Their work of art is timeless
By Nadia Alexis
(BLACKSTEW)???A reflection on the closing decade would not be complete without highlighting the important contributions of Black poets for the world of poetry and the culture overall. The featured poets write in the spirit of a long line of Black poets who have written before them. Their work is a reminder that poetry by Black folks is here to stay and more alive than ever, is interested in taking risks, is masterful with form, and does a wonderful job at tackling the human condition through a variety of perspectives. Some of the common threads amongst the works of theseour featured poets is in how they explore themes of life and death, violence, the human?s will to survive and to change, what joy looks like, what pain looks like, and what it means to be Black in this world. These poets are just a sampling of the incredible work that many other Black poets have done over the past ten years. I would say the future of Black poetry is a bright one despite the struggles that one must navigate.
Nayyirah Waheed’s best selling collection salt explores what it means to come of age, womanhood, self-love, racism, identity, and migration. The poems are intentionally short in length, and yet with lines like “sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me. and I can do nothing but become the moon,” they do the work of moving readers to journey inward and in order to understand things larger than themselves. With a huge Instagram following, Waheed also managed to land herself an imitator in the work of Rupi Kaur whom Waheed privately and then publicly addressed about plagiarizing her work and capitalizing from it.
2. Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (2011)
Recent U.S. Poet Laureate’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection Life on Mars addresses futurity, the pain and beauty of the human condition along with what it means to be of this universe filled with stars, planets and other forces that are bigger than us all. In ?The Speed of Belief,? the speaker considers life after death and asks something many of us have also contemplated ?what that is ours will remain intact?? These poems hold grief, fallen blood, awe, beating hearts, kicking feet , and sky.
3. Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth by Warsan Shire (2011)
The only chapbook on the list, Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth is a mighty collection addresses love, sexuality, refugee struggles, what it means to survive, violence against the female body , and other aspects of moving through girlhood and womanhood. Despite devastation and various types of loss, there is a strong thread of resistance throughout the book. In the poem ?In Love and in War,? the speaker states the following: ?To my daughter I will say, ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’?
4. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
Claudia Rankine?s Citizen is a National Book Circle Award winning hybrid collection of lyric prose-poems accompanied by visual art dispersed throughout. Rankine explores what racism for Black folks looks and feels like in the American landscape. What looms in Citizen is how America?s violent past is inextricably linked to its current violent present against Black minds and bodies, but it also raises questions about what this means for our future.
5. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (2015)
Ross Gay?s National Book Critic Award winning collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude centers taking time to be grateful in a world where it?s often easier to forgeting to stop and find the light in moments of mundane or of darkness. Juxtaposed with images of pain, longing, violence and loss are images of humans helping one another, birds in flight, the shadows of bees and moments like ?thank you the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend.? Catalog reminds us that on the other side of pain is often joy, and to be alive is to float between those two extremes.
6. Redbone by Mahogany L. Browne (2015)
Mahogany L. Browne?s Redbone, a biomythography based on her single mother?s experiences with domestic violence and Browne?s experience as a witness, asks readers to reckon with each turn, each blow, each experience, and each song. We see Redbone as a victim of violence and infidelity, grappling with her own worth due to her relationship with Bam, but there are also many moments where we see Redbone as a force, a confident Black woman with a will to love, to be dream and to live. In ?Redbone Dances,? the speaker gets at the paradox of being a Black woman in this world: ?how that sunrise got a name it sound like: a blues song; a woman?s heart breaking.?
7. Olio by Tyehimba Jess (2016)
Tyehimba Jess?s Olio is a 256-page collection that is not only a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, it is a masterful contribution to the world of poetry in its formally inventive modes and a profound honoring of our ancestors. Readers get a glimpse into the Black war venteran experience, the lives of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, minstrel show performers, and more. One such figure is Sissieretta Jones a Black opera singer who lived through the 1930s and is represented in the poem ?My Name is Sissieretta Jones? the speaker wherein the speaker asserts ?I?d look out to the darkness and hear my true name.?
8. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like the other books on this list Danez Smith?s National Book Award winning collection Don?t Call Us Dead is successful in form but also in how it addresses the Black condition. The poems are interested in commemoration, with confronting truth, with survival and laughter, with alternate worlds in which Black boys can be safe, and the relationships that Black people, particularly as a Black queer people have to death. Death is always a thing that looks ?but today i?m alive, which is to say i survived yesterday, spent it ducking bullets, some flying toward me & some trying to rip their way out.?
9. A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris B. Hill (2019)
DaMaris B. Hill?s bestselling book A Woman Bound is a Dangerous Thing is one like no other in how it centers and honors the lives of significant though sometimes lesser known Black women who are still living and those who are no longer with us through poetry, historical facts, biographical information and relevant photographs. What those women all have in common is their will to live and their commitment to resisting against various forms of oppression such as state violence, racism and sexism. In reflecting on the Sandra Bland?s unjust arrest by a white officer leading to her death the speaker considers the inevitable in ?#SandySpeaks is a Choral Refrain? when she moves from repeating ?it could have been me? to declaring ?it would have been me, my eyebrows high and voice low, questioning Encinia about his bidding.?
10. The Tradition by Jericho Brown (2019)
Jericho Brown?s National Book Award finalist collection The Tradition is full of poems that explore, invent, resist, praise and break tradition. Some of the most prominent traditions examined are U.S. racialized violence against the Black body, sexual violence against the Black queer body, and Black resistance to violence through the individual and collective. In one of Brown?s duplex poems, a form he invented, the speaker further raises the stakes for the reader by offering the following proclamation ?[a] poem is a gesture toward home.?
11. & more black by t’ai freedom ford (2019)
With & more black, t?ai freedom ford decided to flex on the world and offer a double cover, double poetry collection in one book. Spanning 104 pages, is a celebration of Blackness: Black resistance, Black music, Black language, Black games, Black loving, Black art, Black food, and more Black, while simultaneously critiquing the racialized violence and ways of white folks which often impedes on the lives and freedoms of Black folks. Despite all this Black goodness, to be Black is often a battle and the speaker reminds us of this in the poem ?if someone should take your picture & make you black? when they say: ?i understand how tiring it is the way rage bubbles like a pot of grits.?