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First Sentence: Aracelis Girmay

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I guess it’s a funny thing, really,
     how I can’t hear Boyz II Men,
even the 90s bedroom countdown
     and the colour blue of Michael McCrary’s
‘Injection, fellas’ without wanting
     to cry.

from ‘Cooley High’ by Aracelis Girmay

Small severance, when you know it’s coming, is a specific kind of heartache. Nearly mundane, it buzzes like a fly. The heart almost buckles, seeing how everything should go on, and that this mundane everything, made up of such small and ordinary parts, is exactly what one strives to keep. Our hands are small. And the world, too, is the sum of smallness, and this is part of the surprise and part of the grief.

When I, in September of 1991, found myself at a boarding school over 100 miles away from home, with one Black History poster, a computer my father built, three Jackie Collins novels, and a single tape deck radio to my name, the borrowed car my mother drove away in was the severance I had, for the last few months, been dreading. Gone were my sister’s small hands, fights with my brother and cousins, the safety of shared experience, a shared language. Far from my family and familiars, my radio’s silver needle of an antennae splaying out into radio-space – aside from occasional collect calls home, that music was the only other bridge back home I could manage. Since then, I remain especially susceptible to the trapdoor that music can be. Suddenly, profoundly, I find myself straddling two worlds. The world of Then and the world of Now.

For me, it happens most with early 90s R&B. It carries with it the beginning of my cusp years, the years of change when, subtly or blatantly, I came into contact with peers and faculty who did not know how to value my cultural references or center(s). Blindsided by this, it was the first time that I began to think I had come from nowhere (of great value), really. I eventually grew against and out of this feeling, but it was not without struggle and a sense of humiliation I could not name then.

Part of the poem seeks to engage with Cooleyhighharmony, the Boyz II Men album, as a vehicle by which to fly into the memory. The poem also conjures the film Cooley High and the real Cooley High Vocational School near where my mother lived as an early adolescent. The poem is also thinking about the not uncommon occurrence of young students of colour being ‘shipped off’ (the language not lost on me) to private, predominately white boarding schools in the name of salvific (white American) culture and liberal arts education. The poem is thinking about the violence of this tear in the family, the mother’s dream and sacrifice for her child, the child’s obedience. It is also thinking of the psychological and emotional consequences of leaving home and being thrown into isolated orbit, neither here nor there (quite).

And so, I wanted the poem to deal with loss, and to be built on a trapdoor – to conjure a sense of bottomlessness, and the swift fall beneath the poem. I wanted the opening sentence to serve the poem as noise (the radio!) and structure. The chatty, discursive tone of those first six lines slowly gives way to a different lyrical and geographical landscape (children, prickly pears and hills). I wanted that first sentence to be a kind of bookshelf you look at, plainly, then happen to lean against. . . the pressure of memory, that weight, pushing you into another hidden room. The house’s true and secret interior. The first sentence thinks it is merely and safely recalling grief, but then, in fact, ends up carrying the speaker deeper into her grief again.

While the discursive tone provides the poem with a sense of the speaker’s emotional distance, I wanted the enjambed lines to also counter that tone by interrupting the safety of the sentence with a music of quiet unease or suspension. I want those lines to begin to create a subtle yearning or longing for resolution. So as I wrote, the sentence slowly knew it would need to spill over, line after line after line, eventually traversing the distance of six lines before its conclusion. I suppose, as the poem moves from its starting point, the voice is trying to convince itself of both its grief and the strangeness of its grief. (Even the 90s bedroom countdown makes me cry, the speaker says, laughing at herself. That laughter leaves her open to a vulnerability and surprise, an openness that lets her fall through the seam of laughter, back into Then.)

In Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem ‘Headlong’ she writes, ‘Be strange to yourself,/ in your love, your grief.’ I carry this quote and love it and do not know all of the reasons why.

In our difficult or blissful moments, I think that strangeness is what troubles or opens us into discovery. Wanting to explore the strangeness of that mourning (when and where it would rear its head), was what pushed me backward into the poem to discover that at the heart of the difficulty, was music. And that part of what I hadn’t realized until writing the poem is that that music represented, to me, not just a severance from family but from my language, my cultural references, registers, and values. In fact, this is where much of the sorrow lived. The severance from many of the sounds I knew and loved. And so part of what this poem seeks to do – and what I seek to do in my work, in general, in my teaching, is to encourage and cultivate our specific and idiosyncratic languages, voices. As John Edgar Wideman writes it, language evolving from ‘the body’s whole expressive repertoire.’ It is easier to see this in the work of my students but it must also be true for each of us: in a sense, home and personal knowledge of one’s potential contribution, one’s worth, one’s beauty, one’s history (which is to say, shared history) are at stake. ■

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Photo courtesy of Aracelis Girmay

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