December 21, 2018KR Reviews

On I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood by Tiana Clark

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 109 pages. $17.00.

Beginning almost outside of itself, Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood opens with a poem entitled “Nashville,” which combines identity, history, and the white appropriation of black culture and lives—roving from “hot / chicken for $16 and two farm-to-table sides” to how a highway was built to pass by a black community, redirecting business and ambulances, resulting in “black bodies going straight to the morgue.” Clark’s poem unravels crowds and lynching trees in search of the singular speaker who called her the n-word by proxy of insulting her husband. Language betrays and misdirects, a tool Clark uses as her own throughout the collection, as well as one that comes imbued with racist and exclusionary traditions, down to the syllable.

In “Soil Horizon” the poem’s speaker is invited to be in a family picture on an old plantation under the encouragement from a mother-in-law, who asks “Can’t we / just let the past be the past?” On further discussing the location of the picture, Clark writes:

and I laughed, which is to say—I wasn’t joking at all. She kept saying:
redeem, as if to say, we’ll make it acceptable: restore and atone, buy it

back, pay it off, we’ll redeem it, she said again. Emancipate. Liberate.
Her voice swelling, like she was singing, and as if we really could.

How do we stand on the dead and smile? I carry so many black souls
in my skin, sometimes I swear it vibrates, like a tuning fork when struck.

Here we see a body at once contemporary and historicized, one that belongs to this speaker and this poem but also one not isolated only to its cellular and stanza-based borders. To imagine that a plantation, a site of so much grief and abuse, might be reclaimed by a mostly-white family photo is, as Clark suggests, a willful act of glossing over, ignoring, and inherently not connecting with a past and a people that the speaker feels alive in her narrative present. Refusing to make the horrific casual, Clark’s poem does the opposite, instead rendering the camera “a tiny guillotine” as the coming rain hits not only the dirt but soaks into “the bedrock of Southern amnesia.” As she shows us what has to be forgotten to enjoy the background landscape of a plantation for an aesthetic beauty, Clark also shows us why this past must and always will be remembered.

This theme of resurfacing traumatic memory carries on throughout the collection, arising from both inside the speaker’s direct experiences as well as from what she endures in being a member of multiple historically marginalized groups. The female body, and the language in which it manifests in this collection, proves to be at once contemporary and antique, belonging to its writer and to a slew of associations, stories, injustices, and objectifications it was born into. “Cottonmouth” sees the female body as both godly and, under duress, associated with a snake’s in the performance of being female and reaching an odd holiness in suffering; it’s caught somewhere between animal and ascension:

I have seen three women give birth
and with each contraction
the mighty hips break and stretch,
the leathery mouth of a snake.

I watched as they writhed
inside the all-consuming pain, pure as God,
fists clenched, wailing something
not quite human, but animal enough.

The poem “The Ayes Have It” travels through some of these mutually personal and antique associations in relation to race:

So when I think about a post-racial America, I don’t—
        because the trees in the South have strange fruit histories,

the roots are deep red, tangled and gnarled, so again—
        when I think of Trayvon, I think of hoodies, then I think

of stereotypes, I think of skittles and high fructose corn syrup,
        tasting the rainbow, and then I think of gay marriage,

This piece gives us a phrase with an uprooted definition, this being a “post-racial America” that does not exist. The mere thought process of this poem, which legibly jumps from tree roots to Trayvon Martin after beginning with Emmet Till, demonstrates that race and racism still both influence reality and thought in the American landscape too much to be perceived as nonexistent or as belonging exclusively to the past. The collection moves on to have conversations with Phillis Wheatley, Kanye West, and Nina Simone; it invokes the myth of Orpheus and Rihanna’s music; and it adapts lines from Toni Morrison’s Sula. This intertextuality of much of Clark’s work contextualizes her use of language and the personal nature of much of her poems. For instance, in “Self-Portrait as Hannah Peace,” a set of lines from Sula is aligned on the right-hand side of the page, acting both in conversation with the surrounding poem and as its own independent spine capable of being read on its own, bearing much of the thematic weight Clark’s words elaborate, specify, and personalize. The outside text becomes more than echo—Morrison’s question “Ain’t that love?” reinforces and builds upon Clark’s questions and notions of how she loves her mother by watching her, instead of joining her, in a dance. There exists a sense of distance and divide, but also one of connection and misunderstood intentionality, under-riding and synchronizing both texts into a holistic and shifting whole.

Clark’s poems converse with each other as well, often mentioning a previously described event from a new or more detailed angle, allowing the book to become a work which asks to be read sequentially and as a whole to be best comprehended. These pieces invite the reader to witness the past as a mobile and volatile thing that inevitably relates to and impacts our present. There is no “letting the past be the past” as a burial tool for the uncomfortable; instead, Clark unearths what many have hoped to obscure and demands recognition for the fact that the echoes of slavery, segregation, and racism are not only in existence, but in fact, maintain our country’s personal and political realities today. From parodying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to asking what might have happened if George Zimmerman had seen Trayvon Martin and “given him a ride home” (in “The Ayes Have It”), Clark has revived and revised what we need to see in order to evolve, rather than just move on, from tragedy and injustice.

Moving through I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, the reader tours a work that is part autobiography, part dialogue between a mottled history and a contemporary persona. At the synthesis between these two narrative lines, Clark reaches the communicated revelation that the title partially suggests—no body exists without historical association and context in this world and more specifically, this America which is anything but post-racial. Clark unveils an individual history which irrevocably belongs to a world history, as well as vice versa, in this collection that educates as well as artfully brings a life into a legible and concrete experience.

Photo of Claire Oleson
Claire Oleson is a queer writer and 2020 Fiction Fellow at the Center for Fiction. She is a 2019 graduate of Kenyon College where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by Kenyon Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guesthouse, and Foglifter, among others. Her chapbook of short stories Things from the Creek Bed we Could Have Been debuted May 2020 from Newfound Press. She is represented by Eloy Bleifuss at Janklow & Nesbit. She thinks you look nice today.