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Convention insists that I call Amnesiac (Sheep Meadow Press) a collection of poetry, but open Amnesiac and browse through its pages and you will see it is more than poetry.
The forty-one ‘entries’ enumerated in the table of contents are poems, yes. Most are lineated with titles; they employ imagery; there are stanzas; the words are carefully selected; meaning is compressed; in short, they operate within the parameters of what we recognize as poetry. A quick glance through the pages of Amnesiac, however, brings to eye the visual polyphony of the book.
Here is a musical score, “Enduring Freedom,” with recognizable but vexingly altered lyrics. Here is an illustration of a Negro Mammy speaking to a Union Soldier from Harper’s Weekly in 1862. Here is a scattergram of “PoMoFoMo.” Here is graphic art with incantatory writing, “sometimes I earth/sometimes I moan/sometimes I sparrow/sometimes I harp.”
In short, Amnesiac is more than Coleridge’s adage about poetry as “the best words in the best order.” Amnesiac is a gathering, visual, aural and written, of materials. Amnesiac is an assemblage of what has been forgotten. Amnesiac remembers. As forgetting endures, Amnesiac abides.
Given the polyphony of Amnesiac in voice, sound and visual experience, I searched for a map key. I found it in the first and last poem. Harris writes in the opening poem, “Sleep,” that “[t]he message is a tear in the paper” and then “[t]he mechanism is the image,/selected, cut and framed.” This is the work that Harris does in this collection. She considers what has been torn from memory and then selects, cuts, and frames her images. “Sleep” concludes with the line, “I shut it out, subtract.” In the last poem, “interval,” Harris writes,
Her feline abandon, a verb, arches naked
To again see itself:
a tidy collection of documents,
a room set aside for study,
the portion taken one time to satisfy
The lines from these two poems may be an ars poetica for Amnesiac, describing the work of this collection.
Yet, exploring the process of Amnesiac is only one aspect. The content of Amnesiac is arresting, powerful, uplifting, shattering, revealing and distressing in alternate turns. The power of Harris’s work does not come simply from the assemblage of her materials; it comes from narrative art and craft as well. In “Jump Rope,” for instance, Harris writes a prose poem with the images and flights of imagination that characterize the best of poetry, but with a haunting narrative about the sexual assault of a small girl. In a later poem, “Malediction,” Harris uses footnotes to insert the story of Hutu farmer and a Tutsis schoolgirl into a lush poem about “this spiny fruit splitting ripe delirium flower.” These are smart poems; Harris cerebrally invites the reader into difficult terrain where she deftly moves from head to heart.
Two sequence poems anchor the collection. One is about speleology, the exploration and study of caves; the other is about Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. Another recurrent series of poems in Amnesiac are self-portrait poems. Interspersed throughout the collection, these poems themselves form an evocative whole. In one small, untitled poem, Harris writes,
there is no out
you always enter
s o m e o n e else
(The final line employs typography alterations, one of Harris’s recurrent gestures.) The next poem, titled “Portrait,” concludes,
and objects cluster, world turn to color, and lock
into orbit. My skin adorns itself, humming
the warm mantra of closed systems.
The body is a habit I can break.
Framing the body and the self through the trope of portraiture, Harris engages the recurrent themes of this collection: corporeality, racism, violence, war, and the excavation of memories.
In the end, Amnesiac whispers and shouts, cries and laughs, weeps and sings. It is a provocative and thoughtful second collection from poet and artist Duriel E. Harris.
By Duriel E. Harris
Sheep Meadow Press
Paperback, 9781931357746, 70pp