If your encounter with these poems is anything like mine, the first thing you might experience is pure music: the thick stunning spellbinding sound at work in Safiya Sinclair’s writing. And then almost at the same time you might realize that the poems, which are often layerings of elaborations, lists, and collations, are also telling stories, making arguments even, and conjuring images with a moving deftness and visceral potency. Listen to the brilliant patterning of vowels—the “ahs” of “father” and the “un” of “unbending” and “unbroken” turning into the “oh” of “low” in “Pocomania,” named for a religion in Sinclair’s native Jamaica:
Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from,
pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged
in the fire of your self. Ripped my veined skin, one eyelid,
father my black tangle of hair and teeth. Born yellowed
and wrinkled, father your jackfruit, foster my overripe flesh.
Father your first daughter now severed at the ankles, father
your black machete …
Or this, strong and unequivocating, the last two stanzas of a ten-stanza poem called “How to Be an Interesting Woman: A Polite Guide for the Poetess”:
I will grow heavy and silent
and sick. I will strip right down
to the bone. I will take your name.
I will take your home
and wake dark with a song
on which you finally choke;
my black hair furring thick
in the gawk of your throat.
Or this, another meditation on womanness and being, “Center of the World,” which begins—I hear Derek Walcott, maybe in the assertion of the first line, but also the lithe textures of Colin Channer or Ange Mlinko—
The meek inherit nothing.
God in his tattered coat
this morning, a quiet tongue
in my ear, begging for alms,
cold hands reaching up my skirt.
Little lamb, paupered flock,
Bless my black tea with tears …
which gives way, eventually, to milking “the stout beast of what you call America” and
Here, a flash of muscle. Here,
some blood in the hunt. Now the center
of the world: my incandescent cunt.
Sinclair’s first book was a chapbook that mixed genres, moving from prose to poetry, interweaving her lyric impulses—and that was called Catacombs. Cannibal was her debut. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize from the University of Nebraska. Now she has a memoir How to Say Babylon—another title that seems like a prayer disguised as notes to self, the didactic as a mode of survival—a gorgeous narrating of the story of a poet whose sound is so haunting and alive. It’s no accident that the memoir is not so much about a land of exile—the United States, for this poet—but about how to represent that land in words. How to say the name of your displacement.
JESSE NATHAN: Could you talk a little bit about how it was that you realized you were a writer, particularly a writer of poems? What awakened that in you, do you think?
SAFIYA SINCLAIR: It all begins with the sea. I was born in a tiny seaside village called White House, on the coast of Montego Bay, where the sea’s constant blue is an open question I keep wading into, plucking poems from the water, trying to answer. The sea of my birthplace is the thing that most inspires me to write. It is the rhythm I imagine lapping behind the line of every poem. It is the place I imagine in the background of all my poems, even before I can set down the first word, or the first line of a poem. Often, I think of a poem as a red door on the sand of my sea village that I pass through, in hopes of capturing the beauty of the waves. This is to say, in some sense, I was a poet long before I had a name for it. Growing up surrounded by such natural beauty, such blazing color—the sea and the island’s lush green interior—it is hard not live in a perpetual kind of awe. My keenest way to bear witness to this awe is through poetry.
This deeply attuned awe all begins with my mother, who was a lover of poems and prosody before I was born, and who first instilled my love of poetry through recitation. When I was growing up, she kept a book on poetics called Sound and Sense, from which she first taught me the different elements of poetry. My siblings and I would memorize and recite poems with my mother as a weekly practice, which was part of a unique after-school education that she crafted for us. These lessons also included nurturing a deep love and understanding of the green languages of nature. Appreciating all the bursting color and unruly hiss of the tropics. She taught me how to identify each tree, each flower, each creature we saw. How to populate the world of my poems with texture. How to be painterly. Here was the first awakening of my young poet—learning to distill a bloom into poem. It was this love of the landscape that first moved me to write my little nature poems when I was ten.
Music was also an integral part of this awakening, of course. My father is a reggae musician, so music was always a large part of my daily life. My siblings and I used to have a family band when we were younger, where we wrote and sang songs about saving the environment. Music was also a fundamental aspect of my mother’s after-school lessons. Every day, my siblings and I sang. We had a river song, a sea song, a song for nurturing a seed from the soil. Song and dance are an essential part of Jamaican ethos, rooted in our oral traditions and African history. So, alongside the instruction of my weekly recitations, I’ve always understood music to be an inseparable element of the best poetry.
Finally, the singular condition of growing up as a young woman in a strict Rastafari household made it necessary to nurture my poetic voice on the page. Rastafari are a historically persecuted minority in Jamaica, and I was ostracized at school because of my dreadlocks. The older I became, the more I began to feel like an outsider. When I was ten, there was a traumatic event at primary school, stemming from a friend telling me she didn’t want to be friends anymore, because I was Rasta. I was gravely wounded. But from that hurt, came my first real poem, when my mother handed me a book called Poems of a Child’s World and I discovered William Blake, a poet who also wrote intensely about nature and the nature of the soul. While reading Blake, I marveled at my discovery—that poetry could outlive the poet who made it. That poetry could, in many ways, unmake any hurt. It could transform a life into something else entirely.
Poetry is so intimately interwoven with my formative years, my selfhood, my love of my country, and the nurturing hands of my mother, how could I not choose it? Looking back now, it seems inevitable that poetry is what would come next. That poetry, in some sense, chose me. Nowadays my mother likes to say, “I can’t believe I have my own personal poet.” And I laugh. And then I write it down.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.