Eve Ewing is a writer who is rooted in a single place, but she is universal in her words. In this collection centered around life in Chicago and the experience of African-American women, her wordsmithing is so apt that often an unarguable reality shines through, even if some of the references may be beyond the experience of a reader with none of that background. As she puts it, “This book is about my life and maybe also your life ... it is about the places we invent. Every story in it is absolutely true.”
In fact, the first part is called “true stories,” starting off with the prose poem “Arrival Day,” which seems inspired by a quote from Assata Shakur: “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon.” In this case, they do drop from the moon, “hammering the iron of the jail cell doors into lovely wrought curls and bicycle chains, smashing the fare boxes at the train stations into wind chimes.”
Racism, naturally, is the subject of a number of the poems. Two poems take off from apparently real incidents and shade into fantasy; in one, a little girl on her bike is called the N-word by an “old white lady” on the block. The girl flies up into the air, scoops the woman up and drops her on a rock in the lake. In another, a woman watching police harass 9-year-olds gives them the same flying bicycles to escape on.
One of the most affecting poems along these lines deals with a group of Black poets from Chicago reading in an all-White suburban town:
The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black.
Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory,
the plentitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.
Other days, you wonder if exile would be too lonely...
The second part, “oil and water,” has several poems that reveal the importance that even hair and hair treatments can have.
“Shea Butter Manifesto” shows how,
In this world, nothing brittle prevails,
so in this world, grease is a compliment,
no, it’s a weapon...
And in “why you cannot touch my hair,” Ewing writes, my hair is a technology from the future and will singe your fingertips.
But there are also poems about love and friendship. One, based on a quote from Zora Neale Hurston (“I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife”) proclaims,
when I see something dull and uneven,
barnacled and ruined,
I know how to get to its iridescent everything.
I mean I eat them alive.
The third part, “letters from the flat lands,” is about city life and growing up. The piece “montage in a car” is a biography of childhood and young adulthood, told through very brief incidents in an automobile. “On Prince” lays out what the singer can mean to a young Black woman:
I loved you because I had never seen
someone in a movie that looked like me before,
or at least how I thought I could look
if I grew up to be beautiful.
Another poem in this section, “What I Talk about When I Talk about Black Jesus,” deals with the relationship between the narrator (“I don’t believe that Jesus ... was the holy son of God ... But I believe in messiahs.”) and her believer grandmother 450 miles away:
Of all the hours I have spent in Shiloh Baptist Church, I cannot tell you the message or even the topic of a single sermon. But I can tell you whose grandbaby I am.
“Origin Story” is one of the most affecting. After introducing how the narrator’s mother and father met at the Greyhound bus station, where her father was selling comic books, Ewing writes:
love is like a comic book. it’s fragile
and the best we can do is protect it ... if my parents’
love was a comic book,
it never saw polyvinyl, never felt a backing ...
memorized, mishandled, worn thin, staples rusted.
a love like that doesn’t last
but it has a good ending.
Ewing is also known for her visual art; the collection includes several of Ewing’s artworks, which mostly don’t seem to have reproduced well. One of the better reproductions is a shot of a teacher’s blackboard — Ewing is a critic of school closures — with a schedule of thoughts like “I’m raising the children you have forgotten” and “Just Pay Me Pay me.”
Although the poems are mostly about everyday topics and events — hair, food, music — the undercurrent of surviving in a racist society is always there, whether through pride, through attitude or simply through getting by. A boy becomes a man by being stopped by the police “to ask questions he could not answer because the query beneath them was ‘why are you alive.’” The last poem, appropriately, ends with the words
I am alive
I am alive
I am alive.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full Feb. 28 - March 6 issue.