THE BLACK MARIA
Aracelis Girmay

BOA Editions, 2016

Aracelis Girmay’s third collection, The Black Maria, builds on the distinctive pathos of her previous two. Here, though, Girmay’s writing is also driven by a conceptual confidence that allows the entire book to function as a long, piecemeal “elelegy.”

The first section, titled “elelegy”—at once part of “the English elegiac tradition and the ulalatory [sic] traditions of grieving and joy in cultures of North and East Africa”—is a suite of poems stricken with mourning for the 20,000 people that “have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades.” These poems imagine themselves into an empathy so complete, distinctions between people get completely erased:

Though I think, in “America,”

that I am There &
he is Here, that we are different, or far,

really, we are each other. My bones are
your bones, he says. His teeth are my teeth

& my smiling is his smiling.

The most affecting short poems of the collection muse on the spiritual activity of flies, which, in Girmay’s imagination, “[mark] us/ with the light of other guests:”

if there are angels, they are flies
who hover over our privacies,
kissing us with mouths
that have kissed
other wounds.

The title poem—in the book’s second section—begins as a meditation on the racism renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson endured as “a boy who / (it is important / to mention here his skin / is brown) prepares his telescope, / the weights & rods, / to better see the moon.” When his (white) neighbor “suspects the brown boy / of something,” the narrative accelerates into more explicit rhetoric about how “stud[ying] stars,” under the threat of racial violence, gets replaced by simply “trying to last.” The poem references “the Missouri coroner’s news, / the Ohio coroner’s news,” alluding to the police killings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and the rest of that second section similarly tasks itself with memorializing contemporary racial violence against Black people in America.

The Black Maria emerges from a spirit of elegy, moral vision, and protest, and places itself in traditions that include June Jordan, Paul Celan, Joy Harjo, and James Baldwin. Unique to this collection is Girmay’s signature willingness to risk narrative sentiment and lyric authenticity, which she inhabits with remarkable force, willing her readers to be remade in her visionary healing: “let us name every air between strangers ‘Reunion.’”