIF

12079778_10106285764738939_240672169261332420_oI’m always amazed when finding out that a poetry collection I’m in love with is a debut. I spend a lot of time on this blog promoting debuts because so many of them are armed with the social and political fervor that makes reading poetry an act of resistance. 2017 is the year poetry and art will save us, and Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look reminded me why. At a time when we are desensitized to cruelty, finding truth and humanity is difficult. Look demands our attention, and holds us accountable for our nation’s brutality. In Look, Sharif uses the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to craft poems that alarm and dismantle. These are poems that take the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and make this war into something personal. This collection forces us to bear witness, and to understand the importance of our words and the way we use language.

In the poem “Desired Appreciation” the speaker confronts her own “learned helplessness:” “Am I grateful to be here? Someone eventually asks / If I love this country” (lines 8-9). What I find interesting about this poem is that the speaker protests her own obedience to America, and starts the poem off by arguing against the harmlessness of her Muses’ poetry. It makes a direct statement towards arts’ responsibility to challenge injustice. It also speaks for immigrants who oftentimes do not vocalize their disagreement against this country for fear of appearing unpatriotic in a place where they already feel they are unwelcome.

Sharif’s brilliant use of the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms throughout Look also calls for celebration. Her creative manipulation of these words can be seen in the poem “Safe House:” “Sanctuary where we don’t have to / Sanitize hands or words or knives, don’t have to use a / Scale each morning, worried we take up too much space” (lines 1-3). By using these words, Sharif strips them of their power, making the political personal.

To say that Look is an important collection would be an understatement. It’s a powerful declaration against complacency: “I place a photograph of my uncle on my desktop computer, which means I learn to ignore it” (“Personal Effects”).

Buy Look here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.”*

(photo of Look courtesy of Graywolf Press)

 

BORN PALESTINIAN, BORN BLACK, SUHEIR HAMMAD

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Drawing from her Palestinian roots, as well as her experiences of growing up in Brookryn, poet Suheir Hammad’s collection, Born Palestinian, Born Black shows readers what it means to struggle as a woman, as a Palestinian, and as an immigrant. Hammad’s strong voice takes us to the broken streets of Brooklyn, the war torn Palestine, and the intimate conflicts that make up this speakers’ friendships and family. She breaks traditional poetry rules, oftentimes embracing the language of the street. Here, Hammad offers us a personal account of poverty, war, and survival.

From the beginning, this collection holds nothing back. The language is unflinching, and oftentimes shocking.  The speaker immediately pulls readers out of their comfort zones. In the poem “blood stitched time” the speaker reflects on the ongoing crisis in Palestinian: “stand under the strain of false peace jammed up hopes / we speak with dried olive branches / caught in chests” (lines 34-36). The speaker, mourning, says she is tired of “watching kids get bombed and blown” (line 25). Then, we are taken back to the streets of Brooklyn, where the speaker says the following about her people’s refugee statuses in the United States: “whose mouth was jammed silent / with food stamps in brooklyn” (lines 42-43). I love Hammad’s writing because of its rawness and uncleanliness. Her words don’t try to be pretty in their protest, but you can count on each poem delivering a lot of truth.

In the poem “99 cent lipstick” the speaker looks back at the harsh streets of Brooklyn that raised her. She laments the friends she lost to jail and drugs, and reflects on the ways “we killed each other with / a fear that wasn’t even ours” (lines 69-70). The language in this poem is accessible to many. Through Born Palestinian, Born Black Hammad creates a space where everyone can grieve, and where she shows us that suffering is something we all feel. The speaker is doesn’t forget her origin, and pays homage to Brooklyn, and to Palestine.

Born Palestinian, Born Black took me a few days to read. I was amazed by Hammad’s voice and urgency. Each poem has a life of its own, a movement that is uniquely hers. The collection was originally published in 1996 by Harlem River Press, but was reprinted in 2010 by UpSet Press (The University of Arkansas Press is the distributor of Upset Press).

Buy Born Palestinian, Born Black here. 

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about UpSet Press: “UPSET PRESS is an independent press based in Brooklyn.The original impetus of the press was to upset the status quo through literature. The press has expanded its mission to promote new work by new authors; the first works, or complete works, of established authors, including restoring to print new editions of important texts; and first time translations of works into English. Overall, the Press endeavors to advance authors’ innovative visions and bodies of work that engender new directions in literature.”

View Suheir Hammad on TED Talk below:

PRELUDE TO BRUISE, SAEED JONES

Layout 1Happy 2017, friends! Thanks for being patient during this break. I’m back this week in great company with Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones. It’s not everyday that I read a collection as thrilling as this one. Every poem (no exaggeration) in Prelude to Bruise is straight fire. Jones’ writing is brutally honest, so much so that it hurt to read this collection at points. The emotion here is strong and loud, and the poems are disturbing, oftentimes taking readers out of their comfort zones and into the psych of a young black queer boy. Through Boy, issues of sexuality, identity, and race are questioned.

One of the first poems that blew me away in Prelude to Bruise is “Boy at Edge of Woods.” In just 11 lines, it’s one of many poems that demonstrates Jones’ handle on craft and image. By the end of “Boy at Edge of Woods” I realized I’d forgotten to breathe, which happens a lot while reading this collection: ” . . . I relearn my legs, mud – / stained knees, and walk back / to my burning house” (lines 9-11). This poem introduces readers to the sexually charged nature of Prelude to Bruise, as well as its focus on the body, which serves as a motif throughout the book.

Familial issues are also focused on in Prelude to Bruise. The character of Father and the tension between Boy and Father appear multiple times. In the poem “Boy in a Whalebone Corset” we find Father burning Boys’ “sissy” clothes: “Corset still on, / nothing else, I’m at the window; / he’s in the field, gasoline jug” (lines 20-22). The poems that discuss Father hold nothing back, and the speaker does not cloak the abuse and aggression.

One of the last poems in the collection is written as a prose poem and is one of the most emotionally charged poems I’ve ever read. Time stopped while I was reading “History According to Boy.” I didn’t realize I was crying until I reached the end of it. Over the course of 12 pages, the speaker walks us through Boys’ adolescence. It takes place at school where Boy is bullied, a chatroom where Boy attempts to explore his sexuality, a gay dance club where Boy meets Stranger, and at home where Boy confronts Father. One of the last lines of the poem is “Boy has a name.” This is a great penultimate poem for Prelude to Bruise.

I think Prelude to Bruise is a testament to the power of poetry and storytelling. These poems break the silence in a way that is loud and brutal. Jones’ writing is haunting, and this collection is not something you will quickly forget.

Buy Prelude to Bruise here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Coffee House Press: “Coffee House Press is an internationally renowned independent book publisher and arts nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN; through their literary publications and Books in Action program, CHP acts as a catalyst and connector—between authors and readers, ideas and resources, creativity and community, inspiration and action.”

(Photo of Prelude to Bruise courtesy of Coffee House Press)