Teeth, Aracelis Girmay, Curbstone Press
Teeth is a stellar book filled with energy that is certain to leave readers impatiently waiting if not begging for more poems from Girmay. Aracelis Girmay is no stranger to the poetry world having published widely and appeared on the radio in New York City. Surprisingly, however, this is her first book, which leads one to the common sense belief that some things take time and some things are worth the wait. Girmay charges minute details such as cooking oil that “buckles” seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, “snow falling/like rice flung from the giants’ wedding.” Girmay is a poet that takes her keen perception of the ordinary and focuses it into the international political realm.
Girmay’s work has an international focus that is not touristy. She goes beyond her own Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African-American origins to explore deep issues on a human level. Her poems are set in Palestine, Chad, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Belarus, Ghana, and the U.S. addressing war, politics, working conditions, culture, atrocities, and her own family. Girmay makes American political complaint and retaliation simple, but very moving. The book’s opening poem Arroz Poetica she shares news from a friend who tells “that all people against the war should/send a bag of rice to George Bush,/& on the bag we should write,/’If your enemies are hungry, feed them.’” Girmay continues to excavate the atrocities of this war and realizes that her enemies “are not hungry” but “ride jets to parties” and “talk of war in neat & folded languages/that will not stain their formal dinner clothes/or tousle their hair.”
Girmay personalizes death in Arroz Poetica through naming the Iraqi victims and giving their ages. She goes on to addresses these victims one by one, as if pointing, telling them individually that she will not forget “because your name is the name of my own brother,/because your name is the Tigrinya word for ‘tomorrow,’/…because my students are 12, & because I remember/when my sisters were 12.” Sadly at the end she realizes that “a bag of rice will not bring you back./A poem cannot bring you. & although it is my promise here/to try to open every one of my windows, I cannot/imagine the intimacy with which/a life leaves its body.” Girmay is sincere and really ponders this subject. These deaths are permanently ingrained so that “when I say ‘night,’/it is your name I am calling,/when I say ‘field,’/your thousand, thousand names,/your million names.” The weight of the numbers killed is felt in the expanse of the night and field. The words “night” and “field” become a simple but powerful prayer.
Girmay’s simple but striking political observations continue in Ode to the Watermelon, set in Palestine, where it is illegal to wave the Palestinian flag. Instead of waving their flag, Palestinians put watermelon halves on knives and hold them up “against Israeli troops/for the red, black, white, green/of Palestine. Forever.” And like a flag, this fruit’s ”Black seeds star red immense/as poppy fields.” Girmay works with a seemingly simple tourist observation, but renders it as politically significant. Girmay also turns to labor problems and segregation. In In the Cane Fields she addresses workers’ risk-taking for love. Her unnamed characters’ courage is expressed by their self definitions: “I am a steel-blade woman./You are a steel-blade man.” They are ready to die for their love, should the “Boss Men follow/down the dirt red road,” and “accuse us of blackness & of love.” The strong characters demand that should the Boss Men pursue them, “let us live again, sweet,” and “haunt these fields.” It is a bit uncertain if this is a contemporary situation or if it is the echoes of slavery, but this is nonetheless a moving poem suitable for either interpretation. In What Brang Me Here a revenant narrator, explains that he was lynched for drinking water from a white fountain. He simply explains that “God said, “Drink the water.”/& I just drink the water.”
Girmay takes some surprising subjects like a student’s misspelled card or the letter B and goes crazy with them, taking us along on this roll of thought that creates meaning from the sure joy of language poetry. In For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card she takes an enigmatic word ‘Loisfoeriari’ that her student wrote and meditates on how it could be Latin for hibiscus, a mode of transportation or a drink by implementing it humorously in sentences. For example, “How are we getting to Pittsburgh?/Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?” Finally, this roll of ideas leads her to realize that the phrase the student means to write, is really “love is for everybody” and readers see the wisdom of a child’s confused expression.
In Ode to the Letter B Girmay moves from clever imagery of the B as a “Half butterfly, two teeth,/sideways: a bird meet[ing] the horizon” to a witty analysis of how with B “Blouses would be louses,/& Blow would be low.” This reader finds few points of critique. Perhaps Girmay’s use of the period followed by the ampersand is questionable because it seems to work against her long flowing lines. Her use of the period and ampersand is jarring; it is like having a stop and go sign at the same time, making readers back track instead of continuing forward.
Aracelis Girmay in this reader’s mind is definitely a poet to keep an eye on. She is clearly a young poet who is not only filled with much promise, but also one who has clearly delivered much tangible poetic gold “of a jar filled with/the sweet of stinging bees.”