Yona Harvey: You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love


Sonnet for a Tall Flower Blooming at Dinnertime

Southern Flower, I want to quote the bard,
to serenade you, to raise a glass to you.
Long & tall you are always parched
& hungry. You wobble in strong winds, you
puff your bright hair when it rains, you
toss off the lint of dandelions, you
lean into the evening haunts
with your indifferent afro. You
were born in the old-world city, the invisible
dark girl city, the city that couldn’t hold
a candle, a straight pin, a slave-owner’s sins
to you. You are the most beautiful
……….dark that hosts the most private sorrows
……….& feeds the hungriest ghosts.



“I worked hard so my girls didn’t have to serve nobody else like I did except God”
after Elizabeth Clark-Lewis


Candy-colored bulbs frame a girl for a holiday.
If the wicked call from the other side, she doesn’t hear. Blinds shut. Devices
blink & twitter. Before it’s too late, her mother snaps a picture—anticipates
angst & oddly angled aches, strawberry letters. “Whatevers.”
The mother will mark the photo tomorrow. Sign. Seal. “We’re all well!”

—one of the last acceptable print messages. Meanwhile, “Soup
for dinner, again?” What else? It’s winter. Herbal constellations swivel in froth. Stir.
She samples with a lean near bowing. Steam on closed eyelids.
Mothers ought to give thanks.

Simeon, she thinks instead, & then: her long-gone grandmother’s
tattered Bible, the daughter’s overdue library book
concerning States’ rights. Why’s that? She’s hardly felt
hated. X’s & O’s glow in the daughter’s palm Look
how easy, the daughter often says. She is patient with her mother. Blessed
be the child at the center of snow & flu season. She flew past
blessings long ago. So far from a little girl, really.



Performance Perm / “I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl”
after Etta James, Live from San Francisco, 1994

Lord, Etta—

Something told me My mama waited too long to mention it was over. When I saw you with that
girl & yall was talking
her neighbor saw you with that girl & yall was talking cueing your music
all summer long Something deep down —scotch  Something deep down & water, Something deep
gin & Something deep down you,  Something deep down said / it was over / When I saw
you / gone & cry girl
she knew how to keep company. All my muscles deep down undone now.
Girl, I shoulda Something told me Something told me Something told me had your name. Et-ta,
Et-ta. Et-ta. & I’d rather. Let the men holler after me, & I’d rather  let the women shake their
heads. Something told me relish the cool I was just sitting here thinking of a single ice cube
thinking melted thinking at the bar counter, thinking thinking thinking thinking far from
conversation. You sang the songs & I’m scared to be by myself. Your mama warned you not to
& I’d rather & I’d rather & I’d rather & I’d rather &—be by myself. Yo. Yo. Hmmm. & yo. I see
yall know what I’m talking bout when I say
, sweet sin & excess, & yo. I see yall know what I’m
talking bout when I say,
Cigarettes & yo. & yo. & yo. & yo the smoke when I look down into my
glass & say Yo, Summer. Yo & yo & revealing its Yo damp sky, Yo. Yo. Yo. Yo. Yo. Yo. & yo.
When I saw you with that same person & I’m scared to be by myself. & holler after me. Too
long. Something told me.


“Sonnet for a Tall Flower Blooming at Dinnertime,” “‘I worked hard so my girls…’”, and “Performance Perm” from You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love (c) 2020 by Yona Harvey. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved. Purchase the book here.



Yona Harvey is an American poet and recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for her first poetry collection, Hemming the Water. Her second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, published by Four Way Books in 2020. She is also among the first Black women to write for Marvel Comics. She won the inaugural Lucille Clifton Legacy Award in poetry from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the Carol R. Brown Achievement Award from the Heinz Foundation. An associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, she serves on the editorial board of Poetry Daily, teaches creative writing workshops, and is at work on her first memoir

Harvey’s work has been published and anthologized in many publications including Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN / Radical WRITING, A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry, and The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She contributed to Marvel’s World of Wakanda with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, followed by a collaboration with Coates on Black Panther & The Crew. Her interests and writings in nonfiction recently led her to teach a workshop for Creative Nonfiction magazine: “Writing Away the Stigma for Young Adults,” designed for teens writing about their mental health experiences. Find out more at www.yonaharvey.com. (Author photo credit: Ua Pilar)

Listen to Yona Harvey read three poems from You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love on the Poets & Writers website.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

The lyrical breadth and depth of Yona Harvey’s second collection of poems, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, is stunning; the book’s poetic conversation across time and space deliciously resists easy categorization or summary. Grounded in female Black experience, the poems variously celebrate deep roots in tradition and chart possible futures, terrestrial and beyond. All this made the first step of the task demanded by this feature—choosing the poems that adequately highlight the ambition and transcendence of Harvey’s deft craft and thematic vision—a difficult task.

The book is an amalgam of varied and imaginative elements, such as poems set in a series of abstract “districts” ( “The Dream District,” “The Sonnet District,” and “The Frog District”), a “Segregation Continuum,” several long anchoring poems, and a voracious appetite for cultural allusions and references from The Odyssey to Audre Lorde to a YA novel to Etta James. The book effectively knits together its seemingly disparate topics, styles, and perspectives, emphasizing interconnectedness and continuity. Clearly part of a unified whole, each page nevertheless offers invention and discovery. From the first part of the book, today’s featured poems capitalize on the synergy between form and content to deeply explore female experience and perspective.

The revitalization of fixed forms seen now in contemporary poetry—from sonnets and ghazals to newly-created forms such as Jericho Brown’s “Duplex”—is exhilarating. How poets make their marks on form through subversion and the alteration of traditional elements is especially exciting, so much so that breaking the tradition is now beginning to be part of the tradition. “Sonnet for a Tall Blossom at Dinnertime” announces in its title the tradition the poem will inhabit, and at first glance, the poem’s shape—fourteen lines and a final couplet—positions the poem within the familiar bounds of a sonnet. A quick scan down the ragged right side of the poem, however, signals the liberty within this version of a sonnet, particularly in terms of rhyme scheme.

One might begin to posit the argument for an ABAB scheme in the first four lines (“parched” and “bard” an off- or slant-rhyme for the A rhymes and a repeated “you” for the B’s), but that pattern quickly unravels to reveal many lines ending with “you” in no particular pattern. A whisper of rhyme appears in the concluding couplet with the assonance of the short “o” sounds in “ghosts” and “sorrows,” but it is safe to say this sonnet departs from a traditional, patterned rhyme scheme. In some ways, it is also a declaration that this poet will use only what’s useful to her in deployment of the form.

The title melds figurative and literal description, the “tall flower” being the beloved, an image that evokes the blooming beauty we later will learn “wobbles in strong winds” further connoting youth or newness. It also evokes “dinnertime,” which locates the poem and the love within a communal—even domestic—sphere. Already, we have a sense that Harvey is deploying the sonnet form in a novel way, expressing not romantic love, but love that is parental or maternal.

The first line, “Southern Flower, I want to quote the bard,” directly acknowledges the poem’s literary legacy by alluding to Shakespeare, well known for his Dark Lady sonnets. Even this nod to maybe the most prominent representative of the Western-canon sonnet tradition, though, is tinged with subversion. The words that precede it, “Southern Flower,” are trochees, not the traditional sonnet’s iambs. Also, though this line and the next do move somewhat into iambic pentameter, any hint of regular meter quickly dissipates as lines begin to move by their own pacing and song. This lean into—and then away from—the traditional sonnet form does something remarkable: It simultaneously announces the poem’s lineage and makes room for a new or continuing version of it.

As the poem proceeds, it reveals itself to be a paean to a daughter, one that slides along a continuum of time, harboring awareness of the past as it celebrates the glory of the daughter in the present day. The past that informs this love is personal and at times nostalgic—“You / were born in the old-world city”—and revisits origins, but it is also deeply aware of darkness that informs the present. The girl, who is “always parched / & hungry” and sports “an indifferent afro” is described in authentic, recognizable ways, grounding the mother’s adoration in reality as opposed to idealization. For me, this move evokes Shakespeare’s famous anti-blazon sonnet, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (130),” a poem that rejects traditional, hyperbolic praise for the superficial beauty of the beloved in order, finally, to get down to what the speaker loves most, the ineffable quality that makes his beloved unique to him: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”

The daughter in Harvey’s poem has “bright hair” and is twice referred to as a flower, but she isn’t above “the lint of dandelions” or “evening haunts.” The tension between her “most beautiful / dark” on the one hand, and the “private sorrows” she hosts and the “ghosts” she “feeds” on the other, rounds out the daughter’s portrait and gives weight and reality to the mother’s affection for her. The sonnet, modified and adapted to Harvey’s purposes here, is an ingenious vehicle for this maternal love song.

Another poem that explores the maternal sphere, “I worked hard so my girls didn’t have to serve nobody else like I did except God,” offers almost an entire narrative in the title alone. The epigraph (“after Elizabeth Clark-Lewis”) offers a clue to the quote’s provenance. Clark-Lewis’s book, Living In, Living Out, is an oral history of African American women who migrated from the South to Washington, D.C. to work as domestic servants to white families. The book’s description, which you can read on the Penguin Random House website, focuses on how these women fought for rights and protections that “transformed work life for succeeding generations of African American women.” If indeed this quote is from a domestic worker who persevered so she would be the last of her line to have to serve anyone else “except God,” we still do not know, at first, whether she is the speaker of the poem or simply its source of inspiration. In either event, the quote picks up on the conversation that so many of Harvey’s poems are having across time and space about legacy and interconnectivity.

As it turns out, this poem’s speaker is not a domestic worker in the early twentieth century but a modern-day mother whose own work includes signing Christmas cards “at the center of snow & flu season.” Her focus is on the girl whose photo graces the holiday card, framed in “Candy-colored bulbs” whose “Devices / blink & twitter” and who is “patient with her mother.” That focus speaks to the legacy of the original speaker of that quote, one of many women in history who “worked hard” on behalf of future generations. This connection feels particularly relevant to lines in the poem that directly reference the past, such as “her long-gone grandmother’s / tattered Bible” and “blessings long ago.” The poem’s only non-enjambed, single-sentence line, “Mothers ought to give thanks,” drives home the debts that contemporary mothers owe to the struggles and lessons of mothers who came before.

This poem doesn’t embrace a fixed form like a sonnet, but it does incorporate a clear and deliberate stylistic innovation: right-margin instead of the standard left-margin justification, with lines anchored to the right side of the page and floating in various degrees away from the left side. While it takes just a click to achieve this effect in modern word-processing programs, the mechanics of reading against custom are more involved. I have a sense of these lines crawling out of the seam of the text (the page is on the left side of the physical book). It is a new effort for me, moving my eyes from the fixed-point end of one line to the beginning of the next line, unpredictably located in the page’s white space.

There is almost a sense of falling as my eye casts out from that right margin in search of the next word, and while I don’t want to attach any meaning or theme (lineage, growth, or arduous work, etc.) to this formal choice, I do note that I take my time with the poem in a different way. The last word in each line hangs in my consciousness as my eye searches for the next one, providing extra emphasis to end words such as “holiday,” “anticipates,” and the daughter’s “Whatevers” in the first stanza. Emphasis of those end words seems particularly important here, where the poem is still teaching me how to read it.

I couldn’t resist including today’s final poem, “Performance Perm / ‘I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl’” as I am always interested in poems that carry multiple, intertwined streams of syntax. For other examples, see Tara Betts’s “What Bucks or Breaks,” which I recently featured, and Crystal Williams’s “Double Helix,” which I wrote about in 2019. Harvey’s addition to this canon layers the lyrics to an Etta James song (“I’d Rather Go Blind” from the 1994 album, “Live From San Francisco”) with a speaker’s memories of listening to James’s music “all summer long.” These recollections, written in the form of a direct address to Etta James and starting with “Lord, Etta,” meld with the lyrics. There are many examples of incorporation of song lyrics in poems—commonly, as call-and-response or as a refrain—but here they are embedded in a continuous prose poem of a single stanza. Lyrics to the song are italicized and don’t always connect with the syntax of the non-italicized memories, though they are certainly complementary.

It’s especially pleasing to listen to the Etta James song while reading the poem, which you can do here. Doing so reveals that the italicized lyrics do not correspond exactly to the song’s progression despite the wonderful way the poem interleaves vocalized repetitions like “Something deep down . . . Something deep down . . . Something deep down . . . Something deep down . . .,” with the poem’s narrative: “—scotch . . . & water, . . . gin & . . . you.” The poem elides other refrains, repetitions, and verses, and the result is a back-and-forth that mimics the focus one might have while listening to a song as part of a reverie. Sometimes, the lyrics take the foreground, driving the narrative of the poem forward. At other times, they recede, but missing out on the song’s exact phrasing just permits more attention to something else in the poem’s narrative, such as a memory that surfaces. Sometimes, the lyrics and the narrative unite. To capture all this mercurial back-and-forth is its own feat, but Harvey pushes beyond novelty, bringing the poem to an emotional climax for the speaker in “When I saw you with that same person . . . Something told me.”

You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love is an astounding book that reminds us that we don’t have to undertake extraordinary measures for love or realization. Ironically, however, the book employs extraordinary craft technique to depict this simple truth. The collection’s innovation is certainly capable of taking us to Mars, that fiery red planet circling our heavens, but it binds us to this earth as well, grounding us in what we learn and cherish on it.



Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.



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