At the heart of Ama Codjoe’s poems in her first chapbook, Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020), is a real heart, pumping, working the blood of life—good blood, bad blood—out. The poems in this collection, which won The Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, are equal parts careful and playful—they are full. I love reading these poems for the funk of their details and for their essence of surprise, which is no postmodern bait & switch—these are carefully planned plots. The poems caper with such intention when they caper, and when they walk gently you can feel each footstep. In both cases, you’ll end up in a closet or attic or backyard or stream behind the backyard you wouldn’t have thought would be a part of your visit—the stuff of these poems is so particular, so personal, even when it’s not the author’s story.
Poems like “Head on Ice #5” after Lorna Simpson, “Blood of the Air,” “She Said,” and “Poem After Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima” find grooves in repetition that play with details and voice, and allow for the poet to re-frame and re-tell narratives. “Gonna burn the moon in a cast iron skillet” is a deliciously irreverent metaphor coming from the imagined voice of a liberated Aunt Jemima. (Even PepsiCo has finally joined in the various liberations of Aunt Jemima from the pancake box with their recent announcement that they’ll drop the racist branding.) This poem, also in conversation with Lucille Clifton’s “aunt jemima,” is chock full of extraordinary and gorgeous life (“Gonna shimmy into a pair of royal blue bell bottoms / Gonna trample the far-out thunderclouds”) that remind me of Nikki Giovanni’s hyperbole and of the sexy sublimity of Morgan Parker’s work.
A line from the poem “She Said” suggests a through-line of the book: “The connection is bad.” Much of the connection between people here is not good. There is rape; there is gaslighting; there is the America that (un)naturally produced the stereotypes at the core of Aunt Jemima, that kills Malcolm X and leaves Betty Shabazz unsurprised by it. There is a specter of trauma in the book, but there is an essence in the book that aligns with the source material, Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting (the poem refers to words from Artemisia’s Rape Trial of 1612) “Judith slaying Holofernes.” While the painting doesn’t portray joy, it portrays Judith’s strength and a taking of her fate into her own hands in a society that doesn’t serve justice equally. Elsewhere Codjoe mentions a woman “praying” or “cursing” or “singing” (we can’t tell) to “a god she no longer feared.” The other source material for “She Said” is Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony, which is telling. We don’t quite get a beheading of a man, but in “Nasty Woman” we do get (alongside other zingy, playful lines) these killer lines about Betty Davis:
Betty loves to hear the story
of Artemis, the virgin goddess, who as punishment
for ogling at her river-cleaned pubis,
transformed Actaeon into a stag and watched
his own pack of hounds tear him
to smithereens. Betty can live off that story
for weeks. That and chocolate ice cream.
But this is just a part of the poem, and the collection, and the grief of the collection—the poems range about grief, giving it a whole home stocked with knives and ice cream and mirrors and a garden. Codjoe’s poems, her re-framings, are full of care and kindness for the speakers of the poems, imagined or not, in their reveries, in their vulnerabilities, in their angers. The quieter poems press your hand with such intention when they skip—never a surprise CD skip from an accidental scratch; a practiced boxer’s skip. For example, in “Burying Seeds,” we move from Betty Shabazz’s mourning to the speaker of the poem’s childhood reflection on a gendered playground to moving quickly on from this as child to her nakedness to Pauline Lumumba’s nakedness to details of her parent’s failed marriage to a reflection on a lover’s memory to this lovely sentence, especially given the details of veils & wedding dresses throughout the poem: “Grief is the bride of every good thing.” These poems are so, so, good, and they are grief, and the grief is full, is either praying or cursing or singing; it’s hard to distinguish.