Editor’s Note: This review includes content on ableism, racism, police brutality, and other subjects that some readers may find triggering.
Groundbreaking small press Alabrava’s publication of Sheila’s Black latest poetry chapbook is welcome news for a variety of reasons. The 19 poems in this powerhouse of a slim volume bring new readers as well as those who are familiar with Black’s style into conversation with a strong sampling of her work, at turns profound, rending, and beatific. As its introductory note makes plain, the poems bring “sharp focus to the haze of marking time through a pandemic”; however, these poems do much more emotional labor with and for us as readers than solely centering life, compassion, and wisdom during a trenchant global health nightmare—although such centering, alone, would have been plenty.
From the very start, the contrasts fashioned throughout the work are paradoxical, stimulating, and heartbreaking; indeed, no amount of sleep will ease the pain that is faced necessarily. In “Corona (1),” a poem populated by images of wet leaves, childhood, cherries, and quarantine themes, draws us toward its in-conclusion with these whopper lines: “my mouth dripping with / cold gold, the corona around / a moon or small planet / that makes it seem so much more / than the rock it is.” This earth and its scapes and species, by land and sea, are arguably far more important than often far-too-selfish human inhabitants on “our” much more than-a-rock.
Climate endangerment, cultural humility, and personal fallibility co-mingle in these lines, and throughout the chapbook. Readers’ affective domains are understood as vulnerable while our accountability needs to be rocksteady. At the micro- and macro- scales, everything can feel uncertain and ephemeral, while still somehow promising. The novel coronavirus casts its endlessly long shadow, but can never fully circumvent hope. There is a fine line throughout the poems between ubiquity and dominance, and between presence and power, particularly where “the virus” is concerned. Put differently, in these poems, hope’s virulence wins the day.
Black’s poems are replete with temporal transformation. The poems’ themes craft moods by adopting and adapting the poet’s and our own familial temperatures, natural environments, and candid fears. Fear is often undermined by insight (relationship with self, and an inner life), as well as by vivid, trusted relationships with others—especially those of love—although alliances can at times be an uneasy protection. “Will our quarantine / from the loud noise of our lives / help us see inside? I crowd myself / with visions meant to comfort me,” we are advised, in “Corona (1).”
Suicide greets us explicitly in the second poem, “Corona Archive #3: Day”; consequently, many readers will need to take heed, well before encountering the aptly titled “Heartbreak” and “Grief Journey,” which appear later. These poems are quite the ride, as some of their titles make more immediately apparent than others. The presence of theme signals (through title choices as types of content warnings) will likely be less meaningful than taking risks and trying willful immersion, for many readers. Having said this, however, yes, these poems can be emotionally challenging. It’s worth the ride, to be sure.
No one knows why someone takes their own life, the poet reminds us. Not really, not usually, not at all—arguably. There is no denying this orientation, or the facts of climate crises, a pandemic, or feeling overwhelmed, in “Corona Archive #3: Day.” Yet, there is, as we encounter in this poem, the peace of a baby dancing to disco, and this lightness juxtaposed with tragedy, while mitigating, does not lessen the latter’s power or influence. Instead, perspective and choice—wrought, feasible, and endured rather differentially, and often inequitably—are among our possible keys. Black deposits us into the intimacy within necessary distance: “In the park, watching all the masked people, / we are overcome by the most prickly and blowsy / form of general tenderness; / we can hardly bear the hollow sound it leaves.” I am reminded, here, of the punning title of and road trip narrative within The Remains of the Day, the Booker-Prize winning 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted into the award-winning film of the same name (directed by James Ivory). What is no longer present nevertheless remains. And, leave-takings sometimes involve trees.
Joni Mitchell’s Blue celebrates its 50th birthday as this issue of Wordgathering goes to digital press. Mitchell appears in “Corona (2),” a poem that addresses wide-ranging subjects including police brutality and cryogenic freezing while exploring flowers and centering breath:
Dolphins return to the Venice canals.
The immense gaseous cloud over China shrinks.
A policeman cracks a protestor’s skull
In the yard, day lilies—a smell more
air than air. Joni Mitchell sings about
a kind dream we once had. The mailman
delivers the mail in gloves. Three states away,
my old friend struggles to breathe.
These poems are “kingdoms of small spaces,” as the poet puts it, in “The Piling Up of Strange Days.” Simultaneously, the work throughout Black’s assemblage is as expansive as a vibrant imagination makes possible, often invoking “a smell more air than air.” In “Day Shift,” for example, one of the very short pieces—which I quote below, in its entirety—we are dealt a magical hand:
The sky breathing.
A row of bluing houses.
The almond tree
heavy with water,
Clouds clot at its edges.
Inside, we undo the jars and plant
even the unpromising seeds.
A distance of light,
which keeps stretching on,
delivering what its gives for no discernible reason.
It is a “good problem” to have as a reviewer, in my book, to feel the impetus to write an exegesis on one poem, or facets of a poem—on, with, for each and every poem, really—when there are 19 in the boundless rooms. The sky breathes. And then there are houses, bluing. The sky breathes at once with the presence of houses. The sky breathes the houses into a row, maybe resuscitating them after they had started to turn blue. Some folx put bluing in their hair. We are houses and some of us cannot breathe. The virus undermines, compromises, kills. George Floyd couldn’t breathe, and we know why. Floyd’s killer was far from microscopic, and he was not acquitted. No, justice has not been served adequately, by far.
The light stretches on, somehow, with generosity, attaining its own Einsteinian lengths. Yes, “even” the Crip seeds have the right to (be) plant(ed), to flourish, regardless if ableist folx find us “unpromising.” Ableist, ignorant, cruel, and abusive male children are featured in “When 4 am Dark is Narrow I Feel It” (titled after Rusty Morrison’s “Walkwatch [10”]: “at the edge of a playground where for / months a few boys circled me each / morning, sometimes with stones. They / used the words people use to describe / a body like mine—‘crippled,’ ‘deformed,’ / but also ‘witch,’ also ‘cursed,’ also ‘God / must hate you, because God hates what / is ugly.’”
The protagonist reflects, in the present: “Now in the charcoal / light of fires doused and reset, stamped down, / only to go underground and flare again / in a wheel that burns off only pain, only / grief, I peer into that lie. Was it fear / in those faces or merely the older animal / impulse of running in a pack so fast a / world blurs as you take down, take in / another life?” The light appears, again, as does breath: “What did I desire but to break like sun, / to have a person smile at me as if I were all / joy? What could I do with difference but / hold it up like a crystal that could shape / a light until it bent in my direction? I want / to believe it is possible to change. I want / to think about the lungs we share, and the breath, / which passes from one to the next.”
In many of the poems, there appears, unapologetically, “The kind of gray heavy day when sunflowers’ / yellow is enough to almost break you,” as we encounter in “In Shelter.” And, vitally, “We don’t know until we stop that for us, / as for the hummingbirds, this is all a floating. / The trees are older; they seem to be mourning…” For Black, in the poems and elsewhere, the hummingbirds, skies, and trees reappear, as do other growing things, to be collective and individualized mourning’s welcome and often surprising adjacencies: “Of the arterial cardinal that appeared to flit all alone / between the oak and the elm” (“Recovery ”).
Title: All the Sleep in the World
Author: Sheila Black
Publisher: Alabrava Press
About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), and the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021). Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine. Her flash fiction appears in volumes 2 and 3 of Ordinary Madness; short fiction is forthcoming in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.
Read Sheila Black’s review of Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest in this issue of Wordgathering.