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The year 2014 will be hard pressed to give us a more powerful debut poetry collection than Lenelle Moïse’s Haiti Glass (City Lights/ Sister Spit). Moïse comes to the page an accomplished performer, poet, essayist, and playwright, having served as Northampton’s Poet Laureate and been published in numerous anthologies. Longtime fans of her bold writing will delight in this debut, and its magnetic force will bring waves of new readers to her incredible talent.
This slim collection offers a wild range of form, from narrative poems to short, staccato pairs gracing the page. Moïse deals in the language of contradiction, sharp images and verbs present in nearly every stanza. From the title poem, Moïse juxtaposes glass in a mouth: “wish so hard / scrapes my soft palette.” It’s a perfect prologue to what is about to unfold. Her poetry embraces everything from her native Haiti, to the experience of an immigrant child, to Basquiat, to the loss of her uncle to AIDS. With brilliant control, Moïse pulls taut the wire that transforms pain into poetry. In “Adaptation,” she describes a Haitian child’s arrival in New York City: “…with / newborn precision, i pushed / through bodies on a foreign walkway. held / my toddler-immigrant back as upright / as arrogance.” Her images echo against each other, creating reverberations that are felt throughout the entire collection.
Several poems illustrate her expertise as a storyteller, including the haunting “Remember Noah,” in which pairs of lines stream along, retelling the familiar parable as a sinister act: “if noah had been merciful / he would have taught us how to swim.” The precise heat of anger glows in many poems, most notably “Life Is Another Word,” which addresses a soundbite news story about the violent rape of a Haitian woman who was forced to perform sex acts on her own son: “a poet will tell you / a thousand times / this shit is / not poetry.” We are lucky to have a poet who is specific and brave enough to touch these topics. She weaves intersectionality in sharp metaphors, such as in “Where Our Protest Sound:” “haiti’s first cousin / forcibly kissed / by a hurricane called / katrina.”
It may be these arresting confrontations with what is heartbreaking and wrong with the world that make her pauses for beauty so gorgeous. In “Madivinez” she calls her mother to ask for the Kreyol word for “lesbian,” after not finding it in the dictionary. She later pencils in the new word next to “ke,” Kreyol for heart: “glamorous, holy, haitian dyke heart. / something i want / to be.” There’s a tension of not being fully accepted as a queer woman by the men in her family, but upon this tension Moïse tightropes into stunning epiphany. “Gift A Sea” is a mere two stanzas; while her grandfather is “praying rocks / against the woman / in my love,” she remembers:
when i was tiny thirsty
he bought me a vintage typewriter
heavy and teal it splashed under my palms
a thrifted gift a sea in my blood
the first tool
my damp fingers used
to cool and name myself.
This is the rare book of poetry that makes one pause while reading, look up from the page, whistle low. It’s poetry to be savored, then devoured, then shared.
By Lenelle Moïse
City Lights/Sister Spit
Paperback, 9780872866140, 79 pp.