“no thanks to you america”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

12 of 100: By My Precise Haircut by Cheryl Clarke (2016, The Word Works)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • In the poems of By My Precise Haircut Clarke puts her arms and mind around decades (centuries, even) of American history. Or more precisely, she wraps her arms and mind around race/racism/poverty/violence in American history. The poems make clear the pain inflicted by a number of atrocities (the slave trade, the assassination of Medgar Evers and Hurricane Katrina, for example) and also the humanity of those lost. Clarke’s work begs the question: if *this* America is the nation experienced by so many, isn’t it the America experienced by all? (Your actual mileage — i.e. layers of denial — may vary.)
  • When it comes to that context in my poetry/essays, I have been struggling with my ancestors’ infamous influences (passengers on the Mayflower and persecutors in the Salem Witch Trials) on the America we have today and trying to figure out if I have anything to contribute as a poet to the conversations taking place around wounds that we must heal. Here’s what Clarke says in an interview at rob mclennan’s blog: “I think the writer must write—that is her/his responsibility. Politics imbues my role as poet. Who has the power and who suffers from the power of others? I see poetry as instrumental to the way I criticize and protest the status quo, the raging inequalities in our communities, and, of course, bringing to light the ravages of sexism, racism, homophobia.
  • The poems in the collection take various forms and voices. Clarke varies how the lines take up space on the page and which voice she uses: the “I” (her narrator) or the other (as manifested in the persona poems). I will be revisiting the poems in By My Precise Haircut to learn more about how the decisions she makes in each poem contribute to the impact.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “sex / helped me through / no thanks to you / america”
  • “‘Did I have to lose a sister?’ // You still asking that, Sis? // ‘Couldn’t they have shot her tires?’ // Are you kidding me, Sis? Cops can’t shoot that straight. // … They had to aim for the overkill. Remember Amadou? / 41 shots later and all he had was a billfold.
  • “don’t nobody care what happen to no negroes, notoriously not / poor ones with nappy hair and bad cholesterol cursing the / government from the superdome or floating atop the flood / waters of the ninth ward.”

What others have said:

  • The Word Works: “Confronting and interweaving issues of race, sex, gender, aging, history, and the individual’s responsibility to the whole, Clarke floods the reader with a sense of urgency, giving the gift of conviction.”
  • Kimiko Hahn on the book’s back cover: “[This book] collects histories that are all, in effect, personal. Whether the tone is wily or grieving, wise or wise-ass, the reader is drawn closer to the page and into a world that may be Black, Lesbian, middle-aged, sister of a deceased Sgt. J. L. Winters, daughter of the Block Elder — but is certainly a threshold for all.”
  • What Clarke says about her own work in an interview with Julie Enszer: “Of course, “blackness,” in all its indefinable-ness is key, because of my identification as a black woman, my 1960’s “upbringing,” and my practice of blackness as homage to the richness of black culture and critique of white privilege and supremacy. Also blackness as a politics of resistance. Lesbianism is important — almost as sacred as blackness. But because I chose lesbianism, it is a more privileged identity, though I know we are an embattled people, and, sometimes, I fear an endangered people, i.e., let’s record our contemporary history, our leadership, and our organizing genius, in terms of our work in the gay and lesbian movement and in terms of our own separatist efforts. … My key concerns include the quotidian life of my communities. They include my feminism and black feminism, which are two different devotions: the former is a racially and culturally integrated struggle with white feminists, and the latter is that continuous struggle to define one’s blackness through feminism and one’s feminism through blackness, which are necessary. I am concerned about continuing to be a good writer, a memorable writer, someone who had something important and substantial to say about the politics we are living and the lives we are leading here and now.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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