The Time: Portrait of a Journey Home.
Poetry is, first of all, song; it is a use of the voice that transcends everyday speech. In the context of the written word, poetry means construction of a text that challenges ordinary ways of putting words together. What we seek from poetry doesn't change. We expect a discourse of intelligence and surprise even if, in the context of the coffee house or auditorium, we often settle for cleverness.
Still, we look for beauty of expression. As Stephen Henderson says in Understanding the New Black Poetry, "There is this tradition of beautiful talk with us - this tradition of saying things beautifully even if they are ugly things. We say them m a way which takes language down to the deepest common level of our experience while hinting still at things to come." We also look for truth, for insight into our condition - whether of this moment or whatever we can imagine of eternity. We ask our poets for epiphany.
Poetry should enable us to see through words, and the best of our new poets do not disappoint our expectations. Esther Iverem's The Time: Portrait of a Journey Home is an exciting debut. A former member of Etheridge Knight's Free People's Workshop in Philadelphia, Iverem is one of a growing cohort of young poets whose inaugural volumes promise that 21st-century African American literature will be both brilliant and incendiary - in the tradition. As Tony Medina has put it, "We are like all the poets (since Wheatley & even before her: those that fought & screamed & resisted & jumped ship & escaped to mountains and swamps)." Iverem herself is not one to mince words: "In a short life I have seen / the real haints of the world." But there is a fresh and refreshing sensibility at work in her poetry. It does not diminish Iverem to say that her social concern and anger are similar to Tony Medina's in Emerge & See, but she avoids his street corner vocabulary. She is as assertively precise as Elizabeth Alexander, and the energy of Iverem's language shares something of Paul Beatty's inventiveness. These writers are in no sense a group or a school, but they are of the same generation. They have grown up on the same strange time and seen the same things that Iverem calls "haints."
One suspects, however, that Sonia Sanchez is a major influence both in perspective and style. This influence does not mean that Iverem sounds like Sanchez - she doesn't. What it means is that Iverem erases the boundaries between the personal and political and creates a poetry of deep feeling that also functions as social commentary.
Iverem's "Trilogy" presents a chilling disaffection with the everyday world where holding a steady job is depicted as being raped, and sacrifices are rewarded with insults. The poet asks:
How did I reach this greasy street from my father's house? I am so low, No one wants to call my name Or stand by me.
Iverem's imagery is ghastly and powerful:
I decipher this kingdom at shoe level. In the daily march on grease and steaming tar. Feel mountains of clicking heels pass like an unearthly train. The fear of being me keeping them in line.
The persona in this poem is a homeless woman, but Iverem is able to avoid the usual pre-programmed liberal pity and penetrate the relationship between the homeless speaker and those who, but for the grace of the next paycheck, might find themselves in her place. On a more overtly political topic she is equally powerful. In Iverem's imagery the Gulf War's CNN aerial video coverage of "smart bombs" blossoming in the night desert of Kuwait is refigured as President Bush
ejaculating billions like hot diamonds on fluorescent, burning backs of no-face Iraqis. Once again, dark subhumans disappeared with no remorse.
The obscenity of war - even a "high-tech" war - is underscored:
See that sheer banality of evil - Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka Klaus Barbie at Lyons - old balding men who look like Santa Claus narrow their eyes and fry your children.
Such powerful polemic, however, has its faults. It is entirely too trendy to think that there is anything banal about evil - much too facile to reduce the megadeaths caused by international power politics to a comparison with deranged serial killers like Ted Bundy. Political poetry requires accuracy; it is not like playing "the dozens."
A problem may be that Iverem is sometimes too sure of what side she's on, and often chooses sides too easily. Her poem "Desert Chant #2," for example, has the poet standing at the Grand Canyon exulting about how "at night, explorer horses, redneck chevys / tumbled down the jagged cliffs / halting their no good Pacific march," as if this magnificent 8-million-year-old earthwork had anything at all to do with human events as recent as 100 years ago; as if her own presence at the rim of the canyon - assuming that our ideas are even relevant to what we call the Colorado River - is any less intrusive. If, as Cary Nelson seems to suggest, the discursive area allowed to poetry is the space left unclaimed by other forms of public discourse, then a protest poetry that merely reiterates poorly articulated resentments of one or another sector of the public is not much poetry at all. As Nelson points out in Repression and Recovery, effective political poetry is "capable not merely of talking about but actually of substantially deciding basic social and political issues" (emphasis added). That's a tall order, but poetry should enable us to see through words, and dismantle rhetorical and perceptual misconstructions.
When Iverem avoids "political correctness" she is impressively perceptive about people, especially those whom we often overlook. "Allen in Atlanta" offers a portrait of a young man who, though doing well, is somehow unfulfilled. Allen stays out of trouble and in touch with his family, has a good job and a trophy girlfriend for whom "the blues are her Calvin Kleins" (55). But Allen also has mostly material dreams.
And the longer the car dream, the honey dream and the money dream don't come true, the more he will believe that it is because he is inherently evil.
This may be Atlanta, but it's a long way from the dream of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Without saying so, Iverem also makes clear that Allen's problem is shared by many others who are not even doing as "well." as he is.
Esther Iverem is capable also of steamily erotic poems, such as "3000 Miles Away," which fuses smells, colors, and remembered tastes into a sensuous rhapsody that is mysteriously shadowed with images of racist violence. But her skill is evident - and surprising - in a poem like "Palm Springs Orange":
I believe I saw you wriggle in ecstasy as you were peeled and slurped by a child sitting ashy and happy in the sand between the groves.
Never at a loss for a memorable metaphor, Iverem can be almost astonishingly precise in her evocation of a mood. "Newark, Delaware Crime" effectively condemns the insensitivity some men still have regarding rape, but "House Terror #2" - revealing the fear of a woman alone in her own home - would teach even the most clueless man what this justifiable "paranoia" really feels like.
Iverem's voice is undoubtedly feminine, but her range is impressively wide. "Some Places in America Scare You More" is a ballad of both remembrance and useful vigilance:
In town they have the Nazi parades Oh everyday, in the malls and rush hour traffic. In nearby Gulfport, Mississippi, the pale blue screaming coast is lined for miles with mansions reeking of black blood.
The plain colloquial diction is just right. What should one look for to warn you of these scary places?
Gates, Ionic columns, green grass and American flags.
Again, Iverem's tone is perfect, as it is also in "Wanda's Letter to Her Husband Who Works Away," a theme that Anne Bradstreet used with great effect in the 1650s. Esther Iverem contributes her own authentic and expressive vernacular:
I mean if I am your heart know you have a good heart know you have a strong heart a heart that fights to live.
With such a heart, with such a voice as Esther Iverem's, we're bound to win.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
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