Sunday, July 06, 2014

Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher

Monk Eats an Afro
by Yolanda Wisher
Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 2014

Reviewed by David P. Miller

Poet Yolanda Wisher, a Cave Canem fellow, lives in Philadelphia with her husband and double-bass player Mark Palacio, and their young son Thelonious. As you might guess from that brief bio and the title, her debut volume Monk Eats an Afro is full of music - lively, celebrating, eulogizing, lyric and reflective as the situation calls for it. I find this review to be longer than planned, and still it can’t do justice to this collection. But let’s start.

The first of four sections, “The Myth of Stew,” centers on the family, especially the women, deep and richly formative. As she writes in the title poem for this section, “a pot    don’t call it a cauldron / could feed millions for eternity” with “a woman and her girls / sitting at the table / like thick spoons”, both sustaining and being sustained. “My Family of Women” presents dense imagery in a brief space. The women keep the girl strong, autonomous, and protected, while at the same time opening her mind in ways they didn’t anticipate:

Church women and pinochle sinners
gave me my tutelage in fatherlessness, their tongues
commanded by a ruthless orgy of verbal desire
broke my mind into seven spheres.

In “Violin to Fiddle,” when the girl’s turn in a music recital seems forgotten, or maybe deliberately ignored, by the teacher (“his glass eye grinning / like an overseer / announced the end of the program”), her mother pushes her and the whole room for her claim her part: “you are Black / and have a right to this.” Again there’s an unexpected transformation, hinted by the title, as

a bumblebee found me quick
about three bars in
but I kept on playing
like a can of Raid in that dress

Goaded it seems by the bee, she comes to “this be your fiddle / claim it”.

Monk Eats an Afro includes poems framed as “Songs,” with a distinct layout and a different voice. In the Song titled “Ancestors,” Yolanda Wisher asks where the family has gone, finds them not lost at all but manifest everywhere: “Walt say / in the bubbles of the stew // Pablo say / in the iridescence of fish”.

“Slow Drag,” the second part, moves away from home to neighborhood, lover, future husband, and friends. “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2” gives us a thick description of the speaker “hungry” for the West Philadelphia neighborhood where she lives:

Once we went into a store sunk into the street,
owned by a Cambodian woman. She sold everything,
from evening gowns to soup. Over to Walnut and 45th,
where the Muslim cat sells this chicken wrapped in pita,
draped in cucumber sauce.

And everything makes her neighborhood, including the adult video store (where “a white man hustles” furtively away), the “shit stain from a wino,” and a murder, which doesn’t constrict the meaning of home, though it happened:

One night, a man was shot and killed on this block,
right outside our thick wood door. But not today.

In the song “Worthy,” stunning imagery tells of the speaker’s joining with the man who would become her husband. Their love was

Deeper than Iraqi oil
Darker than Belgian chocolate
More opaque than midnight sky
More comely than Sheba

And in their devotion,

She saw fingers wrought for good fortune
Locks like the tallest trees
He took her thighs for hymns & mantras
Her scars for heirloom jewelry

I have to mention “English Department Meeting Query,” which opens with one of those godawful classroom study questions: “What is cultural tension? What are some examples that we see in the world, in our neighborhoods, in our school?” Wisher replies to this question in the kind of detail that heightens its basic cringeworthiness: “The working class guy named Jim next door / with his bumper sticker about Unions and his / shit about Puerto Ricans”, just to begin with. It makes me wonder about the rarefied activity of writing this review, even.

The third section, “Harriet,” presents the lengthiest, most complex poems in this collection, First, though, it opens with the song “Melon Rap,” a coming-out from a very particular closet - the love of watermelon:

Can’t indulge in public
Folks might call me coon
So I grow you in my backyard
By the light of the moon

“American Valentine” is a sustained meditation about Phillis Wheatley, whose legacies Wisher plays out in a multiplicity of images without reaching for a single unity. The colonial-era slave woman poet, “who used to be a sellout / who used to dance / that waitress two-step” (II), also

[…] slashes out
pulpit with pen
to sister-friend,
knows a thing or two
and still talkin bout REVOLUTION,
American as the LIBERTY
on her tongue
of Latin-edged lingo.  (I)

There is much more here, suggesting the scent, the resonance, of Wheatley as misplaced transplant who nevertheless perfuses culture and identity, surreptitiously and persistently.

Similarly, “Harriet” presents multiple facets of Harriet Tubman, as a critical historical figure and necessary strength and medicine for every day:

so invoke her
when they belittle you
push you to the fringes
of your own city

invoke her
when you’re feeling
like a credit score
bent and bleeding
from this American
cat’s toying

Following quickly, the prose poem “Dear John Letter to America” is a series of coruscating images of what America keeps promising and can’t get right: “I am a slaveship and you are a skyscraper. […] Used to woo me with roses carved from melons, douches of Colt 45 and holy water, ivory pearls that turned out to be my Grandpa’s wisdom teeth.” And still it seems that if the apostrophized America would only show simple directness and real vulnerability, the relationship might have a chance: “Show me your dirty drawls and your secret birthmark. Maybe then, America, I might give myself to you.”

The epic “Notes from a Slave Ship” begins with an epigraph from Essex Hemphill, imaging a city bus populated with mostly Black riders as a slave ship. Its nine sections play on this theme, mostly using specific transit lines and/or locations as jumping-off points for a wide range of stories, observations, and reflections. This is a poem of great scope.

“Monk Eats an Afro” is the title of the fourth and final section, bringing us back to the family: Wisher’s own family now. “Dawn in East New York” moves from a well-drawn, remembered story from high school, told to her by her husband in high school, to a quiet scene on their bed as she is expecting their child:

[…] And now
lying in bed for the past three nights
he studies the manual of a Nikon F60
holding the camera in lamplight, getting
ready to take a morning portrait of
my belly full of his son.

In “Diane,” there is a moving contrast between the casual disrespect for the body of a deceased friend (maybe a family member?) and her own body full of a new life, a scene at a funeral home:

did you know
they had you lying in a
cardboard box
covered in bedsheets
with tea-covered stains […]

I wanted to tuck you in
wanted to give you
my stomach swollen with promise

And at last the title poem: “Monk Eats an Afro,” funny and full of unsettling imagery, as Thelonious Monk consumes an Afro “on a silver platter / with a choice of two sides”.  As he gives some to her and some to the baby, the scene opens up with pleasurable morphing energy: Ella Fitzgerald puts the leftovers

into her purse
where tiny blues singers
hotcombed them on a conveyor belt
into sheets of butter
with notes of bop

That’s it right there. In Yolanda Wisher’s poetry, nothing need remain fixed or finally identified. Viewed rightly, through memory, observation, or dream, our engagement with world and heritage is a constant source of new life and renewal:

kiss the pyramids and trap doors of history

for me. give my love to the sea bottom and the sharks. (“Notes from a Slave Ship”)

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