Review by Claire Hersom
by Aracelis Girmay
321 Jackson Street
Williamantic, CT 06226
Aracelis Girmay begins her book with a quote by Elizabeth Alexander, “Many things are true at once,” and this is certainly what the reader will experience within these pages. While it sounds innocuous enough, make no mistake–-many parts of this book are difficult to read. Girmay tells a hard truth of act and place, voice and soul. Her work will take you into the heart of gross inhumanities, into the horrors of a world with acts so atrocious both physically and spiritually that the soul must fly away instead of endure, souls like those at Darfur. Just as profoundly, Girmay has the ability and the generosity to combine the other side of that same truth–“Many things are true at once”–in a simple fact of physics: for everything there is an equal and opposite force. In this case, she writes the truth of human courage, resilience, hope and transcendence.
The themes of despair and hope are mirrored throughout the book, dividing it into sections that address three core themes: global family, intimate family, and global love. Section by section, she separates the themes once again, into atrocity, loss and suffering, transcendence of the human spirit, and finally love and celebration. In Section V, …monologue of the heart pumping blood, she is wildly inspirational and uplifting. Here she wraps the reader closer and closer into universal truth: In as much as we are all different, we are also completely the same.
Girmay is mega-talented and her work uniquely reflects her history and culture, so much so that I’ve wondered if I should attempt to review her. I am a world away, living in Maine, still full of fields, safety, and lily white populations. And though much of my world is no stranger to poverty, struggle and hard times, it is not the hard times of some of the worlds she writes about in these pages: it is not genocide, it is not slavery, it is not abject inhumanity that many of us will never see or live on any real scale, but Girmay reminds us here that some are living it nearer than we might think—and globally, many.
The book begins with “Arroz Poetica,” a political slash down the superficial “blah, blah” of the Bush administration. In this poem, she identifies the enemy, not as any one culture or people, but as those embroiled in a culture of wealth and political war-mongering. “But to be perfectly clear/ my enemies are not hungry/ they are not standing in lines/ for food, or stretching rations/ or waiting at the airports to claim the pieces/ of the bodies of their dead/ My enemies ride jets to parties.” She continues, “I will not send George Bush rice, worked for rice/ from my own kitchen…while the radio calls out/ the local names of 2000/ US soldiers.” She acknowledges casualty with universal eyes: “They will not call your name, Hassna/ Ali Sabth, age 30…or Ibrahim, age 12…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” (though I believe she brings us in many of her poems as close to that experience as is humanly possible). She ends the poem with one blown up hand waving goodbye to its other in death and concluding, “so it is, when I say ‘night’/ it is your name I am calling/ when I say ‘field’/ your thousand, thousand names/ your million names.”
This stunning first poem must be digested on multiple levels, as must most of her work. Girmay does not write 109 pages of poetry for the faint of heart. Her words skirt in and out of ground, air, reality and imagination, folk lore, superstition and core facts of truths that collide and fall in step beside one another. These poems are about strong people and people who have suffered. Girmay understands we are all part of that, all part of her, and of the world’s suffering. She shows us a freedom that can come to us and be taken away from us in many ways.
Girmay uses her poem “What Brang Me Here (hanging like fruit from a tree)” to show what dehumanization is, how it defies the rules of nature and of basic decency. She highlights the simplest of needs, the most basic of rights–access to water. In this poem, a man is thirsty after being all day in the hot sun. “God said, ‘Drink the water.’/ & I just drink the water.” This most understandable necessity is punished by death.
Her poem “Sudan”–from Darfur testimonies, refugee camp, Chad 2003—begins “One man holds her arm and leg out/ Another man holds her other arm & leg out./ They have spread her like a star.” And you don’t want to see; instead, you want to turn your head away from what you know will happen, but you “watch” horrified as you are made as powerless to stop it as she was. Much of what Girmay writes here is violence beyond our most vivid imagination, as in the poem “Palimpsest”—once you know the terrible truth of what happens here, you will not and should not sleep quietly again.
While there is a melancholy wail of protest throughout her work, you also hear the triumphant voice of hope, love and celebration. Girmay often writes about overcoming adversity, as she does in the poem “Then Sing.” Here the reader finds a spirit of transcendence: “Now what do you do now/ with a chain around your foot/ or the doors all shut & the phone wires cut?/ Make music with the chain,/ make raw the ankle.” She writes, “If I were a river I would wash you good” and “When they take away the sunlight,/ even the sunlight, be/ the sunlight.” Many of Girmay’s poems recognize that the climb up and out of the lowest point of human suffering is not as much about a physical ability as it is about a spiritual ability. Her work is beautiful and powerful. It will pummel your sensibilities, broaden your own understanding of how, why and where you the reader–the individual–fits the bigger picture of one humanity.
Girmay’s poem “Litany” tells us to let go of things we never owned in the first place, and she assures us we will know when it’s time to “go back”–that there is a time when life is done with us. “Litany” is nothing short of redemptive: “When we are old & and our hearts have beat within us, let/ us go back & and when we have buried our loves, & shed/ our bodies piece by piece…let us go back…when we have planted flowers/ & talked into the ears of our dogs, let us go back,/ when we have lost our mothers,/ & sent our brothers away/ & heard no news…when all the birds have gathered at the window, let us go/ let us go back there, let us go back.” This poem may well be the best in the collection.
Teeth is a fantastic book of poetry. It is a cry for peace and understanding. It is a window. Girmay relays her message best through the spiritual properties in the poem “The Dog,” telling us we should (reviewer’s embellishment in parenthesis): “herd sadness/ into the bell of (a) dog heart,” and put “our giant, breathing face into (our) palm,” until we know “no sad thing will creep or move ominously into the continent of (us),” and where we can smell our “hundred smells of flowers & work & chutney & schoolyards & gasoline (until we) forget (who) …burned down (our) ramshackled heart, once.” Until then, we need to remember what Aracelis Girmay and her third grade student, Estefani Lora say better than anyone:
Claire Hersom is a Maine poet, essayist, free lance correspondent and book reviewer. Her work is frequently seen in Wolf Moon Journal, the Aurorean, and Off the Coast, and in several anthologies. Claire has a poetry chap book, Supper At the Farm printed in 2005, and two books of poetry, The Day I Circled the Wagons published by Snow Drift Press, Bristol, Maine in the fall of 2006, and Drowning: A Poetic Memoir published by Moon Pie Press, Portland, Maine in April of 2008. Claire is a native Mainer who finds endless inspiration from the love of her three grown children and nine grandchildren – and three cats she loves dearly, but shamelessly wishes were dogs.