He Tried to Drown the Ocean, I Waved by Kai Naima Williams, 2019, Hyacinth Girl Press.
“Waves demand to be felt. Rays will pierce you whether or not you blink.” This line which ends the long prose poem “sparkle by aretha franklin” sums up the voice of this chapbook, a voice that feels everything, one that lives and loves and loses and revels in every bit of each emotion. This is a confident speaker, one who in the opening poem “anthem” announces:
“Beware. I’ll technicolor your opinions,/change the perspective of your canvas, whisk you dizzily out of Kansas,/you’ll be wiping sun out your eyes in my brownblack woman presence.”
Though the confidence seems innate and unshakeable, the speaker pays homage throughout the collection to all the women in her life who have built that voice. The sister in “allegory of the cave” who “does not wish to show me weakness/and point to her wound but when she does/we are a dam breaking over our heads, scrambling to their insides/of our churches inside our/chests…” Miss D, in “the woman who taught me to be alone” remembers a lost lover, but without mourning: “Her mind is a powerful salve./She can even turn the way he looks at his new girl with stark love/into an inferiority. She can accept it.” In “essay on the contemplation of roots,” a strong connection is forged with a mother who “became more than my mother when she showed me/who her father really was. When she stopped regarding crying as a forbidden indulgence. Then I cried because my heart/ and hers are one animal.” And in “my girls on a weekend,” the speaker provides a numbered list of ways that the women in her life are crucial to that confidence:
“5)I borrow one of their bodysuits knowing/they would lend me their bodies if they could. If we could swap,/would we? Not one of us dislikes stretchmarks.[...]12) all I know is when I see them gathering there,/ slumped, souls out, tits out, blunt lit, fires lit, hair heavy,/sequins falling, lips moving, laughter rolling, night being/murdered with each passing joke, I see an Eden he could/never enter.”
There is a relationship in the collection that the speaker illuminates from its early tenderness to its ending. In the prose poem “since you ‘don’t know about all that’,” the speaker struggles to explain what the words I love you mean:
“What I mean to say is I stay locked in visions of you every time I fall onto a bed or into a trance in transit, I swim within dreams full of clear, clean details like the inching forward of the future length of your beard, the light through a window you might pause to photograph or write a note of…”
But the relationship is not as idyllic as the dream above may seem. In the second half of the collection, the Japanese folktale of “The Crane Wife” is evoked in poems that explore the way a man does not understand the consequences of yearning the way a woman does. In “etta, sung into a phone booth,”
“...she knows she will be the one to carry the consequence,/ the bulk of it weighing down against the blanket of her wing/(you know, because she’s made to cover)/after the farmer looks, like any of them ever instructed not to look,/he will merely yearn, just barely/longing for her, he knows nothing of desire…”
And, after the dissolution of the relationship, in “one afternoon after a month of grieving,” the speaker preens her sadness:
“I am crane, at loom, wing, weave//sucking on this soreness smooth like a skinned almond my skin,/unfolding, petaling off in the water,// to reveal myself…”
Through the discovery of strength and self, through the support of women and the experiences of love and loss, the speaker arrives at the holiness of her own existence in a world that wants to ignore or deify her. In the last poem “the black woman is god/the black woman is not god,” the final incantation leaves the reader with a statement of power:
“A man who calls me goddess speaks no more truth than those/who claim I’m not, you are both out of line. You both deign to tell/me what I am, ungrateful men, blind men, you do not have the/intuition to know of my being, only I can decide –//I am not a deity, I am a woman.//Let it be enough.”
Photo by Emma VieserStretch. Digital Photography. 2018.