Poetry

“litany” and “Inevitable” by Mahogany Browne

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Mahogany Browne at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2018 when she emceed at an event curated by Melissa Stein and me, one of our continuing “Poetry World Series” readings that have been running in venues in San Francisco (Litquake), Mill Valley, Seattle, and New York City since 2008. It’s a corny idea—six poets on two teams reading their (already written) poems in response to prompts “pitched” by the emcee and judged by two “umpires” (well-known poets in the field)—that caught on and has been bringing in record audiences for the past ten years. Browne’s background in performance poetry made her a wonderful host, and we hope she’ll do it again. After that series, I sought out and read her poetry, and I’m happy to be able to feature it today.

Both poems are in free verse, the first with irregular stanzas and the second organized into couplets. The freedom and verve of the voice in “litany,” with its rejection of upper-case and punctuation conventions and celebration of “the transgressive black body,” reminds me very much of Lucille Clifton, featured here earlier this month. A “litany” is a sort of sanctified list employing call-and-response or a “series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people” [source here]. Thus, the title of this poem clues us in immediately to the idea that the subject is sacred to the speaker.

The poem opens with a bold and simple statement of identity—“today i am a black woman in America”—then moves into an ironic “lullaby” about what that means for too many such women: gentrification, impossible rent, urban blight, and homelessness. Stanza 2 states a paradox capturing the experience of being an artist from a marginalized group in our country:

i will apply for financial aid and food stamps
with the same mouth i spit poems from

It then moves on to make clear that this is not going to be a conventional litany found in a church service. Yes, there are angels and a “god,” but it’s a “creative god” more like a muse than a conventional, capital-G god. The third stanza locates this speaker’s religion squarely in the church of the human, mentioning Nina Simone (“ms. nina”) and the speaker’s “neighbors” along with reiteration of her condition, the “fury” and frustration of being a black woman in America today. This stanza uses paradox and opposition to sharpen its images: “cold country” contrasting with “heat wave” and that unforgettable vision of the speaker wearing “red pumps” to her ex-lover’s funeral. Following another assertion of racial identity (“a woman, a brown and black & / brew woman dreaming of freedom”), the poem moves into new territory with the speaker asserting her identity as a mother and as someone who “forgets how to flee” a country that is, like her, “burning.” And why does she forget? For a reason that surprises us, one full of confidence, affirmation, strength, and fierce joy—qualities that, once again, evoke Lucille Clifton: “—i’m too in awe of how beautiful i look / on fire.”

Like “litany,” “Inevitable” employs simple, lucid diction to critique our society, but the focus of the criticism is sexism, not racism. In “Inevitable,” a mother takes tender note of the vulnerability of her 12-year-old daughter’s changing body, “her newly-developed breasts, all surprise and alert / in their uncertainty.” Then, as all mothers do, she begins to worry about the future. Using the technique of via negativa, explained below, the speaker “tries not” to think of the things that happen to most if not all young girls helpless in the grip of adolescent hormones.

Calling things forth by their denial is an old literary tradition and an effective rhetorical device some call via negativa and related to what my teacher Reginald Gibbons called the “apophatic” in a craft lecture at Warren Wilson. It is highly effective not just because it heightens the drama and opens up fresh ways to describe things but also because it allows for the delivery of more information in the same amount of space. When Shakespeare says in Sonnet 130 that his “mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” we must envision eyes that are like the sun before we can imagine those that are not. Thus, we get the image of eyes-like-the-sun and its negation, a much more complex and interesting image.

Apophatic theology teaches that God can be apprehended only through negation, one reason for the altar screen (called an “iconostasis”) in a church. The idea is that the human cannot bear the full-frontal presence of the divine—is blinded by it—so that the only way truly to see God is through not-looking. You may have heard of the anonymous medieval text called The Cloud of Unknowing, a work that paradoxically refers to a kind of knowing by not knowing: “We cannot think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought” [source here]. As a literary device, it’s effective in poetry not just because it allows for more complex and layered description, conveyed with power and compression, but also because it shields the writer from her emotions when writing about material that is too highly charged to bear direct scrutiny.

In listing the things she is “trying not” to think about, the speaker reveals that what she is trying to avoid is precisely what—and all—she is, in fact, thinking about. “Inevitable” ends with the image of a young girl crushed against a sweaty gym wall by the ardor of a young boy (a “dark manchild”) whom the girl views as a “god.” That view is “mistaken,” but it’s a mistake almost all young girls make and one the speaker understands as “inevitable.” Any woman could relate to this closing image, and any mother to this simple, fierce, and ultimately life-affirming poem.

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