November 5, 2008

Review by Michele Battiste

EVEN THE HOLLOW MY BODY MADE IS GONE
by Janice N. Harrington

BOA Editions, Ltd.
260 East Avenue
Rochester, NY 14604
ISBN 978-1-929918-89-8
2007, 85 pp., $15.50
boaeditions.org/

Janice N. Harrington won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize for Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, a distinction she shares with the likes of Li-Young Lee, Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio. Harrington, like her predecessors, is doing her share of (re)building poetry’s readership. She writes for readers, welcoming them to her poems, drawing them in with narratives and pleasurable rhythms and anchoring refrains and, dare I say it, musical hooks.

I was drawn in when I went to hear Harrington read on a cold, rainy February evening in New York during the 2008 AWP Conference. Her voice warmed up the room like the woodstoves in her poems. But it isn’t her reading skills alone that can shake a readership out of two dozen bodies shifting their weight in metal chairs, it is her ability to breathe life into the subjects of her poems, to lift them off the page and to place them into her readers’ laps like a gift.

In Leslie Marmon Silko’s groundbreaking 1977 novel Ceremony, Native American folklore and witchcraft are interwoven into the story, honoring the power of the word to conjure that which it names. Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman, sits alone in her room and names things. As she names them, the objects appear. Using her Southern story-telling background, Harrington assumes a role similar to that of Ts’its’tsi’nako. With each poem, she is writing the past and the gone and the dead back to life.

This skill is epitomized in “If She Had Lived,” Harrington’s poem about a deformed baby – “the goat-faced girl” – who dies shortly after birth. Harrington employs the rhythmic repetition often found in incantations, reinforcing, with each naming, the materiality of that which is named. “Goat-faced girl” is repeated four times throughout the poem (a magic number in spell-casting), anchoring the image of the child. “Goat” is repeated an additional seven times, incrementally building the familiarity, and consequently the reality, of the child’s fantastic deformity. By naming and beginning the poem, “If She Had Lived,” Harrington creates a space in which a resurrection can take place, and resurrect she does. First she provides vivid details of what the child would have done if she hadn’t died: “she would have walked in moonlight, pulling eel / from lampblack waters” and

…she would have stooped
beneath the day’s hem, back bent and arched,
chopping cotton as the minutes fell like hoe blades.

She then moves on to call forth the child to life, by switching from “if she had lived” to “living.” She writes, “Living, she would have proved that a colored woman / lay once with the Goat God.” But the resurrection is more complicated than just bringing the child to life. Harrington goes on to give life to the story of the girl, acknowledging it as a story by proposing alternate endings to the child’s life and then settling on the “real” one:

The baby died

and the mother buried her beside the garden,
or was it the fishpond? No, the baby is here,
in the Negro cemetery, her little fingers curled
inward, grasping.

Harrington finalizes the resurrection by involving the reader, by inviting – or commanding – the reader to speak the words themselves, and by speaking the story, conjure the story:

…a colored woman is grieving.
Her goat-faced girl, her baby is dead – that is the song, sing it.

Say, a colored woman is grieving her baby girl, sing it.

And like Shakespeare, who said of his poem to his beloved, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” Harrington’s poem is what ultimately gives the goat-faced girl life. The poem as song, song as incantation:

The woman is dead. The are all gone, girl, woman, goat.
Only the song remains…

As successful as Harrington is at using incantatory language, there are places in this collection when the repetition fails. In the poem “Possum,” Harrington repeats the following section:

From the compost
rinds and rottings,

from the garbage
peels,

from the shadows’ darkness, darkness,
this guttered meal and all its redolence.

Appearing once, the passage creeps dangerously close to sounding like the voice-over at the beginning of a cinematic epic. But appearing twice, it sounds like a spoof of a voice-over of a cinematic epic. She also works the repetition on a less grand scale, repeating words two or three times in the same line. At its best, this technique works as a hypnotic charm: “blood spilling / its red sand, red sand, red sand, spilling.” Other times it seems as if Harrington is trying for intensity when a more evocative image would have worked better, as in “Corn Crib”: “And the corn standing / waist high and higher sprawls yellow, yellow / yellow.” Taken as a whole, however, the collection pulses with the life that Harrington forcefully recreates.

Harrington credits memory as one of the guiding forces shaping her writing, and the collection is rife with the smells, sounds, tastes and sensations of the past. She has an eye (and a nose and a mouth) for details, and the book is filled with startling language that renders the details into sonic gems, such as this from “They All Sang”:

Children who know before their sixth year
four synonyms for sorrow – cry, weep,
bawl, and all gone, baby, all gone–

Or this risky alliteration from “Ash”: “until waiting / was also winter, a weather we knew.” Or this from “The Warning Comes Down”: “And hadn’t her eye twitched just this morning, / nerve-whipping like a wire.”

It’s ironic that in a book filled with memories brought to life through incantation and sharp imagery, the poet herself becomes evanescent in the last poem, giving rise to the title of the collection:

I lay in a field of grass once, and then went on.
Even the hollow my body made was gone.

But it makes sense, too. Harrington breathes life into these poems for the reader, and at the end, she leaves the reader alone with them because, alive, the poems no longer need her. In the process, she is breathing life into something else – poetry’s scant readership who will hopefully welcome Harrington’s second book enthusiastically, award or no.

____________

Michele Battiste is the author of two chapbooks: Raising Petra (Pudding House) and Mapping the Spaces Between (Snark). Her first full-length collection of poems, Ink for an Odd Cartography, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in NYC.

Rattle Logo