Book Review

“My mother is Black / under the eyes in / twilight,” Tatiana Johnson-Boria writes in “Portrait of a Mother Before Sunrise,” a poem from her skillfully haunting debut poetry collection, Nocturne in Joy. “How many / nights does she wait / for morning to yawn / into waking?” the speaker asks, exemplifying Johnson-Boria’s deft enjambment and striking imagery that allow for play between dark and light, sorrow and beauty. Johnson-Boria’s collection, fittingly dedicated to “Black womxn,” lyrically excavates a challenging childhood, ancestral trauma, and individual and collective experiences of racism and misogyny as each poem mines joy from even the grimmest circumstances, demonstrating its inherent power and necessity for survival.

Organized into five parts, Nocturne in Joy’s thirty-four poems span an impressive variety of forms: free-verse, field composition, prose, found poetry, erasure, pantoum, haibun, and the titular crown of sonnets. The proem that precedes the five sections, “Heredity,” contains seven spare couplets that draw the reader into the micro and macro lineages explored by the collection, concluding:

Our parents are vessels of antiquity
Rejoicing, mourning, reveling in our lineage

Trace these lines, they lead to ruptured paradise
Curious creatures swallowing a fullness of earth

In suspended portrait, a tree shields their bodies
Watch—my mother’s mother give birth to ghosts

Grounded in the roots of a Black American family’s trauma and survival and written in concentrated and controlled diction, “Heredity” introduces the motif of ghosts, which haunt the speaker and the book. The collection’s first section also examines how familial experiences of abuse, addiction, mental illness, parenting, and love intertwine in generational inheritance. For example, “My Father Hums in the Kitchen and for the First Time This is Art” describes the speaker’s grandfather, “some toiling man in the South,” and his impact on his son, an abusive father to the speaker. Johnson-Boria’s visual caesurae and the metaphor of song express the fragmented ways pain is passed down: “that faint sound steeped into || another son’s body / who will then die || by the hands of someone else / cradling a || Black sorrow song in their hands.”

Spanning the entirety of the second section, the titular poem, “Nocturne in Joy,” is the collection’s heart. A sonnet redoublé without the fifteenth sonnet, the poem adeptly juxtaposes pain and joy through a meditation on the Southern idiom “when it rains while / the sun is shining—the devil must be beating his wife.” The associative, double-spaced sonnets extend the idiom metaphorically across generations of family while examining the ways abuse and trauma manifest both for the speaker and the Black community. For example, in the sixth sonnet, the speaker points out:

How the story of the devil beating his wife
is a parable. To caution the sun defying the presence of rain.
These are the things Black parents teach their children, to define
what no one explains. An incantation for violence in their own bodies—
the way supernatural exists inside their ability to be soft
yet calloused in their loving. The collision of the gentle
and coarse leaves solace lacking in its soothing. Bittersweet
severity is the life of a child beholden to humans quarreling
against a swallowing world.

The sonnet sequence, in which the final line of each sonnet is echoed in the opening line of the next, reinforces the repetitive evolution of familial generations and enhances the poem’s meditative mode. Tonally, the piece shifts from melancholic and serious at the start to triumphant and joyful by its conclusion. In the thirteenth sonnet, the syntax shifts from declarative to imperative as the speaker abandons a first-person singular perspective and shifts into powerful commands. “Shoulder the vastness lingering // between the ones who birthed you. Let the smolder of ash // your mother sweeps from her cigarettes seize you // in rapture,” they declare. The final sonnet concludes on an evolved note near exaltation: “I am a glorious epic between birth and death, temporary. // I love my own self.”

The third and fourth sections of the collection examine death and survival: elegiac reflections on the missing, the loss of family members, and the unjust killings of Breonna Taylor and Black women and girls. The fourth section features a longer found and erasure poem, “EMDR,” about the difficulty and vulnerability of healing trauma. The section concludes on a note of triumph with “How to Make Love While the World is Burning,” about the renewal found in physical joy, despite violence: “how being human is an act of climbing. / The heavy earth. Of ourselves. / Into hands, glorious.”

In the final section, Johnson-Boria’s poetry converses with Black women writers Alice Dunbar Nelson, Carrie Mae Weems, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Alexander about tragedy countered by palpable and defiant joy. In “Since 2015: 48 Black Woman Killed by the Police. And Only 2 Charges,” Johnson-Boria points out the act of resistance it is to have one’s nails done, “to care, amidst / a world’s neglect,” that “their nails / O, their nails— / constellations rising.” In the prose poem “Lucille Celebrates the Living,” Johnson-Boria challenges the reader, “Won’t you watch our thriving?” And in the collection’s final piece, “Here We Are in Infinite Joy,” Johnson-Boria demonstrates the tenacity of Black joy: “Here they are dancing / for how could they not?” With a lyric skillfulness that surprises in this stunning debut, Nocturne in Joy  invites the reader to find beauty within the grim not only as requisite for surviving, but as the jubilant reward in doing so.

About the Reviewer

Karen Sherk Chio (she/her) is an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of New Orleans and an Associate Poetry Editor for Bayou Magazine. Her poetry and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Salamander, CALYX Journal, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. In 2022, she was a runner-up for the Andrea Saunders Gereighty/Academy of American Poets Award and the Samuel Mockbee Award in Nonfiction. She lives outside of Boston, MA with her spouse, kids, and dogs.