Aja Monet, my mother was a freedom fighter.
my mother was a freedom fighter, Aja Monet's collection of poems published by Haymarket Books, is a deftly crafted narrative and lyric journey that tells a coming-of-age story in an era of persistent prejudice and violence often directed toward African American people. Monet's use of all lowercase throughout the book suggests the rejection of the status quo, while "a constant refrain of resist" is a burgeoning theme of these poems.
Monet suggests such paradoxes in the poem "ree ree ree," in which the speaker notes that in "the caves of our hoods," "brown and black girls" can both "wound and heal." We find the same compelling truth-in-contradiction in the poem "tomorrow," in which mothers teach the daughters not only to hurt and heal but to fight and love. Here, the speaker and her grandmother are connected to the natural world, the Toa River, where an archetypal cleansing by water ignites a paradoxical "torch":
yesterday i was the toa river where my grandmother rinsed her feet and cupped water into her hands toward her face dripping down her chin along, soft clay between her legs sculpting a mother ... ... the sun sets her skin ablaze she howls toward the horizon tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow i will be a torch in my daughters throat ...
In the speaker, who has already shown her own brand of magic by transforming herself into the Toa River, the grandmother ignites the voice of rebellion--as well as creating solidarity among other daughters and women caught in the limiting construct of prejudice and patriarchy. And though the mothers spark freedom in the daughters' throats, freedom was not always part of their own process, when Monet writes: "sometimes mothers / free hummingbirds from their ribs / but don't always learn the art of flying." The poem "the body remembers" gives us an understanding of why the mothers couldn't fly. It explores male-dominated society and violence directed toward women. The speaker proclaims in a voice of the powerful, "This is for every man that has ever laid a hand on women (...) you will die with your hand in a fist at the bottom of the Atlantic." At the same time, the poems speak of forgiveness and female empowerment. In "the ghost of women, once girls," a girl finds power in knowledge and "smiles at the sound of her voice escaping the spine of a book." She "has not yet been taught / to dim, she sits with stars at her feet / a constellation of things to come." She is still a queen with the world and the stars at her feet.
Monet's work wends its way through the thorny issues of racism and patriarchy and goes on to classism, as can be seen in the first stanza of her imagistic poem "when the poor sing":
In all our glory There is a verse on a street corner In a bodega, on a train car There is a stanza in the gutter where life is difficult and rhymes fall from every tongue
She places the word "difficult" on a line of its own to create emphasis. The poem highlights the paradox of a difficult life and the colloquial flow of language--the "rhymes" that "fall from every tongue" that can sustain. She juxtaposes the words "glory" and "gutter," the "hard granite basin" of poverty, in a different stanza, with the fluidity of the spoken word.
Like a griot, Monet tells a story intertwined with myth, history, protest, and praise. The poems examine plain truths and also the push to quell such truths. In "solidarity," it is suggested that the speaker/poet not address "the plain truths" because if she is "angry enough, they will forget you are beautiful" / "he angry enough and you will be too ugly to listen to." These voices go on to tell the poet/speaker to mask her words by "creating a metaphor that only those / that know metaphors will know." But as one of our "unacknowledged legislators," Monet cannot turn her back on what is real, meaningful--and necessary. In the section called "(un) dressing a wound," the title implies both the dressing and undressing of an injury--the covering and the opening--so air can circulate to foster mending. The process of healing takes time and work and can hurt.
In one of the last poems, "she sweats," the speaker/poet encounters Freedom: "she's smoking a cigarette, lounging on the curb / sipping on a sweating beer bottle." When the speaker tells Freedom that she has to be on her way, Freedom replies, "oh that's right, you have to go change the world." With this powerful book of poems, Monet makes us believe she can.