Poetry Double Features #4


In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.  This month, Farah considers Gumbo Ya Ya by Aurielle Marie and Birthright by George Abraham.


Gumbo Ya Ya  Birthright

As a kid, I tried to read every page of a book in order to make them last longer—copyright page (not fun), Q&A with the author inserted into middle-grade novels’ millionth editions, and, most importantly, acknowledgments. I loved seeing all of the people it took to make a book and daydreaming about who each of them was to the author. Eventually, this practice evolved—instead of awe, it was practical. I wanted to see where my favorites were publishing, who they were in community with, and what I could learn from these expressions of gratitude. 

I came to both of these poets first through slam, a community I will always owe most of my literary connections and sense of place to. These days, I primarily enjoy poetry through physical, published books, but it used to be through hearing folks at open mics. Of course, I treasure a collection on my shelf, but it’s difficult to replace the magic of reacting with others in a room.  What I find so spectacular about Aurielle Marie’s Gumbo Ya Ya and George Abraham’s Birthright are the ways these collections play with the page and push the boundaries of what is expected in order to make up for that empty room. 

Gumbo Ya Ya begins with a poem titled “notes & acknowledgements,” an almost casual address—

well, first I want to recognize the land 
we stand on is stolen

let it be said here, at least
that all Black lives matter
that water is indeed life
& above all things 

we the people is 
how any patriot 
begins his lie. 

This orienting is so effective. Marie situates us in the specific space from which their book was written—maybe you’re not a reader in the US, sitting on stolen land. But the poet takes you there regardless. The title is a nice reversal, too—what is expected as backmatter is brought to the forefront, for this work should not be read without its context. This is one way Marie brings people into the room. 

As the poem evolves, “acknowledge” becomes a motif to be riffed on.

Image description: The words “I acknowledge” repeated on top of each other, then a line “I am angry. I am tired. I am scared” that has the same phrase repeated in italics intersecting with the line. Under that line is the phrase “You will hear what you want. I will be what you make of me.”

Image description: The words “I acknowledge” repeated on top of each other, then a line “I am angry. I am tired. I am scared” that has the same phrase repeated in italics intersecting with the line. Under that line is the phrase “You will hear what you want. I will be what you make of me.”

Throughout Gumbo Ya Ya, language cannot be contained by a conventional word-processor setup. Often, I hesitate to recommend more abstract or experimental works of poetry to new readers because of the tendency to obscure; I don’t have that problem with Marie’s work. When the poem moves into this near-unreadability, it feels like the natural conclusion—here is a build on each page, a shift, and clear language to back it up. Phrases overlap and blur because of the weight on them, a propulsiveness to illustrate a new vocality on the page. Again, we are transported; as the phrase “I am angry” repeats in different dimensions, I imagine hearing it echoing in the room. Repetition is one of my favorite poetic devices. So often I am drawn to the anxious rhythms or the affirmations built by seeing the same phrase over and over—that’s not the purpose here. Instead, it’s auditory; let the language reverberate in different forms, shooting off its first instance. 

The poem ends, 

[yes, you must
do somethin. 
if not, then what is
the point?] 

I am sent to yet another space, rooms where gatekeepers contemplate incorporating land acknowledgments into their day-to-day; I ask, what else will you do for the people whose land you are on? I admire Marie’s work not just because of their skill and the depth of emotion they conjure, but their political commitments—this work is so strong because I know they mean it.

This visual overlapping occurs later in the collection, as well, in one of the eponymous poems “gumbo ya ya” which begins with an epigraph from Madame Luisa Teish: “It is important, Sisters, that you understand what gumbo ya ya means…A cacophony of sound, like a swarm of bees, is moving in my direction.” This is one of several definitions of “gumbo ya ya” the book grants us, the first being the page after the Table of Contents, formatted as a dictionary definition. Paraphrased, they are: (n) a wild-making noise, a too-loud thing, the soup of noise, a fine clayey soil; “wild-making” and “cacophony” are apt descriptors for what Marie does on the page. Marie writes, “this is a simple poem about criticality, reader. i promise.” The stanzas are roughly rectangular, indented from the left margin. There’s an interesting tension in these lines—their lengths are not necessarily irregular enough to give a wave effect, but not uniform enough to keep a constant rhythm, either. The language looks contained; there is such a beautiful moment of caesura that feels even more prominent after reading through the whole poem: “I recognize that my work is all gristle, thank you, america / for stealing the meal. what’s the pronunciation of my name?” The poem gives hints of re-orienting itself, giving space so sharply where previously it did not seem to breathe. The poem is long; it continues for several pages, stanzas subtly shifting across the page, granting the language more and more space and variety. It culminates in an absolutely breathtaking spread, in which the book as an object feels so vital, so artfully intentionally used. 

Marie writes,

i mean gumbo ya ya 
i mean no soup for your mouth
              but sustenance in a new world
i mean take from me my breath but never my audacity 
i mean we don’t die 
              i said we don’t die
              we just multiply

Image description: the word “multiply” layered over itself over and over to create a cloud-like image surrounding the rest of the poem stanzas.

Image description: the word “multiply” layered over itself over and over to create a cloud-like image surrounding the rest of the poem stanzas.

Finally, the poem takes the space it needs; “multiply” literally multiplies and branches off of itself, tailing from its source almost like the curve of a speech bubble, floating to the adjacent page. “Multiply” borders the poem’s final stanzas, a cacophony carried through. The stanzas themselves have a beautiful rhythm built by subtle repetition, that amazing “would ever sing my name. / sing my name. sing my name. / sing my name.” final moment, cradled by the “multiplying.” It uses every space on the page in a way I have never encountered before. 

Gumbo Ya Ya is populated with contemporaries, literary ancestors, and family; Marie names their friends and their influences in the same breath, reifying the idea that our peers can be ancestors, that the people we love fill our art. I think no poem demonstrates that better than “psalm in which i demand a new name for my kin” after Danez Smith. It is a two-column poem; the left is written in slightly faded text, a name per line dancing down the page. The right column is a single stanza with a similar dancing line length, and the absolute most tender and gorgeous ode to chosen family. Marie writes, so lovingly, ”I swear on my mother’s laugh, friend don’t cut it.” In between lines like “I mouth pomegranate / in gummy bliss & the kernels fall like manna / into your lap” and “I love you the bone splinter / I love you the gum ache, I love you the jigsaw sweat / the deep sigh,” the names in the left column pulse like a beat in accompaniment—I do not necessarily read this poem like a contrapuntal. Instead, people are in the room, and they are singing.

George Abraham’s Birthright similarly populates the room, with friends and influences, with startling form and innovations. I hadn’t revisited it in full since I read it pre-pub in 2019, but I will always remember its opening lines, “Let me be / brief,” from “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM;” I love, love this, because the book is anything but. Their work is maximalist, overwhelming, and similarly to Gumbo Ya Ya, breaks the dimensions of the pages that make it. But, this sense of overwhelm is effective because of the vulnerabilities that preface the work—always earned, always the natural place, however unexpected. 

The opening poem ends, 

Forgive me. I wrote this 
              in an american airport,
& its magic escaped me. 

For much of the poem, we are in Palestine. This trip is populated with people, moments, consequence. It’s a gentle beginning, with three-line stanzas that elegantly move back and forth. It’s a strong beginning, sharp and contained and consistent. I love that final admission, releasing the sort of dream haze that colors the language earlier. Abraham takes the reader to the site of the poem’s formation; this move echoes the beginning of Gumbo Ya Ya, a sort of meta-context to start the book. There’s a specific type of awareness, an agreement between reader and speaker, to recognize the labor behind the work they are sharing. 

Birthright takes established forms and breaks them, and after Abraham breaks what is expected, they break their own work, too. One of my favorite examples is the poem “Apology” which comes after a black-out division page in Section I: it is a stunning prose poem, that begins “it is the summer after my spleen almost ruptured into the stain of a thousand sunsets.” This line near the end is actionable: ”i’m trying to love the shattered window of myself: the hands: the rocks: the broken religion left behind:” This poem acts as relief; with the black-out page before it (also a feature in Gumbo Ya Ya that I love: we don’t only have standard section breaks, but these complete dramatic moments of contrast to reset the reader before they continue on), but also formally—the sequence that precedes, “Inheritance: A Translation” is long, with formalistic flairs like footnotes and redaction blocks. Abraham’s prose often carries a desperate earnestness, but “apology” especially is a voice laid bare. Section I ends with a black-out version of “apology,” now erased into being titled “ploy;” “forgive me / for / trying / to summon god in my own / shattered / breath / as i dance amidst the flames.” Abraham repeats “forgive me” and grants their speaker another chance. 

“Broken Ghazal, Before Balfour” inverts the ghazal with the repeated word occurring at the beginning of the couplet, rather than a repeated endword. Abraham takes the phrase “It being clearly understood” as their refrain directly from the Balfour Declaration and builds a poem that acts as a counterargument to the dispossession that document culminated in. I love the different coherences of the couplets—

It being clearly understood that, in his childhood, Sido would wander 
the streets of Jerusalem with his Jewish neighbors every morning.

 This strong, vivid image— “It being clearly understood” as a factual image of Palestinian existence, versus later:

It being clearly understood that 
[…] Israel’s Right to Exist.

The poet does not grant discussion of the Zionist state a fully realized image; the oppressor is not owed the fullness of the poet’s language and ability. 

 The poem ends with the ghazal truly breaking; 

It being clearly
It being clear.

 So much of Western narrativizing of Palestine is villanization, decontextualizing, fabricating—anything to obscure, anything to promote a myth that the colonization of Palestine is “complicated.” The shortening of the lines is so poignant, erasing the fluff. Ending on that almost-militaristic “Understood;” it grants the poem an overall clarity that is often withheld from narratives otherwise.

Like Gumbo Ya Ya, influences and literary kin are abounding and prominent throughout Birthright; similarly, one of the most striking moments in which this is highlighted is also a formal innovation. In the triptych “The Ghosts of the Exhibit Reveal Themselves,” the three parts build on each other to result in a cento that builds out a keffiyeh pattern. Each part of the sequence is stitched together in a stunning display; the cento borrows lines from mostly contemporary Palestinian anglophone poets. 

Image description: III. into the lines of kuffiyat we stitch our generations

Image description: III. into the lines of kuffiyat we stitch our generations

The concept itself is inspired by Layli Long Soldier, and there are so many layers in the crafting of this piece—it transforms off the page, too, textural and tangible. Where Marie brought people into the room sonically, Abraham builds a tapestry. This poem that celebrates a resistance symbol built from other Palestinian peers, conceptualized after another Indigenous poet, is so full of life.

The flip side of this poem is on the following page: “The Ghosts of the Exhibit are Screaming,” a palinode after Jan-Henry Gray. The first time I heard this poem was in a workshop with the poet. I cried, and I’ve cried reading it many times since. There’s an honesty and grief in this poem around recognition, knowledge, lineage. 

The first time I met Fady Joudah, I realized I needed to spend more time Reading all of us. The first time I read Hala Alyan’s Atrium, I cried in the shower for 30 minutes. The first time I met Randa Jarrar, she yelled at a white imperialist on stage at a poetry festival. It was then I mourned the upbringing I could have had with an auntie like her around.

Sometimes I worry about starting things before I have read enough, before I have experienced enough, wonder about the regrets down the line. My experiences in SWANA lit spaces have always carried an immense dual grief-fulfillment; I am thankful to meet new writers whose work will hold me, I am always mourning that I did not have them sooner. I love the way Abraham triangulates this joy alongside this grief, alongside the alienation that discussing writing with biological family can bring, alongside the distance a kind but shallow compliment can bring; there is so much presence in this book and I am thankful for a poem that complicates the dedications and afters and epigraphs starkly, plainly, but still with gratitude. 

The original conceit of this column is to read two poetry collections that complement each other in one evening, for the sake of indulging in really good art. When I was plotting out each pairing, I felt so strongly about these two books side-by-side; as June loomed closer, I looked at them sitting on my nightstand and thought, aw jeez, these books are long. I wanted to write about them together because of their formal innovation, because of how exciting it felt to see what each of them did with their restraints; for the care and love for communities and ancestors that I know featured so prominently in both; for the sharp politic that drives them both; I found, in my re-read, these features make both books fly. Marie’s work is always pushing itself toward glorious overwhelm; Abraham’s is constructing and breaking and reconstructing. They are generation-making books—what a gift for them to live together on my shelf. 



Buy the collections:

Gumbo Ya Ya from University of Pittsburgh Press

Birthright from Button Poetry



Summer Farah