Thursday, October 08, 2020

Cicely Belle Blain, Burning Sugar



I found Black people between groves of wheat
drove hours along open road back to Winnipeg
heard whispers in the topography

Ta-Nehisi said I could go anywhere
he told me in two hundred pages that Black folds could travel

said seeing the world is not a luxury
reserved for white men

we do travel though

some of us are still
on ships

West coast poet and activist Cicely Belle Blain’s full-length poetry debut, published as part of Vivek Shraya’s VS. BOOKS imprint, is Burning Sugar (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020). Burning Sugar opens with a suite of poems composed around familiar geographies, written from a perspective far too often overlooked, ignored or overwritten. “Black bodies against snow,” they write, to open the poem “MINNESOTA,” “radiating / kente cloth wears thin over broken bones / snow, sun, dancing / vibrant diaspora calls me home / Africa lives between the snowflakes / icicles drip in tongues [.]” Blain articulates a sequence of experiences around history, Blackness, racism and what lingers, silently, in those spaces, often a history that can’t be washed away, and a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. They write of silences, and the ongoing impact of those silences. As Blain writes as part of the sequence “LONDON,” specifically referencing the British-borne slave trade: “I imagine hard lines when I think of you / the beginnings of destruction / worlds upended to bring you gold // you are the birthplace of endings [.]” In a 2017 interview conducted by Jillian Christmas for Room Magazine, one could easily see how Blain’s activism, including their work as founder of Black Lives Matter iy– Vancouver, are an integral part of their approach to writing:

I’m always excited to be visibilizing Black communities in a city that has historically erased them. I’m excited about the amount of people who show out and support us. Who come out and hear what we have to say, who believe in us, despite BLM being a group of young activists. Public speaking puts me in my happy place. Coming from a pretty white-centric upbringing and always wondering about my place in the world, finally finding something I’m good at and having the ability to make people listen to important causes fills me with joy. It’s a platform of privilege and one that I must navigate with precarity. Globally, Blackness is exotic and desirable, a culture that is over-consumed by non-Black folks yet under-appreciated when on Black bodies. Especially in Vancouver, Blackness seems so removed from most people’s daily lives (despite the fact that they probably engage in multiple pieces of Black culture throughout their day) that people sort of idolize Black Lives Matter. They are excited to listen to Black voices and they are excited to be seen as allies; people will listen to anything I say and so I have to be super careful. I think also subconsciously, I am trying to dispel the notion of an “angry Black woman”; for better or worse, my calmness and my smile makes me approachable and people more receptive to our cause.

The book moves through three sections of short lyrics—“PLACE,” “ART” and “CHILD”—exploring subjects of landscape, geography, history, colonialism and systematic violence. “the hardest part about colonization: / even the air we breathe has been colonized,” they write, to end the poem “ALEXANDRA BRIDGE.” The pieces in Burning Sugar are fascinating in the ways in which they approach subject through the lyric, composing a book-length poem through a blend of essay and memoir on geography, history and Blackness through research and Blain’s own experiences. Structurally, there are comparable elements of Blain’s poems to the essay-poems of Phil Hall and Erín Moure, or even Vancouver writer and editor Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant (Book*hug, 2018) [see my review of such here], for how the lyric is propelled as much by language as by exploration of and through some weighty subject matter. Blain’s poems are thoughtful and passionate, seeking to acknowledge and document, and working to seek out. The opening piece of ‘SOUL OF A NATION,” subtitled “Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom,” the opening piece in the second section, “ART,” begins:

Inside the whitest walls, my mother and I found Soul of a Nation—an exhibition dedicated to the American civil rights movement and all the dreams that rose and fell with it. The exhibition begins in 1963—a year full of strife, anti-Blackness and state-sanctioned violence. Artists design a blueprint for revolution: sculpture, painting, drawing, film, text scream for justice. A desperate cry for liberation aches from canvases.
The art is American in the deepest sense but also African. Mouhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X dance from white plinths. The juxtaposition is nauseating. The stories of Black pain carve irreversible lines onto my heart. There is love, too, though, scattered like Ben-Day dots through the exhibition. Sometimes joy, rippling in brush strokes, occasionally hope and always resilience.

Still, Burning Sugar is a book not weighed down by loss and pain, but one that articulates a belonging, one that is pieced together through patience and will, through research and seeking out. Blain’s poems explore the lost threads and dark elements that can still be woven together into something grand, and hopeful, working through what could have been into what still might be possible.

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