On the black maria by Aracelis Girmay

Claire Schwartz

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2016. 120 pages. $16.00.

In 1973, on the rooftop of the Skyview apartments in the Bronx, a black boy looked at the stars. This is an infinite story—should be the whole story. And yet. From the epigraph of Aracelis Girmay’s poem “The Black Maria”: “In his youth, [black astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil] deGrasse Tyson was confronted by the police on more than one occasion when he was on his way to study stars.” From the poem: a white neighbor “suspects the brown boy / of something, she does not know / what at first, then turns, / with her looking, / his telescope into a gun” (91).

“If this is a poem about misseeing—Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, / then these are also three of the names of the black maria” (74), Girmay writes in another poem, also called “The Black Maria.” The black maria are what Italian astronomers named the moon’s dark basins when they mistook them for seas. So when Girmay titles her roiling and gleaming third book—made of two poem cycles, “elelegy” and, yes, “the black maria”—the black maria, she reminds us that if misseeing makes the book urgent, it also makes the book possible.

Misseeing is not the province of racism; it is the province of the human. Misseeing is one way we are far from and strange to each other, but distance is dynamic—the designation stranger meaning only that the distance between is unnamed. In calling her book the black maria, Girmay summons in one breath a collection of “estrangements”: birth and childhood, migration and diaspora, the victims of police brutality and the unspooling imagination of a black child facing starward.

Language—the poet’s work—is also a kind of estrangement, and the black maria contends with its possibilities: “Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement,” and estrangement, like all kinds of misseeing, opens onto another way we might be. What separates the misseeing of the white neighbor from the misseeing of naming a loved one—what distinguishes the deadly from the life-affirming—is that the former claims ownership while the latter joins without having to wholly know. “Does ‘moon’ name the whole thing or just the side we know?” the speaker in “The Black Maria” wonders (71).

If language misses its mark, it also marks what it misses. Language is a way to touch what cannot be contained. The language of the black maria is not the language of colonization and control—not taxonomy or taxidermy—which delight in the dry dead thing that can be nailed down and categorized, but a language brimming with living and as shifting as the ocean. The act of careful naming can hold without capturing.

Girmay forges the black maria in this language of tenderness and rigor. A speaker in “prayer & letter to the dead” calls on not the schools that teach—in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks—that “black is not beloved,” but on the lessons of “our parents & our grandparents”: “in the school of dreaming, / the discipline of dreaming” (16). Girmay’s language joins with artists and other ancestors—creators who have come before and alongside her to wrest blackness from an equation with wounding. With them, she holds the truths of violence, while refusing to eclipse the truths of joy, study, care, dreaming—practices from which full lives are forged.  “Romare,” the speaker of “Odysseus, his lungs full” enjoins the brilliant collage artist Romare Bearden: “teach me how / . . . / not to assign all blackness near the sea / a captivity.”

“Elelegy”—the book’s opening poem cycle—tells of sea crossings with particular care to the stories of Eritrean migrants. The cycle, as noted in the opening pages, takes place in “1702, 1530, 2013, 1781, 2015 . . .” (12). Its when unfurls in non-narrative time like how the sea takes everything in and offers its contents at random—the bones of a ship, a bottle, kelp, the body of a whale, the body of a child all kept in its dark hand.

The collection’s geography refuses not only the lineation of industrial time, but the boundaries of the western canon.

the sky marked by light
is read in the constellations of someone else’s myth.

But the angles I chart
abide by different sight
. . .
a route dense with fires,
dark time adorned by
the messages of mirrors
saying: you are made with every where.” (97)

Distance: my wealth. / Distance: my grief (44). Wealth—inflected by the ruthless orders of capitalism, which feeds the violent fiction that people can be owned, that land can be carved up and called country—means that people have to leave their plants and rivers by force or in opportunity’s name. But wealth is also the richness of all we can be/hold from afar. To be far from means to join with the between—like nine-year-old de Grasse Tyson who cast his mind and eye into the cosmos and, in so doing, shaped a world of vast and gorgeous questions. Distance is a widening embrace.

This sense of at once embodiment and beyond-body animates the black maria. In “elelegy” there are no angels, only flies. The “bright and working” insect “cannot carry the message without, itself, being touched.” We, too, are shaped again and again by estrangements and distances whose meanings shift in our (re)tellings. Look far and closely, this book encourages: “The kettle is whistling. / This is what it meant to be alive. // What can we do but sing of details, all of them minor” (46).

Elelegy. This song is modulated by violence. This song is song. The bright-alive grief and joy of “elelegy”—which draws the poetic lament together with the uluatory traditions of North and East Africa—carries through the second cycle, “the black maria.” Together, these cycles, this book, remind that nothing that lives holds its body forever.

That we outlast our forms means we are called by different names: child, woman, dirt, mud, ocean. Look again. That is the labor of love. Not the tinny love of politicians who tell us to love and mean forget, but the wrought and reckoning returned-to love that the poet June Jordan insisted upon when she looked out onto our histories and cities and asked: “Where is the love?” Which is to say: make better way. This is the poet’s task. “It is my work: to revise & revise, / even as you are filling my eyes, now, // & you are filling the sea,” the narrator of the book’s opening poem says (16). The poet’s promise: I will look for you everywhere. Then, changed by every where you are, I will look again.

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