If seeing were easy, we wouldn’t need poetry. That’s one of the implications of Ama Codjoe’s startling debut, Bluest Nude. The poems are portraits—glimpses—of a poet who wants “to be seen clearly or not at all.” So the voice in “Poem After Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” puts it this way: “Gonna try on my nakedness like a silk kimono”—and it’s a poem that really rips, and makes an argument for a kind of disarmament by way of openness, which is vulnerability, another kind of nakedness. A silk kimono, cuffed jeans, Timberlands, a “spa-provided robe,” “velvet robes,” “the coat hung gently / on the hook”—clothes are everywhere in this book, like so many versions of a “carapace” that both protects and hides the being within, and also “the bruises I conceal with makeup and denial.” The desire, attended upon by a fear that is partly the work of a culture of shame and partly the natural labor of any life, is to shed that carapace and be known, to unhook from the strictures and be freer, or nearer a state of rest, or stately and alive amid all the pressure and poise of life’s soul-dulling motions. It is a desire to have a chance to grieve or be joyful, a chance to draw on eros against the entropy. In several poems the speaker is undoing herself, sartorially and spiritually. “After a Year of Forgetting,” for instance, begins with disclosure:
Now I will learn how to tie an apron and unclasp
my bra from behind. I will become hard
like a moss-covered rock.
Or, “Primordial Mirror”:
In trying to examine one body part,
I’d lose sight of another. I couldn’t
imagine what I looked like during
the fractured angles of sex.
At the river’s edge, it was impossible
to see all of myself at once.
To see the self—most difficult of all. Codjoe registers not only the realization, but also the incandescence generated in the attempt to do so, the mere beauty of the trying to see what you can’t see. Words fail, then, but they paint something else in their failing, and this is the triumph of lyric. One series of poems, recurring irregularly in the book, imagine the voices of women after something has happened that is too awful for language, or too momentous. “After the _________, …” is how they usually begin, and they don’t have titles; they are single-verse paragraphs, ecstatic, epiphanic, but always resistant to the epiphany, invested instead in the motion—the gesture—toward sight. The poetics of a new voice we are fortunate to have emerging among us, a poetry steeped brilliantly in the urgency of the contemporary hunger to know what we really are. There’s a quiet joy possible, too, in that difficult pursuit. Here’s one of these titleless lacunae-born lyrics:
After the ________, I yearned to be reckless. To smash
a glass brought first to my lips. To privilege lust over
tomorrow. To walk naked down the middle of a two-lane
road. But, too late, without my bidding, life cracked open,
rushed, openmouthed, like a panting dog whose name
I did not call—my lips shut like a purse. …
JESSE NATHAN: What is the status of desire for the speakers of these poems? I’m sure it shifts poem to poem, line to line, mood to mood. Is desire a hope, a salvation? an oppression? a destination? a beingness? Do you think there’s any escaping the intensity of desire, for us humans? Would you even want such a thing?
AMA CODJOE: Of these astute offerings, “a beingness” rings most true, even as “a hope,” “a salvation,” “an oppression,” and “a destination” are a part of being, part of becoming. For the various speakers in the various rooms and moods of Bluest Nude, desire is a sign of heartbeat and wind-breath, a fact of their aliveness. In “Heaven as Olympic Spa” the speaker experiences heaven as a release from sorrow, she yearns to be free from a grief that haunts her, but, we must remember: she is dead. Ever tied to relinquishment (not getting what we want), gratitude (getting what we want), or substitution (wanting something different or more), desire is a sign of life.
If I consider the speakers, including the ones most resembling me, I imagine a motley cast of characters: animated figures from works of art; mothers, aunts, and cousins; writers and artists; mythical creatures conjured from my imagination. I have a common desire for them all: the luxury of dream. I mean dream in the sense of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “kitchenette building,” and I mean dream in the sense of rest, sleep, pleasure, and health. I mean the assumption of safety necessary for the body to relax, unarmored and vulnerable. Finally, I mean dream in the sense of the kind of imagination that rights the world, a dream of political, economic, psychic justice, reparations, and liberation—the abolition of all else.
I have, though rarely, felt desire as affliction. Once, I felt my body on fire with wanting, and more than once, in the face of unmet desire, I’ve held my face underwater with tears. Despite what could only be described as pain, I would never wish away that intensity. In “At the Fish House,” I describe grief as “proof” of one’s heart. I believe feeling deeply is evidence of my existence. Intense desire is a precursor to risk-taking, a requisite for meaningful connection and social change. It is a communication from oneself to oneself, an indication of the potentiality of action. There are moments in the poems of Bluest Nude where the speaker may wish to be free from such intensity—“Oh, to be a stone,” one speaker sighs—but in this life she is not a stone; she is a woman made of water moving through the world.