AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi.
AiW note: This is the second in a series of poetry reviews on the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set from AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi. You can find the introductory post here; look for the follow-up reviews of the volumes in this box set in the coming weeks.
Although odious alt-right leader idiot Richard Spencer is being sarcastic when he refers to Umniya Najaer as a ‘genius’ (no, I’m not going to link to his despicable website), he might not be wrong. Spencer is rattled by recognition of Najaer’s prowess; as for me, her Najaer’s Armeika took my breath away.
In her preface to this volume, Aracelis Girmay describes Najaer’s poetry as “driven by the specific and idiosyncratic languages of her speakers:” the U.S. Sudanese diaspora (4). Although the poems in Armeika often address ‘you,’ this ‘you’ is not the reader, who is not expected to be part of this diaspora, and so who requires Najaer’s initial explanation of her title as a portmanteau of the Arabic for ‘to discard’ and for ‘America.’ (Najaer says it better.) This exposition is followed by footnotes, as early as in the first poem, where she explains what ghost houses – illegal torture sites – mean to their survivors (beit fundurq masr al-khaliq ghost house, 9). What could seem to be pandering reads instead as care – a warranted wariness surrounding an invitation into the space in which the ‘you’ sits, listens, feels the fine and sharp lines she proffers:
your mother demands to know
why you are a walking corpse
she writes of a ghost house survivor in ‘ghost takes shots’,
you tell her that you have been away
on a work trip
…eventually the plane lands
in a place where the trees wear needles
and in the poems which follow, we read a story we have heard before, or lived before, of immigration. Its broad lines, as with these in “amatu” (20), are familiar to us –
armeika was a concussion to years
of wide-eyed nights in the basement
– and I can hear the care taken, again, to meet us where we are, allowing us access to the particular power of images like
to dry up, as baobab meat must, to make
the tart white juice that raises the skin on the tongue
to convey the act of grief.
Najaer makes, as well, quick work of the spaces on the page, gathering them and dispersing them to full effect in poems such as the glass & he rained.
Yalie Kamara’s A Brief Biography of My Name follows on from this collection seamlessly, exploring as it does the experience of being descended from migration: part of the diaspora in a different way. (Kamara is of Sierra Leonean descent). Kamara is an MFA candidate at Indiana University and is also a translator from the French; her poetry is as accomplished as this suggests.
The conceit of the collection – as its title denotes, an extended consideration of her name – suggests a formal exercise (and is, in fact, an exercise I assigned to all of my students when I taught writing); it starts out contained, sharp, with childhood memories of a misspelled name bringing forth lines like these from Space (11):
Would anyone let ssabelle, Rchard, Elzabeth,
or Snclar escape from the 9th letter of the alphabet?
… Nobody else played the game, so there’s no
record of the joyful sound that was made when
the long-lost me, found the small, brown, I.
We hear about her family, clearly loving and familiar to anyone part of or adjacent to a diaspora; I’ve both heard and said this line from Mother’s Rules (12):
Your accent is funny, but keep practicing. It is the only way we will be able
to gossip in peace while at the supermarket.
and this one from Repast in the Diversity Center (18):
I have to be honest: I only came because I was hungry.
These poems are satisfying, but there are also moments where the words soar; the stand out is absolutely ‘I ask my brother Jonathan to write about Oakland, and he describes his room:’ in which
… – The squad car driving past him, not using its siren to call his name.
He has no reason to leave his house if the most forgiving parts of the city are rendered in his dream.
Phillippa Yaa, in her preface to Kamara’s collection, notes that the poet is able to express “dis-ease,” the “not always pleasurable” as she “resists a generalized, assimilated comfort zone in favor of the complexity of her unique life” … “in a world where the village storyteller is a stranger to her context” (4,5,7). As a first/second-generation child of a different diaspora (South Asian), I related at once to the specific closeness of diaspora siblings; a stranger to her context Kamara might be, but to her brother, never. But the poem also recalls the work the poet is best known for (at least to others of us who spend quite a lot of time online): her ‘Haiku Love Letters to Gabby Douglas,’ with its closing stanza:
We hold you close. Smile
when we touch the forests that
grow on our own heads.
A Brief Biography of My Name can be clever, but it’s at its best, I think, when it aims for the bitter notes, its depiction of a black diaspora identity the opposite of unassuming in the strongest way.
Rashi Rohatgi is Associate Professor of English at Nord University.