Feministing Reads: Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria

An inexhaustible wonder of language: it never stops changing hands. In the poem “luam/ asa-luam” from Aracelis Girmay’s remarkable new collection the black maria (BOA Editions, Ltd.), four girls pass words back and forth, trading them “like special things.” For one “mai” means both “flower” and “sister;” for the speaker “mai” means “water;” for another it means “mother,” and another “what belongs to me.” Language is a tent they pitch and huddle under, respecting the integrity of the words each brings even while exchanging them freely.

Luam, a name that recurs throughout the black maria, is a common name in Tigrinya, one of the languages of Eritrea, the North African country at the heart of Girmay’s book. The name holds many people in these poems, as do “I,” “you,” and “we.” In the wake of decades of colonialism and war, thousands of Eritreans have attempted to leave the country in recent years; thousands of these emigrants have died at sea. Girmay descends from Eritreans who did not die. For her, the effort to hold onto language and to hand it over—to make it span the gaps between speaker, listener, and referent, to make it span continents and generations—is a single struggle, linked to so many others: struggles to hold onto and hand over lands, histories, beloved kin.657d7e6e-c92c-4827-93ae-1b984e56b5ea

“The story of Luam,” Girmay writes in her introduction to one of its iterations, “is the story of many, in Eritrea & outside of Eritrea, who have fled or attempted to flee.” This flight is always accompanied by its opposite, the effort to hold onto the people and places one leaves behind. In “luam/ asa-luam,” belonging is double-edged and contradictory. Belonging: being in the care or ownership of (a meaning further split by colonial legacies, connoting both kinship and enslavement). Be longing: reaching after a need denied, a feeling of lack rather than presence. Girmay knows history too well to choose between the two; she knows language too well to exempt it from the task of expressing either. Like the speaker of “luam/ asa-luam,” Girmay accepts this impossible charge with a reverent gravity: when one girl offers “mai” as flower and sister, “I understand / & am quiet awhile, respecting, then give / her my word.”

the black maria consists of two ambitious poem cycles, each of which is complex and expansive enough to have stood alone as its own volume. “luam/ asa-luam” appears midway through the first sequence, “elelegy” (a portmanteau of the English mourning elegy and the ululatory sound “elelelele” made by people in North and East Africa to express both grief and joy). These poems span Eritrean history, often lingering over the bodies of water that link the country to its European and American diasporas. “elelegy” opens with an inventory of sorts, describing in prose the who, when, and where of the poems to follow and establishing the magnitude of the challenge posed by words of relation like “I,” “you,” and “we”—the challenge of positioning oneself relative to another, of connecting through language across time and space, especially when the coordinates continue to shift; especially when those shifts are so rarely voluntary; especially when new rifts, new wounds are opening all the time.

The sea to which Girmay so often returns at once mediates and stands apart from these rifts, these wounds. Despite the deaths and displacements to which it has borne witness, the sea remains anarchic, anonymous, at once absorbent and evasive of our projections, indifferent to our demands; in one of many poems addressed directly to the sea, Girmay admits, “you carry what is human / without being human. // All of it foreign to you / as our hurt is foreign.” The sea also acts as a hinge between the Eritrean diaspora and African American histories of forced displacement; in this regard language is not just a wonder but a prison: “teach me how to read this blues, please, / differently,” Girmay implores the African American artist Romare Bearden; “How not to // assign all blackness near the sea / a captivity.”

In a brilliant inversion of the overly familiar poetic aspiration to write verse that outlives its author, Girmay laments how easily certain lives are “outlasted” by the words that mean to honor them; the poet early announces her desire “to build // a shore for you here, a landing place, here / where the paper dreams // that you will last.” This work of grief and memory is so often women’s work, a burden attested to by Girmay’s many Luams but also by a poet figure (modeled after Joy Harjo) who appears in the sequence’s concluding poem. On a panel about poetry and history, this poet quietly listens while the men alongside her say “strong things, good things but in authoritative voices.” When she finally interjects, the poet describes seeing grief as a black string floating in the frame of her window and knowing “that it was her job to take that thread & put it somewhere, weave it into the larger tapestry” so that others won’t walk into it and accidentally adopt it as their own. The story resists neat distillation—like poetry, like history, like grief. It is a special thing given us by the poet, with whom we as readers share the work of weaving.

The book’s second sequence, which gives the volume its title, performs its own kind of grief work. It opens with a list of names, some grayed out, and a definition of black maria, plural of the Latin mare: dark basins on the moon’s surface misidentified by early astronomers as seas. If language in “elelegy” can be a gift, a tent, a hinge, in “the black maria” it risks violence. Language, Girmay tells us, is always missing its mark, even when it’s our only means of apprehension. Black maria are a nice idea, but the name fundamentally misrepresents the moon’s dry topography: “However pretty the sound, it was a misidentification.” In a poem dedicated to twenty-four-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, killed by a white police officer while seeking help after a car accident, the stakes of misidentification become mortal: “I will be mistaken, I thought, for another / animal, one it is legal to kill.”

Many of this section’s poems are titled as numbered “Estrangements,” because, as Girmay writes, “Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement.” The referent is estranged from its nature by a name imposed from without, and the speaker is estranged from her object by this very effort to contain it in language. But this does not exempt the poet from her work of naming, of weaving grief’s thread with verse: another of the black maria’s “Estrangements” memorializes Renisha McBride, who was killed by a white homeowner after knocking on his door, and still others testify to the dangers attending all black lives. As Claudia Rankine does in her universally acclaimed 2014 volume Citizen, Girmay implicates the reader in this work and its hazards: in a poem dedicated to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that imagines a white neighbor confusing a black child’s telescope for a gun, Girmay writes, “depending on who you are, reading this, / you know that the boy is in grave danger […] you might have worried for him / in the white space between lines 5 & 6.”

This boy aspires to do more than simply survive, though the fact that he does is its own wonder; this boy “wants to understand the large / & gloriously un-human mysteries of / the galaxy.” In this poem and so many others, Girmay’s vision stretches just as far, even as—perhaps especially when—she insists on charting its constraints: “The poem dreams of bodies always leadless, bearing / only things ordinary / as water & light.” Leadless meaning weightless, but also, in America, when those bodies are black, leadless meaning not gunned down. And these poems do float, buoyed by glistening language; many even make room for joy. A poet can dream.

New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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