Review by Jane Alberdeston Coralin
WHAT WE ASK OF FLESH
by Remica L. Bingham
84 W. South Street
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766
2013, 85 pp., $14.00
In Zapata’s Disciple: Essays, the poet Martin Espada states:
Some poets are poets of the kitchen. Their lives are fogged with sweat, loud with the noise of their labor. To be heard over the crashing of pots, these poets may shout, in a language understood by other workers in the kitchen, to remind them of their humanity, even in the midst of flames.
I was reminded of this as a read What We Ask of Flesh by Remica Bingham, a sparkling poet I met long ago during the Cave Canem Writers Retreat in Greensburg, PA. During that retreat, I whirled in the poems she read on our communal stage, all of us beaming vigorously in the Cave Canem spirit. Reading What We Ask of Flesh, it is clear that Bingham is still a torch, brilliant and pulsing. She takes us by the hand, leading us into the “kitchen” of this collection—but we are not wayfarers or guests, invited only to peruse. No—we too, like Espada says, are the “damned,” “subject, but also audience.” We are burned, pushed, prodded, and pinpricked in each poem, as each line, caesura, image construction hooks itself under our collective skin.
Speaking of skin: that the collection is flesh is no gimmick or accident; the majority of the poems reference body and the work involved in being embodied—visceral, textural and elemental. The teeth of the following lines guide us:
Don’t birth us, Eve.
We are clay and reed
and sinew. We’ll become Medusa. We’ll
bring everyone in. You’ll try to bury us. Fix
us to one place. Find some stone myth can’t
uncover. Name us or spit out what’s left.
We’ll be the bludgeoned child, waking you.
At the same time there are poems that revive inanimate objects, put them to work, give them shape and flesh, such as in “Something Divine Let Go”” “… memory/ mounted the table, incense filled the house.”
Bingham’s collection is a gorgeous, bloody and labyrinthine reflex of poetic power, poems which span form and function, story and lyric. A palimpsest, we discover epistles, indexes, dictionary entries, instructions, ghazals, to mention a few. Their narratives make a fine web, yet not so finely laced that the reader doesn’t fall through the threads. There’s a prophetic voice that shuttles the reader from section to section, as in Part One, where many of the poems are untitled, as if they were pieces of an ancient epic hoping to be sung—at the least, read aloud and savored slowly. “The Body Speaks” acts as prologue, and ferries us through its music:
Say vulva and
make it clean
say labia say lips slip
not folly not force
or flinch or fist.
And though alliteration can at times butcher meaning and create a distasteful affectation, Bingham’s craft allows the narrative of women’s subjugation to consume the forceful musicality of the alliteration. And again:
Most women have no shrines,
they aren’t idols, their piety
has not saved them.
Some are insufferable now,
all around us,
their bodies made of east winds, their
branched and bulbed mouths.
Again, the consonance at the end is not haphazard or perfunctory; it is an artful tool that lets the images loose—the eye travels from the “branch” to the “bulb,” ending in the perfect image of mouth.
In a world where we talk a lot of about “feelings” but rarely feel, the collection does the work: you feel thighs crack open, skin caught on fire. The poem which begins, “An incision in the necks allows for bleeding,” takes us through the process of preparing a body for burial. The reader is instructed to “Gather the hair and coil it./ Handle the coarse length gently. Fasten with/ ivory pins. Let none settle around the face.” It is not enough to simply fulfill the act of reading; we instead must become the hands of the gentle embalmer, the hair of the corpse, and the face revealed by the gesture. The audience and the subject hurtle and collide, then share space in the virtuosity of the poem.
In “Nicole, Age Seven” the inanimate too becomes flesh: “Why send something more fragile/ than iceglass and worn sheets.” Here her adjectives “ice” and “worn” connote the same fragility as skin—and yet note the startling juxtapositions between what is felt, touched, and thought (remembered). Even what strains to be forgotten can be called up, as we find in the title poem “What We Ask of Flesh”: “This is how apparitions live—/ coming and going, rising/ and disappearing like smoke.”
In the poem “COME, came, comes, coming, v.,” Bingham gathers lines of poems and lays them as if they were quoted from other places within the collection, each line a body poised between quotation marks and arranged into a new poignancy, each constructing a montage of the overall theme: the women’s body and all that’s been enacted on that body, against the body, for the body and to it. Now, being the type of reader who enjoys starting a poetry collection at the end or in the middle and travelling through the book backwards and then forwards towards the last poem, my mind staggered with surprise when I came to “COME, came, comes, coming, v.” The collage as poem (or poem as collage) is extremely inventive and yet the craft of the poem did not get in the way of its meaning. I found myself pinched between the sober discovery (or re-discovery) of the lines and images and the tongue-in-cheekiness of the form. And still the poem works hard to boat us through to the next section, while never truly leaving our minds.
Were we robotic we would listen to the poem the way we listen to menu items or tax advice, always perched at a safe distance. But Bingham uses the skills of a storyteller to bring us in; the narrator knows that the muscle of this story exists in its amassing of music. Above all, her poems are beautifully elegiac to the unseen, the missed or omitted elements of our lives (even inanimate objects come alive in this collection).
What We Ask of Flesh carries heritage, blood, fire, and grief. Here we want to believe we are sure-footed, greeted by stanzas and titles, but these, we sigh, are stepping stones across the tumultuous waters. We cannot allow ourselves to believe we are comforted after reading:
Cremate me. Do it quickly, without fanfare,
unless this troubles my mother.
If she can’t stand the thought of not seeing me
slick and stiff in a prettied-up box,
give her what she wants;
even in death there are sacrifices …
We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to experience the lovely lacework testaments of Bingham’s making. What We Ask of Flesh is also what we ask of language, as it comes to us in all forms, demonstrating how the art exists everywhere, if only we would permit ourselves to reach into the dark, messy world.
Jane Alberdeston Coralin, an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Arecibo, is a poet and author. Jane’s work has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language and Culture. A proud member of Cave Canem, Jane is putting the final touches on her novel Invisible Choirs.