the black maria by Aracelis Girmay
BOA Editions Ltd., 2016; 120 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan

 

Describing Aracelis Girmay’s 2015 Whiting Award-winning the black maria comes at a cost. To define it as an inquiry into African diasporic histories or a response to racism within contemporary American society or, well, even poetry, limits the scope of a book whose ambition and accomplishment surpasses easy categorization.

The first part of the book examines the history of Eritrea, recent and past, and offers four different accounts of immigrants, all named Luam. Girmay brings these stories back and lets the Luams’ experiences resonate through time and space so that they will be remembered and live again:

I will try to build

a shore for you here, a landing place, here
where the paper dreams

that you will last. (“prayer and letter to the dead”)

As each of the Luams comes to the page, we come to know their longing and suffering, and as much as we’d like that pain to remain in the past in lands far away—in the “elelegy” Girmay tips us off to the when of these stories, “1702, 1530, 2013, 1781, 2015 . . .” and the where: New York City; Umbertide in Italy; and Asmara, Eritrea—the immigrant narrative has been and continues to be a tortured one, scarring our history and our present.

This motif is deepened further in the book’s second part, “the black maria,” a reference to the dark, flat “seas” early astronomers misidentified on the moon that were thought to be strange and hostile—almost as much as the Atlantic Ocean, which haunted the men, women, and children who were transported across it during the slave trade. Girmay offers a series of “estrangements” that memorialize the dead, like Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride who asked for help but were killed instead, and detail the prejudice levied against Neil deGrasse Tyson as he pursues his passion of studying the stars.

The collection calls to mind Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” from U.S. 1, which also is part factual document, part investigative journalism, and part lyric, all while speaking through a number of voices. Its weaving of different forms is comparable to Anne Carson’s work. And we can certainly see the influence of the number of writers Girmay thanks in the acknowledgements for their influence on her work. Still, the black maria stands on its own as a unique and challenging book that gets richer with every reading.

Few poets understand as deeply their responsibility to their art and the past as Girmay does, and no excerpt captures this sentiment as well as the closing of “on poetry & history”:

                       & that she knew that it was her job to take that thread & put it somewhere, weave it into the larger tapestry (she made a gesture, then, as if that tapestry were just above her head). She said it was her job to put that grief in its place, or else someone else, some child or grown person would be out walking & just walk right into it, without knowing what it was they’d walked into, what they had, then, inherited in a way, what they were, then, carrying & feeling. The danger of that. The grief of that. & that was what she said about poetry & history. & that is all I remember from all of the things that were said that entire day.