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Against Heaven: Poems
Graywolf Press, $16 (paper)
Kemi Alabi’s Academy of American Poets prize-winning debut collection is blasphemous. And that’s good news. The book answers generations of spiritual violence and threatened damnation with reclamation, repopulation, and a redefinition of heaven.
In their grappling with religion, Alabi rejects mass-marketed New Age spirituality. “Prayer in child’s pose” opens unceremoniously with four words: “fuck your rose quartz!” They are here for a more visceral reason: Alabi makes a head-on assault against Christianity, but also against the dominant theology of capitalism. For example, in “A Financial Planner Asks about My Goals, or Golden Shovel with Cardi B’s ‘Money’” (pause. because the very title is a revelation), the speaker rejects financial salvation as emphatically as they have rejected religious salvation. Eden becomes the “ripe land of no bills” where we can revel with “sauce slicked back-to-front.”
One of my favorite moments in the collection is when Alabi comes for Just For Me, a well-marketed set of beauty products promising to make the hair of Black girls more “manageable.” “Soft & Beautiful Just for Me Relaxer, No-Lye Conditioning Creme, Children’s Regular” takes the form of the beauty product box, with sections broken into the directions, the ingredients, the warning, and the further directions. Moving from couplets that describe the violence against Black hair, to chemical couplets based on each of the ingredients in the mixture, Alabi brings Jesus and Osun into the mixture, warning us: “A child is made of water. A Black girl, / open flame.” They move from marketing copy to the core aquatic question: “What was the Atlantic / before it became a graveyard?”
This poem is particularly haunting, partially because I can still hear the Just For Me jingle in my own head. The sting of identifying with an innocent-sounding corporate wish that I not be who I am. That it would be a gift to be free from my wildness, my thickness, my strength. And isn’t so much of this in our heads? Hopefully not the residue of childhood haircare chemical warfare, though in my case that may be true, but all the directions, ingredients, and warnings that I need to unlearn—“the cop in your head and your heart,” in the words of queer activist Tourmaline that Alabi uses as the first epigraph to this collection.
In “Eulogy for the Voice in My Head,” Alabi opens with the phrase found in many eulogies, “He died as he lived.” And how did that voice live? Like the one within so many of us, “whipping me from the inside.” That whip is a main character in the book, or at least a main accessory in the life of “the lion tamer’s daughter” who recurs in poems that open four of the book’s sections. The whip, reclaimed, recalls the cat-o’-nine-tails used by conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady’s gallery-crashing persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire—except that Alabi’s whip is much queerer, rewilds violence itself. Is the whip the self-policing impulse, or the memory of abuse, or the desired BDSM awakening? It is all of these. Exceeding the leonine, exceeding pride, exceeding taming, transforming daughterness.
All of that. Which is to say this collection is so much. Flamboyance, blooming, polyamory, worthy of Audre Lorde’s idea of the erotic, worthy of Tourmaline’s abolition, in the lineage of Marsha P. Johnson’s million uses for flowing. This collection is a space of flowering. It sprawls across the page. Takes up space. Acknowledges the space between the excesses of affirmations we crave and create. The first poem is “How to Fornicate,” for God’s sake. And don’t think I don’t see the reference to June Jordan’s “Poem about my Rights.”
Against heaven is an erotic posture: against as in directly up against, against as in close, against as in leaning with so much intimacy you will fall.
Two of the collection’s most visually striking poems, printed in white characters against a black background, are erasure poems—what Alabi calls “blackout” poems—based on news articles, and in these the poet claims their right to revise an existing text through blanks. But the collection is strongest in its excess, its bloom, its unapologetic multiplicity to rewild Earth (I concede that using multiple forms, including erasure or blackout, is one way the collection approaches polyamory). Erasure is, after all, a kind of hexing, and Alabi has already convinced me that it wouldn’t be worth the bother to “hex the president.” There is only so much pleasure in our clever critique. Alabi is right: “our bloom game too strong.”
Which only means that while I agree with what Alabi would remove, erase, highlight, and point out, my lust is for what Alabi would plant, would nurture, until it filled our mouths, our eyes, our ears, and our futures. More poems, I hope.
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