“When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” —Adrienne Rich
In Maafa (Fence Books, 2020), Harmony Holiday crafts a surrealistic tale employing iconography and symbolism from the African and African-American experience, creating a utopian, feminist allegory based, apparently, on the myth of Ulysses. A dancer, writer, archivist, and educator, the author attempts an “interpenetration” of writing and dance and, based upon pre-publication poems and promotions that I found on the internet, Holiday’s Surrealist influences are, particularly, evident in her use of patricide (Freud, Jung) by Maafa, the female protagonist, as a major theme in the collection.
A defining feature of Surrealism was its commitment to expressing unconscious motivation via art, relying, especially, on dream analysis for sources of inspiration and raw material, highlighting fantastic imagery as well as associative devices to achieve a narrative. In Holiday’s “experimental” compositions, white spaces are used to erase and to disrupt grammar and syntax, simulating attempts by manifestations of white supremacy to silence and to oppress the voices and lives of blacks throughout the diaspora.
Ultimately, however, the poet’s story is a personal one, as told in her previous hybrid volume, Hollywood Forever (Fence Books, 2017), a sometimes heartbreaking “coming of age” work about her late, troubled father, the musician Jimmy Holiday, and his impact upon her psyche. “I realized on a visceral level that [Maafa] was gendered for me, that the erasure of trauma and the erasure of black femininity were happening simultaneously, even, or especially, within myself.” [from Maafa]
If Hollywood Forever was a mechanism for coping with pain and a method of expiation and therapy, Maafa represents Holiday’s metaphorical journey toward health, wholeness, and repaired identity—symbolized by Maafa erasing her father and her “loneliness” as in the poem, “No Line Ma”:
That it was objective to shred this river ever so
misanthropic I love everybody / going sailing low
in the net next star over tar or tour card Jimmy’s tailor
/ dark as the spiders he raises to scarves and april
it’s the end of loneliness / fantasize about this heist…
Like the Dadaist/Surrealist painter, René Magritte’s words about the possibilities of “indeterminacy” in avant garde art, Maafa “illuminate[s] the invisible thing hidden by the darkness.” Any new work by Holiday is a major event that is certain to receive intense critical scrutiny, including, acclaim. In addition to other young, African-American. female poets, notably C.M. Burroughs, Francine J. Harris, and Morgan Parker, Harmony Holiday is one to watch.
In her influential poem, “The Phenomenology of Anger,” the radical feminist Adrienne Rich may have been the first poet to pose the following question to women: “Madness. Suicide. Murder. / Is there no way out but these?”
As evidenced in her new micro-chapbook, Ghost Monogamies (Ghost City Press, 2019), Christina Xiong has taken Rich’s lessons to heart, refusing to be silent or complicit, and choosing, instead, to document her experiences as a woman who has been exploited by patriarchy, especially, male sexual dominance and male privilege.
Though Rich’s and Xiong’s journeys to self-love and wholeness took different paths, both poets employ what Rich called “the oppressor’s language” to affirm the non-linear and complex process from despair and self-abnegation to self-determination, confidence, and repair. While Rich’s baggage required conscious grappling with an unhappy marriage, her husband’s suicide in 1970, her difficult relationship with her father as well as her transition to lesbianism, Xiong has found her own strength, after recovery from addiction, as a writer, wife, and mother in the rural South. Both Rich and Xiong, however, write about the pleasures, intimacy, and comfort of a stable, monogamous relationship, and Rich might have understood Xiong’s sentiments expressed in the poem, “Dream Elegy for the Living”:
The dream reminded me of how
you reached to touch my face
in the dark sea of our bed.
You cupped my cheeks
like my ancient Aunt Cecile
once did at a family reunion
when I was nine & still
had dimples from smiling.
Like Rich, many of Xiong’s poems express bitterness towards men, particularly, former lovers (“…I disappeared into his bed, / the familiar place where he later raped me…I never cried out.”), a motif that many critics would label “confessional,” a descriptor not always intended as a compliment. Neither poet, however, characterizes herself as a victim, choosing, instead, to dive “into the wreck” of their lives in search of explanations, solutions, and, ultimately, empowerment and recovery.
Readers of Xiong’s often lyrical poems will find themselves engaged with a writer who has found her “voice”—bearing witness to a woman’s ability to successfully transform her life. Ghost City Press is to be commended for providing Xiong’s and other handsomely-produced pamphlets free-of-charge on their website as downloadable PDFs.
I have become an instant fan of Lily Trotta’s narrative poems which are light-hearted without being superficial, musical and probing at the same time. Her 2019 Ghost City Press micro-chapbook, area woman, is, like Christina Xiong’s book reviewed above, part of the publisher’s multi-year summer series available gratis, or by donation, as a PDF.
A Google search of “area woman” yielded about five trillion results, among them: Area Woman, a Washington, DC “woman’s interest” magazine; “ID released for area woman who died after driving car into river;” “Search continues for Detroit-area woman in Northern Michigan;” “Florida murder victim confirmed as area woman.” To add to the textual, symbolic, and referential complexity, “area woman” jokes are frequently repeated on The Onion, an online source of humor parodying journalism and other entities. Trotta has a gift for identifying the serious embedded in the banal and for exposing these juxtapositions for readers to interpret. She understands that everyday life can be deceptively profound, and the indeterminacy (“undecidability”) of Trotta’s compositions creates “an open field of narrative possibilities,” to quote John Ashbery when speaking of Gertrude Stein’s writing.
I am struck not only by the potential to mine social, cultural, and political meanings (e.g., a search of “area man” yielded about nine trillion results!), but also by the ways in which Trotta reveals personal material without being didactic or literal, as in the poem, “guts” that treads the boundary of sentiment without being cliché or trivial:
i am choosing to believe
in the human capacity for change
to believe that
grown men scream slurs
during televised sports
because they want to
that mothers stick around
because they’ve decided
i am choosing to believe
that there are no products
no old dogs
that can’t be undone or redone
or done exactly the same
a hundred times over…
In any poetry collection, one must ask what holds the book together. Not only is the theme, “area woman”—symbolic of location, place, space as well as the present—implicit throughout the text, but the author intermittently situates four poems titled “area woman” to provide repetition, highlighting the dominance of the phrase.
In Symbolist theory, “repetition” is sometimes viewed as a type of “incantation” or music, the least referential artistic form. Thus, in true postmodernist tradition, Trotta leaves interpretation up to the reader even though her conceptual framework is clearly defined. The “narrative possibilities” are further enhanced by the instability of context, and Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed that the same word or concept may have different meanings depending upon how it is used and where it is placed in a text as well as the different (dictionary) renderings of a given morpheme. Thus, “area” and “woman” might be defined in more than one way to yield many interpretive combinations and re-combinations. area woman is a book that can be read for casual pleasure or as a text lending itself to critical analysis.
In either case, reading this pamphlet is fascinating, and I have added Lily Trotta to my list of young poets to return to in future.