Aracelis Girmay. The Black Maria.
The Black Maria, the third poetry collection by award-winning poet Aracelis Girmay, explores the concept of blackness through space and time. As a color, black is defined as devoid of light, but Girmay's poetry seeks to acknowledge blackness in its many forms by bringing black stories into the light. Black bodies of water coincide with black bodies of history that have crossed dark seas or died making the journeys. Regarding contemporary blackness and its unmistakable connection to violence, the term "the black maria" functions as a larger allegory for black bodies dehumanized by police. Girmay explores ways and circumstances black bodies (of many kinds) become mistaken for something else. This book conceptualizes the need to include black bodies in our remembrances and find ways to honor them.
In the first section, Girmay takes an interest in the sounds of the seas and heritage, as evidenced in her created word and poem title "elelegy." In her footnote to this title, she describes her conjured word as a means "to place itself in both the English elegiac tradition and the ulalatory traditions of grieving and joy in cultures of North and East Africa." Girmay establishes symbolic uses for punctuation marks as bodies of history. In the poem "to the sea (any)," the periods function as reminders, like dots punctured on a map of the African trade route to immortalize those who crossed or died at sea: "I mark, obsessively, / the route, / the family-piercing / of the map in place after place ... a series of holes scar the paper with space / nearly flooded by you." In between stanzas, the sea is demarcated by lines either in the form of slashes or em dashes. In "to the sea near lampedusa," the lines are interrupted by commas, some directly after a word or lingering between stanzas:
for the eyes we closed for safety & distance for the freedom we wasted on things
They break up lines and even stand alone as lines. This remarkable technique is reminiscent of the use of breath marks in music scores to remind musicians how to phrase a passage without losing their breath. Girmay uses the comma more specifically as connectors of one poetic line to another, one African life to another. Visually, they look like waves, lifelines. One can hear the musicality of the punctuation as undulating waves of the past, the masses that were taken out to sea.
The first page of the second portion of the book, titled "black maria" offers a useful Merriam-Webster definition. The term "mare" refers to "any of several mostly flat dark areas of considerable extent on the surface of the moon or Mars." Astronomers mistook the lunar features, as seen through their telescopes, for seas, referring to them as "black maria" ("maria" being the plural of "mare"). In a larger sense, the bodies of (outer) space and water are occupied by the misconceptions of those in power, whether scientists, imperial powers, or law enforcement. This section names historical events and specific Black individuals, from Neil deGrasse Tyson seeking out the mysteries of the cosmos as a budding astronomer to young Black men dying at the hands of man-made institutions. Girmay gives us pause to consider the ways her words suggest all these nuances in our language.
Aracelis Girmay is a gifted writer. She challenges the boundaries of conventional understandings of the world, nature, and earth. The Black Maria reconfigures, taking on our mistakes, prejudices, and unclear vision so we may see black bodies for the larger, ethereal vision and vastness that they actually are. By naming and by calling them, they regain their second life. In the final line of her book she suggests that rather than seeing each other as strangers, "let us name every air between strangers 'Reunion.'" This is a call to come together, an insistent voice that says our separation from one another is as misplaced as the black maria are misunderstood. Instead, let us see ourselves as finding our way home to one another in this larger sea like "a trillion, glorious cells and sentences / Trying to last."