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Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021

Express Yourself

Mawiya Bomani’s Atmospheric Poetry

There is a darkness in Mawiyah Bomani’s latest writing, “Thick Air,” with its poems that evoke, but it’s a darkness, the shadows and shades of which match the dirt we’ve swept underneath the rug of American history at its darkest.

When Bomani won the Critical Mass 8 Best of Show Literary Arts award in 2020, critic Kwame Dawes described her work this way: “[she] cares to tackle hard topics of race and identity, valiantly and often brilliantly.” This prize was awarded in March of 2020, just months before the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among an egregious number of other black Americans, which led our country to its still ongoing reckoning with race and social justice. To say that Bomani’s work feels prescient or timely is simply to say that it is part of an important national conversation.

But Bomani is not just interested in the present moment. Her work traces back the inherited trauma of black people in our country, specifically those kidnapped from their native lands and forced into slavery to help build both this nation and the power structures that govern it.

In this complicated collection of poems, Bomani weaves together a challenging tapestry of the brutality that African- Americans have suffered at the hands of white Americans. The violence in her work is visceral and, at times, difficult to read. It contains faint echoes of canonical or religious texts, like the Old Testament or Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” as her characters suffer unspeakable events that lead them to extreme measures, like the woman who slices out her tongue or the man who spends his lifetime feigning blindness. The bulk of Bomani’s latest work takes place on an antebellumera Louisiana plantation. Still, she bookends those poems with semi-contemporary moments, in which the treatment of black Americans is just as savage.

Bomani scatters small, writerly gems within her poems for the attentive reader. In the opening diaristic section, a young girl is writing about her grandmother, whom she describes as becoming pleased with herself for using the word “gallivanting.” She writes: “Yeye likes to use gallivanting it sounds so grown up she says and yet still so unrefined.” This sets the tone for much of the writing ahead, both polished and emotionally incredibly raw.

In a later poem, a young girl slave, not fully aware of her circumstances, bears witness to the lives and deaths of her fellow slaves on the plantation: “but when Asetewa the first died | nobody remembered how to tell our story how to fill in the gaps.” In some ways, this is what Bomani is doing in her work; she is writing to fill in the gaps, writing down the atrocities so that we as Americans aren’t allowed to forget. And though some of the more graphic imagery in her poems may be difficult to read, it doesn’t begin to cover the multitude of this country’s original sins.

Although it’s not Bomani’s assignment to retain any consistent style or even build a cohesive narrative work, this collection of writings feels incomplete in its current state on the page. Her vision for this work is much more realized in the immersive exhibition at Artspace, which includes paintings by her daughters and a table ready for a séance with her ancestors. The poems themselves waffle in story and genre.

In its best moments, she writes with a lyrical structure. “Poem for Lyman Kinder Henry,” for example, takes on a sinister sing-song nature when the slave owner calls off the hounds on Lyman, a runaway slave who pretended to be blind. Lyman sings: “said I’ll run on / see what the end gon be / lyman run on / you ain’t gon worry me.” Lyman is a character introduced in an earlier poem, which gives the reader a sense that these poems carry a sort of through-line, although that overarching narrative is a bit unorganized. The jump through time and space from Lyman’s harrowing escape to 20th century Hell’s Kitchen in “Dead Man Stew” comes off a bit jarring. Perhaps, though, this is part of Bomani’s point: You can swap the poem’s time, you can change the location, but the lack of justice remains.

There is no triumph for any of the characters in Bomani’s poems. They serve as an unceasing reminder of the horrors, large and small, faced by black Americans. Even when Lyman escapes, she zooms in on his ragged shoes to paint a scene of realistic exhaustion: “If you can imagine what them boots looked like | tongues dragging the ground | poking their grimy scarred pits | laces sagging shredded strings of matted cotton | swirling every which way the wind blew | soles partially detached from the body | quivering in the wind.” Yes, Bomani seems to say in each line of each poem, even without slavery, oppression endures.

Lauren Smart is an arts writer and critic. She teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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