Crossfire (Haymarket Books, 2019), the necessary and surprisingly first compilation of more than two decades of Staceyann Chin’s work, contains “In Those Years,” which some might remember as “If Only Out of Vanity,” her spoken word anthem from her dazzling Def Poetry Jam performance in 2003. It closes with an affirmation of the poet’s artistic intentions and ambitions:

I want to go down in history
in a chapter marked miscellaneous
because the writers could find
no other way to categorize me
in this world where classification is key
I want to erase the straight lines
so I can be me

Chin is still uncategorizable, but hardly miscellaneous. Rather, she speaks for and to those on the margins as well as those who are still mustering their voices. Subtitled A Litany for Survival—referring to Audre Lorde’s poem of the same name, which serves as epigraph—this collection, spanning twenty-one years of work, is a rich account of a multi-talented artist who deserves a broad following. By documenting the text of her performances and poems, Chin transforms the evanescent live experience into a distinctive fullness of expression and attention, even as she embarks on a conversation with us in our own fragmented time, and with the generations to come. It should be no surprise that her voice is forceful even in the conventional form of letters on the page.

The ground that Chin covers is as resonant to current audiences as it was when she first came on the scene.

There are a hundred ways to slip between the cracks
of our not-so-credible cultural assumptions of race and religion

Reading this work one considers how societies classify—encage—us, and how complicit we are in this imprisonment. Where is the line between living in a variety of communities, and subsuming one’s identity? To become more recognizable to others, do we become strangers to ourselves?

I am torn between being Black
and being supported by a white gay audience
after so many years of being exotic
I am tired of having an accent
tired of acting like I know this woman I have become

I am no longer certain of what
in this heart beats honest anymore

It’s the very specificity of Chin’s experiences that engages the reader; she offers a mirror to the full gamut of human emotions: love, sorrow, rage, desire, fear, longing. There’s also a linguistically lush weariness, after years of explication, of wedging one’s soul in impossibly uncomfortable positions in order to fit in, and still in the end, never completely belonging.

I’m just another immigrant
on the run
been moving so long
my feet don’t need direction anymore
just another night
another immigrant
wishing I was someplace that spills
the warm tears of my people
they understand my words
without the need for the cool
apologetic
and too often
imprecise translation

Yet for someone of such singular background, her subject matter invites—at times, demands—that readers reconsider identity and acceptance, of ourselves and each other. Here I am, she declares. If you’re uncomfortable, too bad.

There’s a supple muscularity to these poems, which examine the friction of the individual against the family of origin, culture, society, and the self. Here is the poet as an astonishing artist, a conflicted daughter, a fierce mother. It is a distinctly political book, just as being unabashedly oneself within a stratified society is necessarily a political act, and her poems reflect her determination—her need—to speak to that history. Yet, though this is a collection that calls to the past—as these poems span Chin’s decades’ long historical output—there’s an expansiveness that directs the reader toward the future. There is space here, breath, and possibility.

you have to get used to us white people
make a decision to do right by us
do it willingly/or unwillingly
we don’t fucking care
as for the progressive white liberals among us
find the words
to speak to the racist white relatives you keep disowning
all of you have got to get with the fucking program
because our Black asses are never/ever/ever going away

The larger influences in Chin’s life—her matriarchal lineage and her country of origin—also drive her pointed narrative, and Jamaica is both source and subject in many of these poems. What she writes and why she writes is rooted in this tropical, complicated soil, both as inspiration and foil. In “My Jamaica”:

this child will never be silent
I speak now
because my grandmother gave me my tongue
I speak now
because Jamaica has always given me
crosses I will have to bear alone

[…]

 my Jamaica
has always been
the hardest poem to write

Her poems range from powerful calls to arms to excavations of painful vulnerabilities and longings to philosophies that are revealing for what they don’t say as much as for what they do. In life, like poetry,

Imagination is the bridge
between the things we know for sure
and the things we need to believe
when our worlds become unbearable

***

this poem is about reaching out
and touching flesh
it’s about holding space
and going all the way
this poem
is about you
and about me
and the long legacy of risks
we keep refusing to fucking take

Love is the title of the final section of the book, and the subject, in its many guises—“and every poem / is always a love poem”—is a central theme of the entire collection. Chin isn’t interested in a sonneteer’s conception of love and rejects traditional Hallmark illusions. In “Fuck What You Heard About Falling”:

you and I
don’t need to table the time allotted
for mortals/our connection is cosmic
I know your thought before you think it

 in fact
I don’t need to think too much about what we are doing
having lived these lives before
no surprises ahead for us

 such is the bullshit we have been ingesting

Her heart may be bruised and scarred, yet it is always open, because as one rips away the exterior with sharp truths, at the core might be a place you belong, exactly as you are:

love is not knowing when you decided
you would stay/even though she isn’t perfect
because flawed as you are
you both fit
bit by bit you are unveiling
strip/teasing
telling truths you never knew could be uttered
out loud

[…]

 true love is about knowing the worst
of what no else one knows
and still deciding she is amazing

Perhaps more complicated than romantic love—borne of choice—is maternal love, with its expectations, its power and for some, its minefields.

Sacrifice is the only way we know how to say I love you to our
daughters.

 Chin is especially focused on how women survive their early experiences of familial neglect and what they may be forced to forfeit to save their own children. How can these daughters thrive after such abandonments, and will the loss of early maternal interaction grind a hole in their psyches that can never be filled? In “Catching Myself,” Chin strips bare her thorny experiences with her mother, expressing her hopes for her own child, and for herself.

my pen is angry at how much I do not know
about mothering
the miles and miles I do not want to go
by myself

[…]

 how can I be soft enough
to keep you nestled/and remain the sharp dagger
I have been nursing for years

[…]

and maybe
if you are honest enough

 your own flesh will replicate
and the fruit of it
will flower/bloom

 become more than this hesitant/unfinished prayer
the coward in you
keeps postponing

“These poems are a map of my life,” Chin writes in the preface, and they mark locations temporal and literal; fated and deterministic; locatable, hidden, lost and yet to be determined.

Reading Chin’s poems, one is reminded of the words of Adrienne Rich, another writer for whom survival as a poet, a lesbian, and a feminist was a public and political act of courage: “To write as if your life depended on it; to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public the words you have dredged; sieved up in dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence—words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.”

 Staceyann Chin carries on this poetic legacy in a memorable fashion that demands attention, and establishes the house from which her past is healed and her future rooted. For a spoken word artist to finally tattoo her words on paper is a powerful act. No longer dynamic language in a brazen performance style that disappears in the air, Chin’s poems are now a permanent expression of where she has been, who she is now, and all that she is yet to be in the future.

Here I am, she declares. Watch me. And mesmerized, in person, online or on paper, we do.

***

Mandana Chaffa
Mandana Chaffa

Mandana Chaffa’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jacket2, The Rumpus and elsewhere and her essay “1,916 Days” is in 'My Shadow is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora,' (University of Texas Press, Spring 2020). Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives and writes in New York.

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