Blue Hallelujahs. Cynthia Manick. Black Lawrence Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 2016.
"we don't choose what haunts us"
from Mind the Gap
Today's book of poetry can tell you that these poems are declarations, prayers, confessions and pleas, all of them vividly feminine and highly charged. Cynthia Manick's Blue Hallelujahs is a strong woman's voice telling the stories of young girls, young women and old women too. These are stories that don't see the light of day often enough. Even though women read and write more poetry than men - men publish more poetry than women.
Manick wrings joy out wherever she can find it and like her grandmother's kitchen, these poems will bring you that "slow applause under the skin." Tyehimba Jess suggests that Blue Hallelujahs is necessary music for getting to the other side. Today's book of poetry certainly felt the tug.
Mind the Gap
Little E wants a smile like mine,
teeth with a gap so wide
a corn husk and tugboat
could pull through.
Or a submarine, lost sounds
and grunts. Tiny light bulbs
if you're careful or a string
of Christmas lights looped
through like garland.
Does she know how the world
works? How some of us
are born without 40 acres
and the weight of a mule
on their chest. Like my mother
and Monday mornings --
boarding the F train and two buses
with two children, her own negro
caravan. A sonata full of low-watt
clinics and hurling vowels
like swords. How I often waited
in those long-ass lines
and imagined myself a boy,
a whirlwind digging in the muck
where only muscles and gold matter.
My tongue tries to reason with her
ring against the want -- cause
we don't choose what haunts us.
When I was young I craved closed
spaces, bright veneers, the smile
of Rudy Huxtable or on bad days
Shirley Temple. No one notices
a mouth when Bojangles is dancing.
Today's book of poetry is uncertain of how to address the obvious so feels compelled to say it - these poems are about a young Black woman and her experience of the world and I'm an old white man, so how could I possibly relate? Is that an unreasonable question? Cynthia Manick does all the work bridging that gap by writing poems that are wide open and crystal clear. The strong women in these poems are familiars and we admire their unrelenting belief that the world is changed with every strong foot put forward.
Manick's poems are confident and certain, powerful meditations on family, gender, childhood and race. Today's book of poetry enjoyed that Manick employs an innocent sense of wonder in her voice from time to time in these excellent poems. Resilience is rare enough but adding wonder gives these poems additional charm.
Recipe for Consummation
Your seasoned skin --
one quart Egyptian
the shade of balsa honey,
one part Cubano
with a dash of cayenne pepper,
and one half buttered South--
is a scratch 'n sniff insert
more savory than Old Spice
or Sara Lee;
and I claw it nightly
like oranges or sand
to whispered chants
of sweet meat sweet meat
and bareback tongues
in our bedroom,
until shuck sheds
like a coiled rope
of dark stars.
I drink it down
so that my body
the brown bounty
of your herbs and spine
in the morning.
Blue Hallelujahs has its share of righteous indignity, these poems are never shrill or pained but they certainly are sharp and pointed when Manick puts her foot down.
Another great morning read at the Today's book of poetry offices. The sun is shining in our town this morning which is a treat, we've had snow nineteen of the last twenty-five days. We all took turns reading Cynthia Manick's Blue Hallelujahs until there were none left to read.
When I Think of My Father
I live in constant fear of extinction,
that I'll be pulled back to muddy toes
and pear trees. Praised for wide hips
and a silent mouth that wants
to scream, echo, grunt, but can't.
Or that I'll meet a man just like my daddy,
tether my back to his name like a spine
where each cord holds large teats filled with children
and more children like little benign tumors.
And when he slips his hand under my skirt
I'll know he doesn't love me -- just the malleable
skin that's spreads north and south,
guided by his un-mutable compass.
When I think of my father I can only see
my mother at her knees, chanting he's gone
Cyn, he's gone, pairs of discarded
blue jeans on the floor, my mother
fingering the silver buckles like a totem
to lure him back --
from some other woman's scent.
She silently demands my twelve-year old
self to hold and rock her body
like a pair of marsupials -- her rooting
my chest for safety, me exposed to the cold
air of their bedroom. I try to be stone,
brine the carnage in my throat
swallow her overripe voice of muscadines.
Falling into the bodies of baggy pants
boys at corner stores -- their pockets
full of candy and cake. What they don't
give me, I steal. What I steal, I eat.
I eat to fill a gangrene hole stuffed with bills,
deeds in my father's name, blocks
of state-issued butter and cheese.
I want to take a blade and cut
the edge of this round red wound.
Have daughters born not ready
to fear, but ready to pick up a spade,
dig a ditch, and knife a man.
Today's book of poetry has nothing but esteem for the voice of Cynthia Manick. I wish her strength on all our daughters and sisters.
Blue Hallelujahs is Cynthia Manick's first book of poetry, it's as powerful as it is promising.
Photo: Sue Rissberger
ABOUT THE AUTHORA Pushcart Prize nominated poet with an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School, Cynthia Manick has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Hedgebrook, and the Vermont Studio Center. She serves as East Coast Editor of the independent press Jamii Publishing and was a 2014 finalist for the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her work has appeared in African American Review, Bone Bouquet, Callaloo, DMQ Review, Kweli Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Sou’wester, Pedestal Magazine, Passages North, St. Ann’s Review, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
The speaker of Cynthia Manick’s haunted debut collection admits “a love for surgery porn at 1 a.m.” And one early poem begins, “Today I am elbow deep/in some animal’s belly//pulling out the heart and stomach/for my mother’s table.” Throughout, Blue Hallelujahs approaches aspects of a woman’s development—from “feet first” Caesarean delivery to a grandmother’s admonition “to pull flesh/from the throat not the belly”—blade at the ready, moving from slaughter to surgery to a kind of deep southern haruspication. At the center of girlhood we find The Shop with its inventory of inherited hungers. “Is this what the heart eats?” Manick renders visceral a longing to avoid extinction, to escape the museum, to live fully embodying one’s identity as a woman who “knows/ how to wield a knife.”
—Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award Finalist
"What we remember is what we become. Rocking chairs holding mothers and "animals that root the ground for peaches, bones and stars." In Blue Hallelujahs Cynthia Manick holds fast to what brought us across. These are not the things you will hear about Black people on the nightly news. But they remain the things that lock the arms of Black people around Black people when we need what we need to keep moving on. I am so grateful to this sweet box of sacred words."
—Nikky Finney, Author of Head Off & Split, Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry
Cynthia Manick's Blue Hallelujahs bring us to a broil like Koko Taylor's "white-toothed love coils on repeat." Here, we have a gospel of womanly sharpness, a kitchen sinked and hot combed diary of the way Blues grinds into the 21st century. Gifted with the ability to smolder into surprise and swelter, Manick's reflections on discovery and loss will bring you to a "slow applause under the skin." Thank you for this bouquet of sheet music filled with church organ and pistol smoke, Ms. Manick. We gone need it to get to the other side.
—Tyehimba Jess, author of leadbelly, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series
Black Poets Speak Out
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