“I don’t stray far from earth- / ly things,” announces the speaker of Blue Hallelujahs. In this debut collection, Cynthia Manick writes poems of lived embodiment as she discovers herself “elbow deep” in equal parts beauty and pain.
Blue Hallelujahs progresses from the speaker’s ancestral past to her adulthood. Manick explores narrative using lyric density and sonic surprise, as in “Inside the Rolling Walls: A Fairytale,” which concisely evokes her great-grandmother’s pregnancy :
. . . Light culled
in her belly. Something banked inside—
an incense of follicles to flesh. The news
slipped over his head like water. Her hip-
grinding pelvis became one swollen bowl.
Manick’s strong voice favors sweetness over irony. Her poems paint clear portraits of family members known and imagined. The details in “Glory,” for example, (white tablecloth, family Bible, biscuits offering “holy gossip” to the younger speaker) enliven a memory of a grandmother’s kitchen which “feels like a slow applause under the skin.” She also dreams into lives that came before her: a romance between great-grandparents takes place in “the juke joint slide / gold-plated incantations of baby baby / and the bark of bodies bursting like plums.”
From beginning to end, Blue Hallelujahs reads as a paean to blackness, sometimes mirrored in natural forms: “the dark / bodies of three giant unfurling / avocado trees. . . wafting / over us like African gods.” Yet many of its most powerful poems explore racism’s visceral trauma compounded over many generations. “All I want is rain and air and sleep and air / and water,” Manick writes in “Middle Passage, for the ancestors of little black girls.” Consider also “The Future of Skin,” which begins with the speaker imagining herself in the bodies of different animals and ends with “skin nowhere to be found / crosses nowhere to be found / the noose nowhere to be found.” As the collection culminates, Manick’s poems grow more personal, focused on self-preserving pride.
I stopped reading Glamour, Cosmo
and Photoshop Weekly cause
they can’t handle
the pine beneath my bark,
the lushness in curves
the round rolls above the pubis.
This confluence of storytelling and lyric embodiment marks the power of Blue Hallelujahs. If the black female body is sanctuary here, the poem becomes a place where it can shine: “The path ends behind my knee. . .” in “scraps of poems I splash after / to understand it all.”