Aracelis Girmay's interconnected poems in her third collection The Black Maria make for a moving suite of poems that relate to police brutality. The book begins with poems about Eritrean history that relay the violence that has haunted the country's history, but the book eventually turns to violence in America with a series of numbered poems that address the growing epidemic of police brutality. The flow and associations that she makes between police brutality and how it threatens home and motherhood for the poet herself is written in her distinct voice, and evades a level of didacticism that people expect in political poems. The timeliness and the emotional chords that Girmay strikes picks up the tradition of poets like Audre Lorde and June Jordan (even as Girmay quotes Jordan’s “Sunflower Sonnet Number Two”).
The last section, which holds the same title as the book, announces a litany of names of poets and victims of police brutality on the page that precedes the section. No spaces appear between the names that run together, much like the frequency of names arriving too frequently in the news. Beneath the tickertape of those names, there is a definition of black maria as the flat dark surfaces that look like basins or water bodies on the moon. That idea of something appearing to be one thing when it’s actually another resonates with how black people are assumed to be criminals when they are often something altogether different. This information helps build a foreground that’s further fortified by an excerpt from James Baldwin’s essay “A Letter to My Nephew.” In the excerpt, Baldwin discusses the monumental effort it takes to create and cultivate a person from infancy to adulthood. In these three distinct pieces of information, Girmay underscores the value of life.
I found myself particularly intrigued these some of these twelve poems because within that final section there are numbered poems that I will call “The Estrangements” here. A few of the titles repeat and it lends itself to the circling around the recurrent theme of fear of violence perpetuated by powerful forces. The opening poem bears the same title as the book and the section and establishes a scene by naming black objects, then putting the color black in historical context:
“black the raven, black the dapples on the moon & horses,
black sleep of
night & the night’s idea,
black the piano, white its teeth but black its gums & mind with which
we serenade the black maria…
1600s: European ships heave fatly with the weight of black grief, black
flesh, black people, across the sea; the
astronomers think the moon’s dark marks are also seas & call them “the black maria.” (73)
As the poem unfolds, this idea of language and names for the sea progresses and reveals a woman rereading a page of Anna Karenina in the Sahara for years, and the lines of text look like “the waves of the black maria.” This consuming image of rereading in a distant place calls on this idea of something that is cyclical and repetitive and always developing, much like a person that Girmay seeks to acknowledge in the following poems or the lines that follow the Saharan woman:
“Language is something like this. A hard studying of cells under a
cells on their way to becoming other things: a person, a book,
a moon.” (73)
In discovering what language is and naming the sea, moon, and language, Girmay begins to see the difficulty and the unsettling memory in names, which supports the earlier memories embedded in Eritrean history earlier in the book, but it also serves as a prelude to mention the slain people, including Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Rekia Boyd:
“Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement. (To put
into language that which can’t be
put.) & someone who does not love you cannot name you right, &
even “moon” can’t carry the moon” (74)
The poem concludes with this idea of estrangement, where Girmay describes the waters of oceans darkening with names and bodies. In doing so, the poem illustrates the monumental loss of lives gathering and pooling.
This leads to “Third Estrangement, In Memory of Jonathan Ferrell” and these “Estrangement poems” do not operate in numerical order, so this seemingly random order reflects the seemingly disparate nature of memory that flouts chronology. Jonathan Ferrell was killed in September 14, 2013 after crashing his car and knocking on a nearby resident’s door. They didn’t answer the door. Instead, they called the police. This poem doesn’t necessarily detail his situation, but the speaker is leaving the house “to talk about love” with her girl, but “her head is already in the news” so the speaker turns around in the fog, and wonders about the hunter in the dark who can be heard nearby and may be waiting. In this way, even the most mundane act of leaving the house to meet a friend, when you think you might be able to ask for help, seems dangerous.
“The Woodlice, Fourth Estrangement” functions like a sort of short origin story that relates where fear of the unfamiliar begins. When a sister “smuggled the woodlice/into her pockets & then into/the house, after a day’s work”, she carries them to bed with her “so that they would have/two blankets & be warm, for/this is what she knew of love” (77). As the woodlice become more familiar with the bed, the speaker likens their traveling there to being carried by children and moonlight into the dark holds of ships and adapting to life in fields. It is the girl’s older sisters who have seen what enslavers and killers can do, and this experience is described as “being/older, being more ugly & afraid,” and so they must teach her “the lessons/of dirt & fear.” These lessons will teach the younger sister what to exclude and what threatens her safety. Much like Muriel Rukeyser’s “St. Roach,” Girmay’s poem points to the human failing of recognizing life, even if it differs from our own.
In “The Fig Eaters, Fifth Estrangement”, there is a beautiful and wild sister reminiscent of Elena Poniatowska’s Lilus Kikus. The sister climbs trees to collect ripe figs. In the tree, the first hint at violence is made:
“to pluck the slow jewels of the fig eaters
from their habitat, those bugs whose mouths
were made only to eat what is soft
already, what is worn with rot, & whose mouths,
for we were not among the hunters,
had not evolved to hurt us…” (78)
Even here, the bugs are harmless for what is ripe and alive, they eat what is rotting. The house sustains “the small girl & the world of beetles” and “heavy heart-sacs of the figs” and there are not siblings between her and the father, so the speaker thinks of her own father’s grief in the absence “from his country & his custody & house.” (79) The poem expands yet again in its last three lines when “There was relief to know/we were no longer the only ones for whom/he’d weep, though this, too, was our trouble, our wound.” (79) When Girmay places the grief of a father’s exile next to the ongoing grief of people being killed as a persistent conflict where wounds are not allowed to heal.
When Girmay leaves sisterhood, she begins to explore motherhood in “First Estrangement”, she explains that she does “not remember back then/when I was trying to leave one world for the next” while her “girl-mother” is on the table. She remembers her when she cracks “open the (already) starlight of the pomegranate” as she gives birth herself. This estrangement from the body cannot be reneged, and the mystery of a new body emerging cannot be denied.
“Moon for Aisha” is an epistolary poem for one of Girmay’s contemporaries, Kamilah Aisha Moon. As the letter progresses, Girmay is remembering a ten-year-old self who is longing for a sister. In the second half of the poem, Girmay envisions a woman older than both of them and serves as Moon’s namesake. It is moments like this that levity amplifies the value of life.
“Cooley High, Fifth Estrangement” is set in 1991 and opens with a description of the early 1990s number-one R&B hit “Uhh Ahh” by Boyz II Men on their debut album Cooleyhighharmony. When the speaker remembers the song rising out of her mother’s car’s tape deck, it makes the speaker break down in tears. This sonic recollection is rooted in the speaker being driven by a mother to their first year at boarding school. When the poem mentions “ghosts of children from the Perris Indian School”, the poem is alluding to the breaking and torture of people to assimilate and some might actually die. At the midpoint of the poem, two lines encapsulate the severing of one way of life from another: “…The school gate is—a carving knife./This is the future Mom chooses for me…” (83) Although the poem explains how this “estrangement” is for the speaker’s talents and their own good, it is clear that the speaker is looking back on this opportunity as another subtle form of violence:
“I am quiet, & let her say
‘This is the best thing’
though I disbelieve it, even now.
She was my mother, after all,
& president of nothing.” (84-85)
That last sentence emphasizes the mother’s powerlessness in the world, but her one power is to provide for her child’s ability to flourish in spite of their circumstances.
“The Beauty of the World, Tenth Estrangement” is written in the first person, presumably by the student in the preceding poem. It is this student “who defended/ the beauties of darkness (my worlds!)/in the grey, official halls of School” and “who thought I could not love both Virgil & Lumumba” ((86). These lines draw demarcations between Eurocentric masters and African liberators like Patrice Lumumba, and the student is not willing to give either of them up in another kind of cruel cutting away of the past.
The pair of poems “Second Estrangement” and “Third Estrangement” are similar in word choices that shift to subtly change the meaning of becoming a stranger and being surrounded by strangers that we are taught to perceive as dangerous. “Second Estrangement” requests in its first line to “Please raise your hand” as the poem describes being a child lost in a market or a mall and calling for a parent, only to see faces “utterly foreign, utterly not the one that loves you” and the child becomes “…a bird suddenly/stunned by the glass partitions/of rooms.” (88) The child experiences an early “estrangement” in a world that is “tall, & filled, finally, with strangers.” (88) In this last line, we see how everything looms large and unfamiliar for a child.
The “Third Estrangement” is dedicated to Renisha McBride, and humanizes the perspective of the poem that precedes it. Although the poem has mostly the same words with different enjambment, its phrasing changes in the remaining six lines. The “you” is no longer a bird, but simply “you/suddenly stunned by glass partitions” where one is not naive and helpless as a bird unaware of glass. Unlike “Second Estrangement”, the scenario includes the “you” as an adult in a world full of “angers” instead of “strangers” in the last line. This dropping of two letters for a new word altogether makes this idea of violence ominous all over again, especially when one considers that McBride was shot while asking for help.
The second poem entitled “The Black Maria” consists of eight sections over 12 pages, and begins with a 2007 anecdote from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. As one who studies space, he reflects on people who might not have made it to where he has, and the epigraph preceding deGrasse Tyson’s reflection explains that police stopped him more than once when he was attempting to study the stars. In the staggered lines of those first four pages relate how a boy studying the skies with a telescope becomes a “suspect” who possibly has “a weapon”, even as the rest of the poem becomes a study in how one body is connected to other bodies, like the speaker, the sky, a friend in the hospital, the boy looking at the sky, and the cops.
The five-page poem “Fourth Estrangement, With a Petition for the Reunion of Jonathan & George Jackson” concludes this section and the entire book with this meditation of a trek through San Michele in Venice, Italy, an area also known as “The Island of the Dead”. The travelers also see Cannaregio, “home of history’s first ghetto,/a Jewish ghetto”, and this awareness makes the “estrangement” in the earlier poems even clearer. The speaker posits a grim realization:
“What changes? Does not change?
What if the enslavement & The Severances
were seen as persecution of our own black godliness?
Our holiness or specialness? Except, instead, I believe
the terror & the beauty that the water teaches:
no one is special, no one is special” (104-105)
Girmay relays another kind of severing when she thinks not of the biblical kin of Jacob, but the more recent 20th century Jonathan Jackson, who attempted to break his older brother, George Jackson, out of prison on August 7, 1970. Jonathan Jackson was killed during this attempt. George Jackson was killed by a prison guard the following year. In spite of these deaths, Girmay still finds hope:
“I know that death is also real
& with my bit of life petition
for the reunion of Jonathan & George,
& while I’m at it, Virgil Lamar & James Jr. Ware,
because there are stars, but none of you, to spare,
& Margaret Garner & her child, & Abraham
let us name every air between strangers “Reunion.” (106)
Calling on these ancestors allows Girmay to corral names together in an almost sacred fashion and another naming where the idea of “strangers” becomes less acceptable. Margaret Garner no longer has to kill her daughter to prevent her enslavement. Jonathan and George are brothers, alive and together again. Virgil Lamar Ware is alive to hug his Daddy Ware, and not gunned down on the day that four little girls were blown up in a church in Birmingham, and the Jewish kin of Abraham and Sahalu find each other again, as if to spite the violence and death that they have encountered. In 33 pages, Girmay offers a compelling concluding section bound to her international heritage and the terrors encountered on the streets of America.