By David Nilsen
Aracelis Girmay’s new poetry collection The Black Maria (BOA Editions, 2016) is a perpetually shifting document, one that skirts from one corner of her mind to another, from deep to deep, like the dark, unknowable seas that so possess her in these verses, like the sands that tumble and realign beneath them. Girmay picks up themes here like found objects on the shore, examines them, and sets them each back down in the depressions they left behind. She explores Eritrean history (its wars, its migrations, its diaspora, of which she is a part), mythology, contemporary racial injustice in America, personal wounds, family, the nature of memory.
The first half of the book is primarily concerned with Eritrean history, and particularly with the role the sea has played in this small African country’s national story. Eritrea has a long coastline along the Red Sea, and so its history and identity are necessarily connected to water. Girmay begins this section by explaining an estimated 20,000 people have died at sea in the last two decades while trying to cross from Africa to Europe, and that nearly 300 Eritreans died on one day in 2013 when their boat sank attempting this crossing. Girmay dives into the grief and mystery of these deaths at sea, as well as looking at the role of the sea in the slave trade, and the way the sea can be both friend and enemy, life-giver and life-taker, treasure and terror, a route of escape and a route of human trafficking.
“great storage house, history
on which we rode, we touched
the brief pulse of your fluttering
pages, spelled with salt & life,
your rage, your indifference,
your gentleness washing our feet”
– from “to the sea,” page 58
She references the sea in images even when the sea is not, itself, the subject, as in “prayer & letter to the dead,” in which she has the sea stand in for the page, just as the blank page is invoked above for the sea.
“While the room is still
while the page is still
white, still here,
more shore than sea, more still
– page 15
With the sea as gateway in her poems to both opportunity and oppression, Girmay also delves into the idea of displacement, the tug toward home she–and undoubtedly countless other members of the diasporas of Eritrea and other African countries–often feels. There is a sense in many of these poems of the poet having no true home anyway, the land of her ancestry being as fractured as that of its diaspora. She references Eritrea’s “borders cut sloppily like beginner’s cloth,” and its wars “in whose armies our grandfathers fought / against the beautiful bodies of their own neighbors.” In one poem she speaks directly to this sense of perpetual displaced unease:
to live, a crime to leave. You left.
All of us visiting the world.
Some counted as more,
some counted as less.”
– page 42
Despite the sway the sea holds over these poems–something so shifting and overwhelming and strong, something so chokingly tangible and yet metaphoric and metaphysical–the poet herself writes with a tremendous emotional muscularity adorned with grace. There is hope throughout The Black Maria, even in the face of tragedy, grief, injustice. She writes in “prayer & letter to the dead” of her intention “to fill // my language, like the stars do, / with the light, anyway, of a future tense.” In “the luams speak of god,” she writes of a hypothetical god in the form of a hyena who speaks wisdom into the pain of history:
“She asks, Will you add this
story to your stories of history & land & peace?
Yes, we will add this story. We ask her,
Will you add these poems to your repertoire of songs
about hunger & thirst & fur? & she, being wiser than we,
says, Yes, I will sing them if
you grant me your permission
to turn them into poems about
– page 48
In the book’s second half, Girmay moves forward to look at racial identity and injustice in modern America, using as her muse the “black marias” of the moon–dark plains astronomers once thought were filled with water and named after the Latin word for sea: “mare.” These dark, dry seas are the canvas and the paint with which Girmay explores the racial injustices of the past and the present, and the way that past and that present are inseparable in the United States. “The Black Maria,” the opening poem of this section, is simultaneously brutal and lyrical. The poem’s closing is devastating, and sets the tone for the remainder of the pieces in this movement of poems:
“If this is a poem about estrangement & waters made dark with millions
of names & bodies–the Atlantic
Ocean, the Mediterranean & Caribbean Seas, the Mississippi, then these
are also the names of the black maria.
For days, the beautiful child Emmett swells into Tallahatchie, Even
now, the moon paints its face
with Emmett’s in petition. Open casket of the night, somebody’s
child, our much more than the moon.”
– page 74
Girmay moves on to invoke Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and several other modern victims of white America’s ongoing unwillingness to fully acknowledge its past crimes and, subsequently, its ongoing commitment to defending the racial privilege resting on the foundation of those crimes. She tells a fascinating story in one poem about popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who, as a young teenager, was confronted and questioned by police multiple times on his way to, and in the process of, gazing at the stars. The poem recounts deGrasse Tyson’s experience of toting a heavy bag of tools and a telescope to the roof of his building only to have a white neighbor call the cops on him, sure he was up to no good. She was pregnant with her son as she reflected on this, and on the gauntlet of armed fear and hate that confronts black young people as they grow to adulthood (and doesn’t stop when they reach it), and wrote these poignant lines:
“as I write this poem my body
is making a boy even as the radio
calls out the Missouri coroner’s news,
the Ohio coroner’s news.”
– page 92
Throughout this section of The Black Maria, Girmay peppers personal memories from her own life, perhaps most notably the experience of being dropped off at a boarding school as a young person, an emotionally devastating experience she nonetheless recognizes as her mother’s best attempt to keep her safe from violence: “the deaths of black / kids everywhere are at her neck. So this is what / she chooses for me.” Despite the particular risks of being black and young in America, some of her memories are universal to childhood, as when she speaks of “the terror / & glee of being outside late, after dark, / my mother’s voice shouting / for me beneath stars.”
The Black Maria is a remarkable document, one that crosses oceans and centuries in its search not so much for answers to particular tragedies, but for acknowledgement of them, for the sky to nod and say it sees this too, for a national and terrestrial remembering and affirmation that will be some sort of salve. As Girmay writes at one point, “I am listening in / on the last century, / with my ear to the door.” She hears more than she wants to, more than the other side of that door wants her to. She writes down what she hears, and hopes against history for a better world. The final line of the the collection could be uttered as a prayer over every page:
“let us name every air between strangers ‘Reunion.'”
The Black Maria is available now at Greenville Public Library.