by Julian Randall
“This is the urgency: Live!” is the beginning of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Second Sermon on the Warpland” and such urgency pulses beneath each line, note and thought of this suite of poems from Camonghne Felix. Consider that these are poems in which Felix writes to us in “Tonya Harding’s Fur Coats”:
“and gravity is
as the second half of what appears to be a riff on Nicole Sealey’s “Obverse” poem. That is, it is a poem that articulates one version of a story and then is restated, completely legible, in reverse. In Sealey’s version this second telling ends with a thesis question where Felix has opted instead to end with the first line, told anew as a thesis statement.
Such is the nature of things some rivers end in questions, and some end in statements; what matters is that you turn that damn river. And Felix delivers on this urgency again and again. I say all this to say one can surely read the sentiment “gravity is falling” as literally as the fact that when we jump we seemingly inevitably fall back down, but that’s not what I see. Rather, in reading these words I see Felix using the Obverse as a form of Blackest incantation, gravity itself is falling. In anticipation, imagine how inconsequential it would be to be wingless if gravity itself is undone, maybe that’s freedom, the ecosystem Felix constructs here has me feeling like it couldn’t be anything less.
The act of turning a river is about, among other things, conceding the possibility that what you know is true. The river flows the wrong way, a harmful way, a way that you and your people revile in your marrow and its confined knowledge, so you turn it with a word, a fresh wet mercy. You have to know you can do it, you have to know that you know. Such a concept of bodily autonomy reads to me as central to “Yes, It Is Possible”:
“but now I know that, yes, it is possibleto be allergic to a person, it is possible for
the body to be wholly autonomous in how it chooses to preserve itself, no matter what”
Here the speaker orbits a betrayal by a man, perhaps a lover, almost ricocheting within these couplets between who was known and who is. To be betrayed is like this, a splitting of the world you knew from the world you may never find it in you to forgive. It is also like betrayal in how the progression through it does not announce itself; rather the body autonomous in its defense, knows even if we have been unaware most of our lives how to bring us back and make us ourselves again. We turn the river on the monostich:
“a sweat until, at once, it stopped -- and I woke to find myself at the kitchen table
fingering cubes of fresh wet aloe into my mouthas if life itself were some benign victory I’d won.”
Yes, victory is rigorous to the point it seems a vast impossibility but Felix, adynaton that she is, shows us it is possible and closer and more irresistible than our conscious self may know.
Of course one of the prerequisites of victory is a Now to be triumphed over, a river to be reviled. Such a now is well documented in Felix’s final poem “Statement from Camonghne Felix on the Murders of Jesse Washington, Stephon Clark and her Attempt to Understand the Psychology of Lynchings.”
What I find most challenging is that this poem moves unpunctuated from thought to thought. The radical notion that mercy is not synonymous with pause or hesitation but rather that the attempt to map the psychology of lynchings is itself an exhausting breathless endeavor. To try and understand how one gets past “the trauma of puncturing a thing that bleeds no matter how it beetles through the night” is perhaps the lone impossibility Felix leaves unturned. I respect the choice, I live in it. To understand truly the psychology of lynching may ultimately cost us more than we have already been forced to pay by living in a world with the knowledge and accompanying threat of lynchings.
Felix’s suite of poems, like the Black abundance of Gwendolyn Brooks and before her the Black abundance of Phyllis Wheatley (whom June Jordan once called so accurately “Little Phyllis Miracle”) are not so much a language from the future for me as they are generous invitations to a Different and Better Now. Their urgency is always to live, and I read and am astounded and I do just that; I live.