A riveting review by guest Blackademics guest contributor Alexis Pauline Gumbs
In the beginning there was the word. And before that there was the darkness. Gospel, Samiya Bashir’s new collection of poems, published by independent black gay and lesbian publisher Redbone Press, is an extended meditation on the relationship between that darkness and the word.
Set in the mouths of crows, on the edges of couches and dirty tables, and in the hands of the dispossessed, Bashir’s poems awaken a desire to caress the mundane, hoping your fingers will find divine crumbs of revelation. Bashir’s project, inhabiting the tradition of black gospel music’s straddling contradiction, standing in the sacred and the profane, is timely. In a moment when the question of the relationship between faith and sexuality has been put in the media limelight through the discourse of marriage amendments, this project takes a step back, redefining both sexuality and salvation with a close look at the infinite places and moments when the human body meets despair, pleasure and transcendence.
“Jesus gon’ hear my song sho’ nuff” the most explicitly “gospel” poem of the collection explores the erotic value of worship, describing the body of a church- woman in the ecstasy of divine song.
It begins with a flutter at the pit of my stomach
Rises to a warm sweet spot in my chest
As I dress it begins to reach my throat
Leak out in bits of cry—
Placed after three beautifully erotic lesbian love poems, this reminder of the embodiment of praise in the black church emphasizes the resonances between religious fervor and sexual expression, disputing a media narrative that presents the two as if they were mutually exclusive. If, as this poem suggests, the body is a sacred manifestation of spirit in it’s full expression of the vibration of song and the sensation of life, what do the legal, medical and social limits we place on our bodies cost us?
“Topographic Shifts” which gracefully and painfully describes the amputation or “correction” of a baby girl born with twelve fingers and twelve toes, raises key questions as it forces us to imagine the pain of dismemberment without consent.
How is it done-
Remolding body into
Image of body?
Reminding us of Lucille Clifton’s extra digits, which haunt her writing hands like phantom antennae, this poem asks the reader to confront the ethical dilemma of the difference between how the body actually manifests, and the “image of body” what we want it to be. The poem ends with an ironic cliché that uses shallow words of comfort to disturb the reader. After detailing the process of using ether and string and scissors to “…rip. Root. Cauterize.” the “offending” or “wasteful” extra limbs of the newborn, the narrator comments that
is more common
than you’d think.
If the “condition” is “common” then what is the purpose of the violent imposition of conformity on the body of a baby? What does it mean for your body to be “wrong” from the moment you enter the world? What does it mean when we redefine our own bodies, in their natural diversity, as “offending” and “wasteful”? Whose bodies are usually marked as offending and wasteful? Is this not a question of race and class? Whose genitals are modified by doctors hoping to cure ambiguity in the birthing room? Is this not a question of gender and sexuality?
Bashir moves from the deviant infant body to the sick adult body in “Breakadawn.” Written from the perspective of someone who lives at the brink of death in a body riddled by pain and lacking normal functions, this poem offers a meditation on what it means to wake-up bedridden. Organized by a repeated invocation for the suffering person to “remember” the condition, the poem will not let us forget the dismembering of the infant’s fingers and toes in the preceding poem, while at the same time taunting the poem’s subject with the impossibility of putting a body back together. Once again the body is not only a problem in its own being and its own feeling, but also in its social meaning.
doctor after doctor
calling you dirty
just dirty shame
What definition of healing causes us to criminalize each other’s bodies? What is gained by blaming a sick person for their own pain? What does it mean for someone who is sick in a culture that values health as if it is a choice to choose to wake up each day anyway?
In “Reckoning Song” the most formally experimental poem in the collection, and the poem that happens to follow the two previously mentioned poems, Bashir extends this question of the body, moving away from the intimate second person that she used in the previous to poems and fully inhabiting the first person. The poem, broken by internal bullet points depicts the beauty and contradiction of the body at the point of breaking, mediated by will. The question to be reckoned with is the question of what the body can do, and whether what we can do with our ecstatic, desiring , dancing bodies will save us or destroy us. Asking
what if I can shake it * and not break it
the poem uses repetition and space between the words on the page to dance out the space between queer theory, race politics and disability activism. Like each of the poems in this collection, this should be read carefully, and more than once. What do our bodies mean, in their limits and their possibilities?
Starting at the crossroads, flying through the living room, the sick bed, the bedroom and the sanctuary and ending in the locker room, Hugin and Munin, two crows drawn from Norse mythology, but steeped in black vernacular frame the collection and provide the reader access to the intimacy of the poetic subjects. And with this crow’s eye view, blackened and shadowed by death, Bashir asks us to question our own bodies, because the question of how and whether can find a way to love our bodies and each other is the question of our salvation.
RedBone Press publishes work celebrating the cultures of black lesbians and gay men, and work that further promotes understanding between black gays and lesbians and the black mainstream. RedBone Press is also a sponsor of the Fire and Ink Cotillion.
In October 2009, in Austin TX Fire & Ink III: Cotillion will bring together hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers of African descent whose work spans the genres, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, multimedia arts and performance arts.
For more information see www.redbonepress.com or www.fireandink.org
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black troublemaker and love embodied. She is also the founder of BrokenBeautiful Press.