by Desiree C. Bailey
“It is good to praise god in the body of the grandmother who is dead. Holy love of bread & lovers who held your hand as they kissed the soft meat between your legs, yes, Grandmother, I am singing to you though the lyrics make you cover your face, I want you to be kissed again, even if only in songs. Like that.” So begins the elegy, rich with chords of lamentation, jubilation and the erotic. Such a combination would normally feel dissonant, but here it is harmonious, as if it is the only true way to honor the dead. The speaker addresses the Grandmother, who although has moved beyond the physical realm, is still tethered to the flesh and its pleasures. Grandmother’s lifeless body does not evoke sorrow. It is a shrine that reminds the bereaved of the power of the sublime, and that the sacred is tangible, to be found even in, or especially in the kissing of the “soft meat between [the] legs.” The speaker’s eye is generous, unbound by the often limiting maternal and familial definitions of “grandmother,” and instead sees Grandmother in the most intimate and unfamiliar light —as a desired and desiring woman. As customary in much of Girmay’s writing, the poem continues on with a vast description of the earth and cosmos. The reader encounters “houses,” “cities” “night’s alley’s, & alley’s of stars,” “gates” through which animals run, “cemetery’s stones & cactus,” “silver nights,” “mud & starlight.” These images locate Grandmother as a woman of this world, though imbued with the wonder of the land and sky, rendering her synonymous with their grandeur and mystery, not because she is dead, but because she has lived the somatic experiences of romance. Along with the experiences preserved within touch are the ones carried through sound. The speaker sings to Grandmother, and the song is mnemonic, perhaps unwinding memories of more carnal sounds. “Neighbors moan” and the “[opened] body” creates a word. The speaker’s utterances are also of importance, particularly in regard to naming. The speaker says to Grandmother: “My head is full of ideas, so I say your name / as I am building the houses / of the city in the poem.” Haragu, which the reader assumes to be the grandmother’s name, is essential to the speaker-poet’s creative process. As with the song, the utterance of the name calls forth the memories and imaginative work necessary to the construction of the poem. Even the crickets are saying her name. Later, the speaker wants to “dress [her] voice in horses & send them back 60 years” to sing “Bless you” outside of Grandmother’s marriage window. Here the voice is voyeuristic, and dressed in red horses, has the ability to see the tender exchanges between wife and husband. The voyeurism redefines the customary connotations of “grandmother,” inviting the reader to abandon the images of an asexual woman who exists to solely to nurture her descendants. Girmay dares the reader to not look away, to reckon with the memory of the dead woman’s sexual agency.This daring, and the exaltation of the body in all its stages, is why I return to Girmay’s work, and to this poem in particular. Girmay challenges me to see with a perceptive and delicate eye, to stand witness to the breadth and depth of life. I continue to reenter the vast realms of the poem because it enables me to live through my griefs. The poem provides a quiet space for my mourning, but also encourages me to embrace the rich journey of a spirit and body, rather than reducing it to the moment when it is no longer.“Haragu” culminates with the transformative power of touch and sound, demanding the reader to rethink the role of the elegy and how we choose to honor our dead:
“What is the sound of two lines crossing? Haragu — What is the words a body makes when it opens in the night or day? Haragu, Haragu — The touched body breaks into a flock of birds eventually. There at first, then vanishing like the stars.”
This version of the poem appears in the Calabash anthology So Much Things to Say, edited by Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer. A later version of the poem appears in Girmay’s second poetry collection Kingdom Animalia as “Starlight Multiplication.” The two versions differ mostly in the final lines. The earlier version is the one that stays with me, perhaps because it is the first version that I encountered.