At BOA, we're celebrating Black History Month by highlighting the work of our Black authors! We asked each of our interns to write a short piece and select a poem from a recent or backlist BOA author. To start off the series, spring intern Kathryn writes about Renia White's Casual Conversation, Geffrey Davis' Revising the Storm, and Janice Harrington's Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone.
Casual Conversation by Renia White
The poems of Renia White’s debut collection Casual Conversation immediately bring us front and center to the conventions of speech, conversation, and what remains tucked behind the tongue. This is a gorgeous and dexterously lyrical collection that concerns itself with proximity, with “the human penchant to center oneself,” and more than that, what unites and what divides. With a curatorial and exacting eye, White draws her reader’s attention to “the axis we can’t feel ourselves hanging upon,” and elements of hauntology: the Black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi and the Black women whose experiences are constantly ignored in favor of those of their white counterparts. Vast, unflinching, and dazzling in its poetic vision, Casual Conversation is a testament to the power of hope and Black womanhood; it is an arrow aimed at the white gaze that skewers the authority of social convention and small talk in its flight.
Poem Excerpt: "girl says, that happens to women too"
girl says, that happens to women too
about a thing a Black woman says
happened to her, possibly,
don’t know unless someone other
than her saw, of course.
I forgive her though she will never seek it
though she will never seek woman in me
will never see me and say
I attempt to draw a line down myself
where my being Black and woman
begin, end, spiral
sever the spin from the top
deciding just to hear the whir
everything about her is everything about me
until only one of us can be halved at once
girl, you know you know
let the choir sing
Revising the Storm by Geffrey Davis
Geffrey Davis’ debut collection, Revising the Storm, is prayer in action. Blending poems about faith, masculinity, addiction, family, and epistemologies, Davis creates a collection that deftly balances lyricism and heft. A father becomes a Janus-like figure, whose smile “glows now, / ready to consume half of everything it gives,” but who also “taught / patience before violence—to hold, and then / to strike.” The relationship between two brothers becomes synonymous with a storm’s awesome power, while a failed marriage and a miscarriage excavate “the domestic / wreckage, the storm’s everywhere dark not quite dispersed.” This is a book that could easily give itself over to tragedy, but instead reaches for the “small / paradise” of wading in the water with others, looking for fish, then releasing them back into the wild to live another day in peace. Davis’ work is an exercise in solace, one we should all be so lucky to find.
Poem Excerpt: "From the Unsent Letters: To Klamath Falls Correctional Facility"
—for my fatherBecause I rescued this bird the other day
from the lethal humidity of a parking lot stairwell
Because it didn’t take much effort:
fifteen minutes spent in the easy
feel-good of not continuing on my way
Because I admit here, after releasing the bird back into the toothy elements,
back against the sharp shadows of the day,
I didn’t stay for long
Because I didn’t even check the woodwind of its battered wings
Because I never witnessed the bird catch
the breath it had lost while knocking the acoustics
of its skull against concrete
Because I still want the undeserved ease of mind
Because I need for you and the bird to survive, despite the odds,
and for this noise to sing us on our way, toward anything
but the silences that we know
Because I think of you, of how you could stand for hours,
looking up into that air,
and no bird pass by
Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone by Janice N. Harrington
Janice N. Harrington’s debut collection, Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, is a masterclass in familial, historical, and folkloric memory. The collection follows the story of a Black family living a difficult life in the rural South—Lillian, Webster, their children and grandchildren—with poems chronicling their eventual migration north. Rooted deep in the landscape of changing times, these poems are muscular, moving fluidly through the streets and cemeteries of Vernon, Alabama to Air Force bases in France and Germany to finally, the field between Omaha and Lincoln where the poem’s speaker lays down to rest. This is a book that has held pain and pleasure in both hands and invites the reader to witness its song: all we need to do is listen.
Poem Excerpt: "HEAT"
And the mornings were cast iron.
The men’s overalls, the women’s hair,
And the nights were cast iron. The clatter
of kudzu leaves was the clatter of iron lids.
And the flies that settled wore cast-iron wings.
And the stench of the outhouse was a cast
iron stench, and the baby’s cry fell heavy
as a frying pan. And the rain was cast iron,
each splat of gray a skillet lid, each spill
a kettle of potlikker. Their beds were cast
iron and so too the thighs wrapped round
his hips and the way he shook and withered
out. The heat was cast iron, and the greasy
sun dripped its lard light against their skin,
sweat welling like water sprizzled on a hot
griddle. And their skin was cast iron,
and living was fatback, turned slowly
and browned, what you had to eat, even
if it wasn’t the best. And cast iron their sleep,
cast iron their throats and their jubilee.
If a man is paid eight cents for a pound
of cotton that is cast iron too. If he leaves
for Detroit or Kansas City or Chicago, he’ll pack
a cast-iron suitcase and fill it with cast iron.
And if he says, Things’ll be bedda up there,
his smile will be seasoned and impermeable.
Kathryn Bratt-Pfotenhauer is a second-year poet in the MFA program at Syracuse University. Their first full-length poetry collection, Bad Animal, is forthcoming from Riot in Your Throat Press in July 2023.