By Robin Healey-Smith
The odds of being struck by literary lightning in any given year are remote. The odds of it happening twice? As chance would have it, though, the good people over at New Issues Poetry & Prose have struck me twice with two recent books.
The writers are poets Chet’la Sebree with her work Mistress and Eman Hassan with her work Raghead. These are their first collections, but given the content and scope of the written material you would never have guessed that these are debuts.
Mistress is arresting. It’s tonally dark and honest, focusing on the struggles of personal and cultural identity.
You see, Sebree weaves together her own personal narrative, that of a 21st-century African-American woman, with that of the historical figure Sally Hemings, an African-American woman enslaved during Antebellum America by Thomas Jefferson.
Sally, as she was called, had a difficult road. Aside from her compulsory relationship to the President, she suffered immense tragedy as a mother: two of her children died in early childhood, while four others grew up enslaved alongside her.
One such poem, “Boy of My Body, January 1790,” visualizes the birth of Sally’s first child and his eventual passing:
A hinge unhinging: a glass
until boy of my body
calls for me: hungering.
Twine: to tie off.
Scissors: to sever.
The lyricism at work here is heartbreaking—there’s a tight control of language happening here that resonates a resounding vibrato on the tip of the tongue; the mark of a formidable writer.
Sebree spent a great deal of time studying the history of Hemings. You needn’t look any further than the historical timeline provided at the back of the book to fully appreciate Sebree’s dedication. Everything from the birth of Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson’s inheritance of her to the birth and death of her children to her travels are chronicled in a comprehensive list that one might easily follow along with whilst sitting down to read this collection. Sebree’s research pays off mightily. Shee is able to use each line to craft persona poems which infuse life back into Sally Hemings. In turn, this has us bearing witness to the renewed and continued presence of Hemings in poetic form.
“Anachronistic Conversations: Sally & Chet’la” is the culmination, in which Chet’la is able to align herself alongside Sally and converse with her:
between love and Stockholm, you’ll find me
Clutching inkwell and shoe buckle.
You didn’t travel your grandmother’s Middle Passage
In linen-lined cabin.
Even as he became purr of his own musculature,
He could have unlaced me.
You are my
sister, my mother, the lover
I don’t want to be, but fear that I am.
The fear in this passage is pervasive for Sebree and Hemings—and the reader. It’s a fear of being made invisible, something less than whole. In response to this fear, Sebree gives priority to Hemings, and by extension herself. Far too often Hemings’s voice was overshadowed by the domineering presence of Thomas Jefferson. “La Negresse” pivots away from the man that was and chooses instead to focus on the woman that might have been:
Worse than doggy-style,
the conflation of animals and deep penetration,
la negresse implies only black women like it
—my ass in turned vibrato—
Or are the only ones willing to admit it.
Mostly, though, I want to know
if that’s how you liked it, Sally,
if Paris made you
in its manner of blackness.
Sebree begins to more closely parallel her own experiences alongside that of Hemings’s and express the male lens of desire and fantasy in which many women, especially women of color, are seen.
“Mistress of Hypermobility” highlights this instance:
Move me from metropolis to small town places
Where people know they know my face,
But no one can pronounce my name.
I’ll speak a mesh lingue romantiche anywhere
someone will try to understand me,
as long as I can admit
I’m always moments away
from falling between continents
With this collection, Hemings and Sebree do not fall between the continents and its cracks and slip into something akin to disremembering. Rather there is a conscious effort by poet and subject in this collection to defiantly claim: We are here. We are seen.
Of its own accord, Raghead by Eman Hassan aligns itself, too, along issues of sexuality, visibility, and being rendered invisible, albeit via a more contemporary lens.
Take for instance one of the later poems, “Transport”—which, for all intents and purposes, starts off somewhat mundanely, delving into the heat and traffic of the Middle East:
Traffic on the road is terrible, but here this is normal.
This can be anywhere in the Middle East, the heat a stampede through
The solar plexus.
Despite this opening lull and the feeling of exhaustion at play within the lines due to traffic and sun, the poem quickly unfolds into the narrator observing men and women being rounded up on the streets, quite literally trafficked into metal trucks, “the kind used to move livestock.”
It is with tangible terror—perhaps at an internal indifference or horror at our own inaction—that we return to those relatively unassuming first lines, this time with the hint of awareness stressed on that all too lulling of words, traffic:
Trafficking on the road is terrible, but here this is normal.
This can be … anywhere in the Middle East.
Eyes peek out of parallel slats
as if peering from an oven.
Tonally, this collection maintains its measure of bleakness throughout and transfigures an otherwise barren and desperate landscape onto the page.
Never is this more on display than in the poem “Guns & Lemon Trees,” a poetic account of a Kuwaiti admiral and his soldiers inspecting the residence of Hassan’s father for weapons and any other contraband after the family has just spent the night digging tunnels to hide those materials in the sewers:
I remember my heart thudding
In my chest at our narrow margin of days,
the way I clenched my fists
to hide dirt still under my nails, the way
I struggled to unclench fists,
how I struggled to still my fists, I remember
the admiral’s heavy lips whistling the all-clear,
not finding any guns, telling my father
how lucky you are to have daughters with gardening skills
instead of sons, who might have gotten you killed.
Tension dominates this collection of poetry by Hassan, to be sure, but it is more than tensions that make it a compelling read.
The title poem, like much of this book, pulls from personal experiences while also capturing moments in contemporary history and empowering the female Middle Eastern subject (rather than relying on a given global narrative of “invisibility”):
… I used to don
my father’s headgear, preen in his bedroom mirror
(mmm, how handsome!),
my pulse pounding in Bedouin drumbeat fashion,
afraid to wrinkle its starched goodness
or be found in its gauzy tabernacle, admiring
halo-like, delicate when left
It’s a striking parallel, to be sure, given that much of the book is dedicated to taking a closer look at the already complex boundaries in being a citizen caught between cultures—American and Kuwaiti. This tense dynamic of heritage spills out within the same poem, when the narrator happens to get caught by her father:
No matter my precaution, my father finally caught a show
of my shenanigans, zeal of his pleasure
at my make-believe surreal as he taught me to fold
the cloth, tease its front
into a dent, under an anchoring rope of gahfiyya.
He dressed me up in a dishdasha
And we went for a ride. He let me drive the whole stretch
of Gulf Road, agreeing my name
for the night was Ibrahim el-Majnoon…
…and crazy we were, with my eyeliner’d uni-brow
And him, still loud and lively, pretending I was the son
he didn’t have.
Despite it all, despite the placement and the subversion of those made invisible, despite the incredible propensity for cruelty displayed within this collection, Hassan stands resilient in her poetry, in her sense of place and heritage.
One of the later poems in the collection, “Without an Iota,” captures this to great effect. In the poem, a squirrel is described in intricate detail when his home is destroyed in the dead of winter:
The last time I saw him months later
(and this time really the last), he was stretched out
on a branch beside his trashed home, without
an iota of self-pity, the debris of his labor not withstanding
the brutal charnel of a Midwest winter. There he was,
proud body catching rare winter sun, unruffled
in the knowledge that neither he nor the rubble of his sanctuary
would last the season.
Hassan stands proudly, without self-pity. In her voice, there exists a focus, an intentionality to showcase the other and have them be seen. Time and time again, truth is what spills out onto the page.
The works of Sebree and Hassan extend beyond self and the language of isolation. These poets strive to reach the communal, to touch something more than the literary self. Lightning is like that; it can light up the darkest night and be seen for miles all around.