Get ready to flip. I mean that literally. t’ai freedom ford has set up her second full length collection of poetry, & more black, as two books in one with two separate tables of contents, poems, acknowledgements, and author’s notes. The red cover and the black cover have the same art—two naked Black women facing each other, connected at the nipple. Read for fifty pages or so, then flip. Why the unusual structure? Maybe to discombobulate the reader, perhaps to announce that she is going to both play by the industry rules and break them. That certainly happens in her poetry. If you would just as soon not consider racism in America, especially from a Black, butch dyke’s perspective; prefer complete sentences to a blast of multi-syllabic, internally rhyming, intertwined images; and aren’t comfortable with language like “forced / fucks foreshadow foreplay for jungle fever,” this book is not for you. But if all that made you say, “Sign me up,” then ford’s sonnets, in deep conversation with Black visual artists, might be just the power chord you’ve been looking for.
ford calls these poems “Black-ass sonnets.” Like the traditional sonnet, each poem has fourteen lines, and for some lines, she’s even chosen the traditional iambic pentameter: “such leisure this life sans seizure & lurch,” but ford does not sacrifice the beats she wants to hit for the traditional ones, and the rhymes mostly happen internally like “reign topless grab ya crotch miss clutch an amethyst,” a powerful piled up tower of sound. Using the revered sonnet form to talk about Black art, Black suffering, Black power, and Black sexuality lets ford take over the center.
And she does not come alone. At least half of these poems are ekphrastic, written after Black artists like Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan woman who works on race and gender; Alexandria Smith, who participated in Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter and made the painting that became the cover for this book; Carrie Mae Weems who looks at power from a Black woman’s perspective; and many more. This is a physically small book, but it carries in it an entire cohort of Black women speaking truth to power through art. I wish I could have seen the specific piece each poem was after, but I suspect ford wanted me to spend time with these artists, seeing how their themes resonated with hers, seeing how she was not alone in her concerns.
“Concerns” seems like such a bland word for what ford is addressing. “Horrors” might be more appropriate. These poems take on the historical and current oppression of Black Americans, particularly Black women—including slavery, lynching, blackface, cultural appropriation, and gentrification. Not a short list. In the anaphoric poem “transcript of an MTA audition” ford builds the threat from men who take up more than their fair share of the physical, social, and sexual space—“I sit wide-legged & grab my crotch”— to the seemingly inevitable complete degradation and annihilation of women—“I sit wide-legged & murder these hoes.” But even in this poem seething with male power, ford mocks the speaker as he says, “I sit wide-legged & smell my trigger finger.” What a ridiculous image, the tough guy sniffing his fingers to reassure himself he’s still all male.
ford can use very dark humor. In “you are a remarkable woman (now hurry up & die),” she writes of the slave women abandoned at plantations as the Northern forces came:
the men predictably had already
removed real munitions from the big house
leaving nigger wenches to fend for themselves—
hardly defenseless after all they had
no panties & pounds of black pussy
There’s nothing funny about rape, but alliteration is funny. Try saying “no panties & pounds of black pussy” five times fast. It’s an iambic pentameter tongue twister, sputtering about until your lips fall apart. ford uses these sounds and the ridiculous image of “pounds of black pussy” to clap back at white men who both sexualize and attack Black women. And just in case you missed the dig, ford puts this poem right before one called “‘Just because you love black pussy don’t mean you love Black lives’— Erica Garner @ Mayer Bill de Blasio.” Exactly.
These poems are full of threats to Black women’s power. As she writes, “our smiles / a bouquet of flames for history’s rotisserie.” But they are also full of Black women’s power. Black women paint their fists on the flag, create a power surge, dance, fuck the women they want to fuck, and find their own tough music.
In “instructions for a freedom” where ford urges black girls to fight back against being “a mere speck” she writes:
shooting stars ain’t nothing but black
chicks doing back flips fuck flux: gravitate
black & rotate that axis till this universe
With internal rhymes and sprung rhythm, ford lets us know Black women have always controlled the universe, and they are quite capable of replacing it with a new one. It’s a joyful, celebratory and fierce declaration.
I would love to leave you with that glorious image, but ford is less sanguine than I am. In “ain’t,” she declares to the reader:
impressive missives these polished sonnets to save me
to give me my entire life to be bread & wine
loaves & fishes manna & mango nectar but
they ain’t ain’t ain’t ain’t ain’t a sledgehammer ain’t
She’s right. Poetry is probably not going to dismantle the master’s house, but maybe this poetry will give it a jolt.
About the Reviewer
Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She recently received a Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as Adroit, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, Cimarron Review, and Poet Lore among many others. She is an editor, teacher, and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.