Water, Water, Everywhere: Form in the black maria
by Alexander Massoud
Engaging directly with Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria, her third poetry collection, is like trying to wrestle with a particularly unpredictable jet of water. The text continuously flows with a deceptive smoothness from gently streaming imagery to an unrelenting torrent of pointed social commentary. Any eager reader who struggles to maintain a firm grip on either of the collection’s two sections is more than guaranteed to get soaked and quite likely to become frustrated. Girmay’s work opposes any brute force attempts at cracking the reserves of its refined meaning. Instead, the reader’s palate can start to detect the finer notes in Girmay’s initially bitter brew through an appreciation of her careful manipulation of form.
Unlike the large majority of her poetic peers, both contemporary and traditional, Girmay chooses to begin her collection with what functions as an illuminating glossary. It is here that she drops in a blatant statement about the focus of her first cycle of poems, elelegy: “This cycle of poems focuses on Eritrean history, as this is a history I am somewhat familiar with as someone of its diaspora” (10). Conventions of poetic tradition and form that demand a stubbornly reticent author are purposefully swept away before the reader is even given the opportunity to crest the shore of her first poem. This deviant eroding of the mystique that obscures most poets’ intentions imbues the rest of the collection with a tone of urgent purpose. Without the inclusion of the inspiring information for the collection, Girmay would have jeopardized her delivery of a distinctly personal experience crossed inseparably with her generally unknown background. By totally draining any of the focus a reader would potentially have to divert from her poems to determine their esoteric inspiration, Girmay also creates a channel that lets all that unspent focus pool into ruminations on the larger implications of “the history of people searching for political asylum and opportunity (both)” (10). The result of her work, then, becomes an empathetic education about two severely overlooked histories — one national, the other cultural.
Girmay’s complicated connection to this interwoven double-history is one of the major themes of her collection. Each poem serves to propel a mental exercise that probes the different ways in which her own identity is formed by these backgrounds that are only “somewhat familiar” (10) to her. “[T]o the sea near lampedusa” evokes the sorrow that floods Girmay’s conception of this deeply personal history through its unusual structure. The poem begins with what could be innocently mistaken for an impressive printing error:
for the eyes we closed for
safety & distance for
the freedom we wasted
Extending her erosion of convention to the monolith that is grammar, Girmay transforms what could have been a simple list into an aesthetic spectacle. It is implied that the loss of each element in the list has seeped into the very text itself, causing it to lose part of its grammatical wholeness. The literal dropping of commas visually reinforces the poem’s intense theme of loss, a theme that is sunk into the rest of the elelegy. Furthermore, the use of the pronoun “we” (35) to perform each of the devastating acts comprising the list suggests that a strong feeling of guilt vexes the collective speaker. This guilt, due to Girmay’s deliberate conflation of herself with the “I” (11) in each of her poems, communicates not only the abstract speaker’s group guilt, but Girmay’s own self-blame. This deliberately personal shame could not be communicated without Girmay’s disruptions of traditional form, most notably the inclusion of kinetic commas.
The exact significance of the commas themselves, however, is made vague by their unique isolation on their own individual lines. It could be argued that they are meant to aesthetically represent the tears shed over past actions by the “wet retina of / your memory” (35), but these tears could easily resemble other droplets of water that originate from the titular sea. Much like Girmay’s ampersand, her commas become symbols without a single, satisfying meaning. Another American poet fond of perplexingly vague punctuation is Emily Dickinson, whose 1263rd poem recommends that one should “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —” (731). This famous advice carries with it the baggage of Dickinson’s dastardly dash, the headache of would-be academics the world over; is it a short pause, a long one, or a device for communicating something significant about the close-lipped speaker? Much like Girmay’s own prickly punctuation, the intended function of Dickinson’s dash is less important than its ability to intensify the uncertainty in a speaker’s voice. The reader’s confusion surrounding the exact meaning behind ambiguous grammatical oddities such as the dropped commas mirrors the speaker’s lack of understanding about their feelings of culpability, generating a deeper, empathetic response to the text. Girmay takes Dickinson’s enigmatic advice and complicates it further, telling the truth slant through her artful manipulation of the poem’s structure.
The structure of the collection allocates a more conventional display of form and structure techniques to a section inspired by an astronomical oddity, the black maria. All that it takes to observe this visually jarring shift in style is a cursory flip through the latter half of the collection; one cannot help but note how much blockier each poem has become compared to the structurally varied and unique elelegy. Gone, too, are the lowercase titles that caused each poem to flow uninterrupted, one into the next. Instead, each poem in the black maria is titled in imposing, capitalized letters, further signifying the sudden formality of the section. Girmay points out the compromising problem that this conventional presentation creates in her titular poem, “THE BLACK MARIA”:
Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement. (To put
into language that which can’t be
put.) & someone who does not love you cannot name you right, &
even “moon” can’t carry the moon. (74)
In reference to Girmay’s unexpected usage of anything traditional, these lines can be read as a self-criticism. Suddenly, the poems themselves have been given names to inform the reader of their content, which Girmay argues runs the risk of failing to “carry” (74) the full extent of the content’s significance. Even the parenthetical rushes against any attempts at a neat containment, spilling over through enjambment into three different lines, refusing to be “put” (74) into a neatly defined space. These lines jeopardize the visually tidy form that closes the collection, furthering the theme of resistance through their refusal to reflect their neat presentation. Aracelis Girmay completes the black maria with a section at war with itself, a lunar landscape where content and form vie for ultimate control of meaning.
Dickinson, Emily. “1263 (1129)”. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ferguson et al,
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005, pp. 731-732.
Girmay, Aracelis. The Black Maria. Boa Editions, Ltd., 2016.