November 15, 2019KR Reviews

On Camonghne Felix’s Build Yourself a Boat

Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2019. 58 pages. $16.00.

What use is any treatise on grief or philosophy of its properties—the recursion, the desires for myth, the disorganization of real time—that doesn’t centrally consider the nature of thwarted recoveries in Black womanhood? I begin in this question not because Camonghne Felix has written a collection of elegiac poems; nominally, she hasn’t. Melancholia no more occasions Build Yourself a Boat than do the initial, crucial excisions of loss appear to occur to her speakers as distinctly occasional. It seems that the poetic genre of elegy, with its volumes individually applauded for the labor of output and the management of protracted silence, has yet to definitively make space for poetry like Felix’s, which so fundamentally apprehends death and trauma as tidally regular that—if not for the subjectivity of Black womanhood and the stereotypes of superhuman resilience that plague it—it might be otherwise considered grotesque. Rather, I begin in this question because the way that loss is pervasive but not homogenous in Felix’s full-length debut (her concerns and needs are many) repositions the sustained soliloquist elegy as a luxury.

Keenly aware of its subjects’ beginning adrift, the collection opens mid-sequence and post-displacement with “Lost Poem 4: Rx,” a deceptively lush sonic lyric paced by patient, majuscule couplets that might perhaps drape an aesthetically comforting allure across the irreverent voice divulging the speaker’s nonchalance toward suicide while under psychiatric review. She introduces herself to the reader with a persuasive, “charm[ing] . . . ability to finesse” through confident declaration.

I can save my own life just as easily

As I can corrupt compounds of
Ripe silence with just a mouth—

Drown it out of its own sound.
This is what makes me dangerously

Compatible with death

This speaker could have stated, simply, “I can save my own life. I am compatible with death.” But Felix, a poet and political strategist, astute in the credence of musicality and the sentence as a decision to subordinate (clause and otherwise) or not, uses the poem’s diction, structure, and form to negotiate audience power while elaborating on the speaker’s moment of false confidence toward the psychiatrist who has the power to commit her for seven days.

This contract is one current of the suspense Felix runs throughout the collection. In the second poem—a deeper investigation into the risks of confessing traumatic details in personal history and which calls into question the distinction between reader’s gaze and that of the state—Felix inserts the first of eleven footnotes. The source and circumstances of these footnotes remain deferred until the collection’s finale, where they are revealed as excerpts from a letter describing the recollection of a sexual assault and the subsequent effects on its writer’s ability to swim—lending, in retrospect, a dampening complexity to the collection’s emergent subjects of lucidity and obfuscation, trust and confession, intergenerational trauma, the particular precariousness of Black girlhood, and the cargo of survival.

In addition to the shards of the “Lost Poem” sequence, the collection collages at least three other series or suites. “Cutting w/ JB” is the title of three prose poems, the first of which finds the speaker skipping school and meditating on synthetic kinship.

No one’s looking for us. Emmy’s mom died five weeks ago, so as far as she’s concerned, what the fuck is a parent? I’ve never had a best friend before. All the books say that when your best friend’s mama die, you ain’t got no parents neither.

This series continues to present quotidian glimpses at the relationships between the speaker and her friends Emmy and JB. JB peripherally acts as a kind of surrogate matriarch, a relatively stable blueprint for the burgeoning prospect of womanness and agency. “[W]e assume that her seniority makes her the queen of sexual prowess,” Felix writes in the third of these poems, “and we want nothing more than to baste ourselves in all of her dirt.”

“Zimmerman Testimonies,” the collection’s most thorough sequence, chronicles the speaker’s ruminations while witnessing five days of the pivotal Florida v. Zimmerman court proceedings following the murder of Trayvon Martin. Most effective in these poems are Felix’s deft observations of how gaze and spectacle operate in such proceedings, how the business of Black death implicates the poet and reader alike (“it is how we mourn, the spectator / consumed with the positioning of slain skin / wherever I am in the world”), as well as how respectability functions as both an unreliable survival mechanism and a punctuating death of innocence. In “Zimmerman Testimonies: Day 4,” after opening on the witness testimony of Rachel Jeantel, Felix’s speaker recalls an experience in the third grade, of the stakes of being able to code-switch under the presumption of lying.

and I’m thinking about the vertical perk in the eyebrow
I chew a word they don’t expect and how
the narrative goes from miss to Ma’am once
you’ve mastered the Master’s language
and I’m thinking about it and thinking about it
“you speak so well”

and thinking about what if I didn’t.

The poem that both bears the collection’s longest title and seems to be the one that offers all others their emotional centrifuge is “After the Abortion, an Older White Planned Parenthood Volunteer Asks If My Husband Is Here & Squeezes My Thigh and Says, ‘You Made The Right Decision,’ and Then ‘Look What Could Happen If Trump Were President, I Mean, You Might Not Even Be Here.’” The poem alternates between present and past tense and subjunctive mood, in equal parts an associative catalogue of disintegrating scenes and an elegy: for life before the abortion, the election, the abandoned government job, the departed fiancé. It features a well-wrought chiasmus of image walled by, on one end, two women untended in clinic beds during their abortions and, on the other, the speaker and her fiancé in bed, “meters between us” in the aftermath. Felix crafts this poem in lines that require the full length of the landscape-oriented vertical page and are perforated by frequent, irregular insertions of space—breathy caesurae that, when read aloud, induce a kind of hyperventilation and lend the poem an anxious pace that is starkly at odds with the initial tone of confidence in the collection’s first poems. In this nebulous breakdown of composure, Felix deploys compact strands of multi-syllabic terms as though to overwhelm the text and to highlight how previously meaningful jargon—the stuff of the speaker’s livelihood—now seems absurd, benign, without any center, and failing her.

we’re looking at a critical        fault        otherwise
they need
        my colloquial        criticalities my totalizing      
abnormalities my        compounds and
constructs of trajectory        this is the only how I know to be had

A lament for language in language, this poem acts as a measure of what’s contained and what’s at stake in the collection, insinuating into the poetry elsewhere a labor of cool, well-tended capacity.

As a debut, Build Yourself a Boat showcases the arrival of an intelligent, expansively lived poet who commands a decisive syntax and who enters the risky dynamics of revelation and withholding with careful attention. As a collection in its own right, it puts little stock in arriving or debuting, and has a tilted attitude toward showcasing. “The body is not a site for revelatory shame,” Felix writes. “Assembly of self is not voyeuristic.” What these poems do assemble is an inquiry. What frame exists in the poetics of encountering, resisting, and articulating the critical facets of loss—and of a life constructed in conjunction with its certainty—that is prepared to imagine such a portrait of acquaintance with those losses that are and have been the most potent eventualities of our national anti-Black, misogynist politics? And what about writing self-assembly from the midst of perpetual mourning and within the gaps between raced and gendered grammars is not (and has not been), by definition, experimental?