Thursday, September 22, 2016

francine j. harris, play dead

first, take a fistful of hair

Listen first for anyone. Fill your pockets.
Measure the ditch with a wad of gum. Listen.
Stay still. Break open the gate with your fist.
a back seat to torch. ditch it. You will need
someone, still. Empty your pockets. Check for wild fur
and the pant. who wad seats. or possums who hiss
under wild shrub. Sharp shooters check the wind.
So measure your mouth. the curve of howl. drool
and its drop against the wooden tiles. Possum
under salt and pine. Screech it. Score the rope
with your teeth. Collect the drool in tin.
Check for rust. Pull out the nails. Wait
for the wood to sag of blood. to good and stalled.
Mount the mouth. slip down. Slide under
sludge, until the caves open and break. and
salt your wounds. and play the black cricket.
and nail on the stars. Run low to ground.
until your hairs unseat. and your cheek
full of shotgun howls. and sags. and
and touches its own blood to light.

Michigan poet francine j. harris’ second book is play dead (Farmington ME: Alice James Books, 2016), a rich and lively collection of poems that jump and tumble through syntax and language, writing poems on sex, community and violence with an abiding love, mediated breath and remarkable insight. The author of the collection allegiance (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 2012), there are are overtones of dark histories in play dead, as she writes to open the poem “the cafeteria is also assembly”: “where the lit footage of lynched boys in verdant / trees fills a screen that snaps and rips[.]” In play dead, harris dismantles language and culture to rework the best and the worst of the world in which she lives into discrete poems, blended together to create and critique an incredible tapestry of hope, heart and hearth. Some poems, such as “in Lebanon, a girl who cries crystals,” are absolutely devastating, in part for their unflinching straightforwardness, challenging the ways in which we see (or even ignore) what is happening right in front of us: “Black birds thicket dead sky // and in an Austrian basement, a woman births her father’s children for years // which no one claims a miracle. A woman / in Oklahoma holds up a two-year-old baby girl // to keep her lover from being tasered, which is also not / an act of God.” harris’ poems both reveal and critique silences that require an intricate series of navigations to survive, and in a way that pokes, prods and alters the language. I am deeply impressed with this book, and how she manages to make the language far more dynamic than I’ve seen in some time. In a recent interview at divedapper, she speaks to her approach to language, writing:

You know it kind of reminds me of that Key & Peele skit, “Pussy on the Chainwax,” and you have no idea what that phrase means, right? And so they’re just shooting pool and Key uses this term, like, “Man, I put the pussy on the chainwax.” And there’re a few guys in the room who start laughing and repeating it. And Peele is like, “That’s not an expression. You trying to start a thing, aren’t you?” and the whole thing they’re playing on is the way that people try to insert their stamp on culture, and on how we speak, and try to make something—a thing.

To me that’s a really fascinating possibility with language. I think it’s kind of important, actually, that in that skit, Key kind of has an emotional breakdown about his daily struggles. Like to say ‘man can you just let me have this…this language.’ I guess I realized in the last several years that I’m not the kind of person who’s interested in preserving language. I love how it changes. I’m not afraid of textspeak, I’m not afraid of abbreviations. I think we just wind up doing more fun things with how language appears. Twerking! We’re twerking our language.

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