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Safiya Sinclair's poems remind me of Wangechi Mutu’s collage paintings: they are strange, mythological, gorgeously elaborate lyric poems, with a diction that is both arcane and contemporary, that truly sounds like “songs of unknown birds.” I love her poetry for its ominous authority and its driving cadence reminiscent of Aimé Césaire. Again and again, especially in a poem like “Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda,” Sinclair presents the woman as chimera; her heroines are part machine (“glowing engine timed to blow”), part monster (“Gorgon-slick”), and part goddess (“my wings pinned wide in parthenogenesis”). Their bodies are like the bodies of Donna Haraway’s cyborgs: regenerative, multiple, struggling for language and struggling against perfect communication. Whether these poems are supposed to stand alone or come together in some kind of gestalt, they feel epic, as she creates larger-than-life personas and fantastical post-colonial narratives of Jamaican history that read as part Tempest, part Afrofuturist utopia: “Consider the Jumbie bird clanging its deathshriek like a gong, shooting through our mapless season, unnaming the home you’re always leaving.” By compounding nouns with verbs, Sinclair collages a sensual lexicon, creating speech acts that are racialized assemblages. Her language is distinctive, assured, and a marvel to read.
—Cathy Park Hong
I Shall Account Myself a Happy Creaturess
Night prowls dangerous heavy.
Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda
I too am gathering the vulgarity
of botany, the eye and its nuclei for mischief.
Of Man, redacted I came, am coming,
fasting, starving carved
myself a selfish idol, its shell unsuitable. I, twice
discarded, arrived thornside, and soon outgrew
his reptilian sheen. A fine specimen. Let me have it.
Something inviolate; splayed in bird-lime,
legs an exposed anemone, against jailbait August,
its X-ray sky. This light a Gorgon-slick, polygamous
doom. And God again calling much too late, who
aches to stick an ache in my unmentionable.
His Primal Plant remains elusive—
Wildfire and pathogen, blood-knot of human
fleshed there in His beard. How I am hot for it.
Call me murderess, a glowing engine
timed to blow. Watch it go with unjealousy, shadow.
Let me have it. This maidenhead-primeval
schemes what ovule of cruel invention;
the Venus-trap, the menses.
And how many ways to announce this guilt: whore’s nest
of ague, supernova, wild stigmata.
Womb. I boast a vogue sacrosanctum. Engorging
shored pornographies, the cells’ unruly
strain, rogue empire multiplying for a thousand virile
thousand years; my wings pinned wide
in parthenogenesis, such miraculous display.
In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing
Sunset. That blood-orange hymn
combusting the year, nautilus chamber
of youth’s obscurities, your empty room
for psalms, lost rituals. There find the bittersweetness
of one’s unknown body, heliotropic;
Welcome, stranger of myself.
Consider the Jumbie bird clanging its deathshriek
like a gong, shooting through our mapless season,
unnaming the home you’re always leaving,
scattering the names we have lost again.
The heart and its bombshell
bespeak the hurricane—
what has drowned, has drowned.
She will not return. The headless sky
unseals and aches for us, mother and sister
caught upon the steel hook of its memory.
Wet mouth of my future body, we’ve come to understand
each word, and how sometimes the words
themselves will do. Obeah-man, augured island,
I am called to remember the burning palm
and the broad refuge of the poinciana tree.
Dear Family, how willingly I pushed my feet
into the hot coals of your lamentation.
Jamaica, if I wear your lunacy like a dark skin,
or lock this day away in the voodoo-garden
of our parting, know that I still mimic your wails,
knee-deep in beach, know I am gouging the stars
for any trace of ghost. For the algorithm
of uncertain history. The simple language
of our cannibal sea. If, Grandfather,
your wandering fishermen still recast
their lives down on the disappearing shore,
know I too am scorching there.
Igniting and devouring
each abducted day.
Notes on the State of Virginia, III
After W. E. B. Du Bois
Wild irises purpling my mouth each dawning—
trauma souring the quiet street.
Its whole dark field roots me down and down. The mock-sun a blank obscuring. Fire whips
white-shock of lightning, bright Molotov angel, what ash marks assume a coon cemetery.
And all the names scratched out.
What burns this house burns apishly.
The mouth the church this immaculate body,
such untouchable sounds we have made of ourselves. A blues archeology. Thus like a snake
I writhe upward, mottling and spine-thick, where heavy nouns flay through my tubercular,
their heavens coil a twisted rope. Your veiled suffocation.
Unknown asphyxiate. The mourning dove which scales
its double gaze in tongues knows this: the broken world
was always broken.
How does it feel to be a problem? The mute centuries shatter in my ear.
The aimed black spear. This body, a crisis.
A riot. A racket. The whole world whistling.
Harass me a savage state, vast hectares will tar this noon infertile, each day a prisonhouse,
caulking each bloom a bruise.
Quick hands swathe me in miles of cotton. Now blood-stained sheets in my room.
There is an old woman who is not my grandmother.
There is an old sadness I was born to wear like a dress.
She feeds me condensed milk through a bird-feeder
says don’t pay attention to the flies in my eyes.
Cathy Park Hong's first book, Translating Mo'um, was published in 2002 by Hanging Loose Press. Her second collection, Dance Dance Revolution, was chosen for the Barnard Women Poets Prize and was published in 2007 by W.W. Norton. Her third book of poems, Engine Empire, was published in Spring 2012 by W.W. Norton. Hong is also the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in A Public Space, Poetry, Paris Review, Conjunctions, McSweeney's, The Baffler, Boston Review, The Nation, and other journals. She is an Associate Professor at Sarah Lawrence College and poetry editor at The New Republic.
Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and received her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal, won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). She is the recipient of a 2015 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, The Cincinnati Review, The Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded a writing fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Amy Clampitt Residency Award, and an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
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