The joke is orange. Which
has never been funny.
For a while, I didn’t sleep on my bright side.
Many airplanes make it through sky.
The joke is present: dented and devil.
For a while, yellow spots on the wall.
Obama on water skis, the hair in his armpits, free.
I thought the CIA was operative.
Across the alley, a woman named Mildred.
Above the clouds in a plane, a waistline of sliced white.
I don’t sound like TED Talk, or smart prose on Facebook.
These clouds are not God.
I keep thinking about Coltrane; how little he talked.
This is so little, I give so little. (“Single Lines Looking Forward / or One Monostich Past 45”)
I’d been eager to go through a copy of Houston, Texas poet francine j. harris’ third full-length collection, Here is the Sweet Hand (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), given how struck I was by play dead (Farmington ME: Alice James Books, 2016) [see my review of such here], a follow-up to her debut, allegiance (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 2012). harris has a way of seeing and presenting the world through stunning lyrics, writing the personal and the political in equal weight; presenting the world in which she lives, moving simultaneously through political reportage, personal memoir and cultural observation. The poems that make up Here is the Sweet Hand appear to exist in that stretch of time beyond American President Barack Obama’s final term and into the stress and horror of the weeks and months that followed, although as part of her “Ten Questions” interview posted online at Poets & Writers on August 4, 2020, she specifies the timeline of the collection:
How long did it take you to write Here Is the Sweet Hand?
This is always a
difficult question for me because I build manuscripts from poems that fit
together. The oldest poem in Here Is the Sweet Hand is probably from
2007, but many of the poems that determine the mood of this book were written
in the last two years. Also, several of the poems were written during my time
in northern Michigan a few years ago that kind of set the stage for the
“I can’t / imagine you any thinner if it’s revolution // you want, I’m gunless like a thing with wings.” she writes, as part of the poem “Junebug.” harris captures a moment, and even a tone, of time in dense language, yet allowing an ease through which any reader might be offered and allowed in. “I caught my hair on fire in a fistfight. We had / decorative words.” she writes, to open the poem “Ask me now and I would say.” The flourish and relish of her language cascades, bounds and bounces, and clearly delights in a serious play, as harris clearly isn’t afraid of any blending of conversational and written language, interplaying the casualness and density of what is possible through one word simply following another. As she writes in “Ask me now and I would say,” further on:
Someone in those moments is sure to get scratched.
She grew out her nails
I lit her up in the dark. In this retelling, we both spit out
hunks of each other on
the bathroom lawn where raccoons ditch.
In this version, no one succumb. No freeze on a narrative
and all explain away
bully by her dark-skinned cheek.
In this retelling, I get beneath her
in the greased grass. I watch
in her eye and we
roll over it. We unbridle that shit.