MANNISH TONGUES, JAYY DODD

“Infinite Black mothers / wailing in daylight for safe return / infinite Black children / breathing broken & wild to be put down” (“Infinite Monkey Theorem” lines 4-7).

tumblr_oite0owu4z1ubxemko1_1280This week, I’ve been spending time with Mannish Tongues, a debut poetry collection by Jayy Dodd. The haunting and beautiful poems inside Mannish Tongues are nothing short of stunning. These poems offer readers a new way to examine the black body and to bear witness to survival. The prologue of Mannish Tongues includes a quote from Essex Hemphill that states “I’m faced daily with choosing violence / or a demeanor that saves every other life / but my own.” These poems rebel against silence, becoming a powerful testament for speech and language, for empowerment, and for the identities we inhabit.

From the beginning of Mannish Tongues to the end, Dodd’s mastery of language is electrifying. There’s a natural rhythm to Dodd’s words, and the play on form keeps readers on their toes. In the poem “There’s Something bout being Raised in Church” Dodd writes: “our knees know something bout aching, / bout singing in jail cells” (lines 28-29). Through this poem, the speaker examines the church and its role in their upbringing, while also reflecting on the importance of language: “Every language I learned was in verse, translated / across all kinds of salvation” (lines 7-8). The careful articulation and weaving together of family, history, and discourse is what makes reading Mannish Tongues so compelling.

The strong voice in Mannish Tongues places the body front and center, forcing readers to bear witness to the consequences of the identities we hold. The poem “Physical Education” challenges our ideas of manhood. It is written as a prose poem and utilizes white space, giving readers a chance to slow down and really take in each word:”He will learn to not cry in the echo of middle school laughter. He will know bruised throat & swollen wrist as rough housing.” This poem is just one example of the astounding fearlessness in Dodd’s voice and in this collection as a whole.

Mannish Tongues is split into six sections: Confessions, Prayers, Interrogations, Testimonies, Myths, and Eulogies. When I interviewed Dodd, they mentioned one of their influences as Danez Smith. Both Mannish Tongues and [Insert] Boy leave you a little more broken after you’ve read them, but for good reason. This is an important collection to read, and worth every second of readers’ time.

Check out my interview with Dodd here.

Buy Mannish Tongues here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Platypus Press: “Platypus Press is a boutique publisher based in England. We seek to unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.”

(photo of Mannish Tongues courtesy of Platypus Press)

Ghosts Still Walking, Do Nguyen Mai

gsw.jpgI have yet to read a poetry collection that is more haunting than Do Nguyen Mai’s Ghosts Still Walking.  Her poetry is chilling, and forced me to set the collection down on multiple occasions because I was taken aback by all of the weighty material the poems tackled in such a poignant way.  Highly influenced by the long and sorrowful history of Vietnam, this collection will send shivers down your spine.

One of my favorite poems in the collections is in the first part of the book. It’s titled “From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child” and it talks about the suicide of Vietnamese noblewoman Phùng Thị Chính, who was “noted for having given birth on the battlefield and continuing to fight the Chinese invaders with her child strapped to her back” (page 12). It reads: “You, red with your / mother’s own starved blood. // You, born of my dying hearth, / delivered into an apocalypse,” (lines 16-19). I am always so thankful for poetry like Mai’s because it honors the bravery of those who fought during these terrible wars. And you can tell from the very beginning of the collection, which reads, “For my ancestors, who have guided my pen since the beginning, and my family members, who have given me this voice” that this is just what Mai set out to do.

An influential debut collection, the speaker of this book cannot help but feel the harsh consequences of Vietnam’s unsettling history. As a reader, you will share in this experience. In the section “tongues of fire,” the speaker demands readers to “Look at the nothingness we have become. Look at all the emptiness we are now, after you so meticulously tried to carve your civilized speech upon out bones,” (page 40). Even as the collection comes to a close, the speaker acknowledges the importance of remembering these wars and this history despite the pain: “Like clouds, these dreams // Linger,” (“Smoke,” lines 1-2).

If you’re planning on reading this collection, go slow. Mai’s poems pack a lot of punch. They are heavy, but for a good reason. Although the collection is only two sections, Mai breaks these two sections up with a prose poem titled “Tongues of Fire.” What I really enjoyed about this collection is the fact that I haven’t read anything like it before. Mai’s voice is unique, and it you will feel its importance from page to page.

Photo courtesy of Platypus Press.

Buy the collection here.