Poems about yearning for balance: Tiana Clark’s “Equilibrium”

Equilibrium is brilliant. I underlined or sticky noted parts in Every. Single. Poem. The language is crisp, the content is necessary, and the pacing strikes the perfect balance between intense and thorough.

Take this image in “Tell Me: Harlem”: “& on my way home / read the braille of black gum / on the sidewalk saying — No, this is renaissance!

Or one line from the heavy piece “Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott”: “Again, in my Facebook feed another black man dead, another fist in my throat.”

These poems sink blows in between moments of vivid detail: “Sandy speaks to me / beyond her grave / her voice on YouTube— / ricochets.” It’s a relatable line for readers; we mourn with the speaker, burn with a collective sense of injustice.

Many pieces highlight parts of Black culture that are multi-faceted — historic yet sorrowful in their origins and sparseness. “Waking in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital” describes a stay in a mental health facility by including cultural traumas and triumphs: the Middle Passage, W.E.B. Du Bois, jazz, Langston Hughes and Harlem, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, and Bessie Smith. We celebrate these icons, yet acknowledge that opression prevented (and continues to prevent) so many more people from accomplishing their dreams. There’s hope for a brighter, freer future at the end of the poem, but also a sense of acceptance that “black pain swinging, sweet and low” is a real roadblock, mentally, culturally, and financially.

The final poem largely went over my head, as it’s themed around the Greek god Prometheus, with whom I am unfamiliar. (I hope you’re able to grasp more of Tiana’s literary genuis!) Regardless, one section deserves mentioning in this review: the second section in the poem which discusses being of mixed race. “Mixed Bitch lets herself love— / the black inside: the white inside: the black of herself… // She was caught between two allegiances… The thing / that bound and suffocated her.” The poem wrestles with existing on two sides of a violence that is both unwanted and yet one’s self.

It’s a shame this book is only a chapbook – 39 pages total, as I was left entranced by the beautiful language and important content and would have loved to devour more. If you’re interested in reading these poems for yourself, Equilibrium is available from Bull City Press for $12.

Jennifer Givhan’s soul-nourishing “Lifeline”

Kelsey May | October 15th, 2017

Published this year by Glass Poetry PressLifeline slices into emotional and cultural landscapes to bare both juices and rot. As good poetry does, Givhan’s pieces bring life to barren moments and resurrect the ancestral traditions of Mexican, Latinx, and indigenous lifestyles to teach modern readers of important lessons and insights.

Givhan’s style marries unusual syntax with careful attention to detail; she notes such instants as plucking “mosquitoes… from calves” and the way Lake Tahoe “pools its light”. I reveled in such beautiful lines as “I’ve asked for your lungs so I can breathe.” and “In vain I have opened mirrors & edges of mirrors.”

Several poems stuck with me long after finishing Lifeline: “O Shake It Sister”, which quite literally sings the female body electric in its praise and love for all the scars, tattoos, weight, sex, and words our bodies hold. “O Shake It Sister” is the poem I’ve been wanting to read for years and nearly cried to have found. The other poem that stuck with me is “Girl with Death Mask”, an ode to and celebration of Frida Kahlo.

After finishing Lifeline, I asked Jennifer if she’d be willing to do a brief interview about writing, self-esteem, and this chapbook.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Girl with Death Mask”. It’s so inventive! What inspired you to write about her?

Frida is my spirit guide. I light a Saint Frida candle often when I write. I have at least nine paintings of hers around my writing room. The poem is based on a true event with a Frida painting and my daughter’s response. lifeline.png

Another piece that really hit me is “O Shake It Sister”. What advice would you give to women and girls having a hard time with confidence and self-esteem?

You are a badass powerhouse. The voices that tell you otherwise are liars. I know it’s hard. I struggle every day, no matter the accolades, no matter the praise. Power comes from within. You gotta keep pulling it up every damn day. Every damn day, you gotta throw that darkness out with the garbage and hang on so tightly to your strength. I believe in you.

Who are you inspired by?

The women who’ve come before me and the women who’ll come after. I am a verse in the never-ending song. A break in the chain toward freedom. I’m inspired by contemporaries Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Ada Limón, Irena Praitis, Lisa Chavez, Joy Harjo, Toni Morison, and the song goes on. Most especially, by my mother and my daughter.

These lines:

“He didn’t save me.

I only pretend, like Mrs. Sheets, //

that saints can redeem us.”

are powerful. Could you talk briefly about your views on what happens when you die and how you reconcile that difficult topic in your poetry?

Oh, this would take another lifetime. I haven’t reconciled it. I am a split cactus. Spindles on the outside, life-sustaining water on the inside, though it often feels the other way around. If heaven is what we make of it, then I am grateful for love. If heaven is the imagination, then I am grateful it’s so powerful.

What’s your advice for other creative people wanting to tackle a big project?

Light your figurative or literal candles, and write. Quiet the voices that ask you for anything more than whatever truths you have to lay bare on that page.

Lifeline is available for purchase through Glass Poetry Press.

Thank you to Jennifer for the interview and headshot and to Glass Poetry Press for a reviewer copy of Lifeline.