Paul Cunningham Reviews & more black, t’ai freedom ford’s second poetry collection

“prehistoric afro futuristic antagonistic / ragamuffin natural mystic slapboxing pugilistic / cosmic slapstick beautiful black lips slathered in chapstick / fucking plagiarists made ya fists twist backwards blackness.” Funked-up with the dark of the Gothic, with the hip-hop of the future, with electric vibrato and too much to swallow, t’ai freedom ford’s & more black gets inside your lungs and Styx with you. It’s a transgressive and excessive book of darkly sonic poems that will twist your tongue in spectacular ways. The design of the book itself is an act of excess. Like a record, ford’s two-sided book (divided by a single black page) can be turned over and over to access two different tracks of consciousness (à la Du Bois), two different modes of feeling & seeing & smelling & speaking & chewing & tasting. It’s a continuous spiraling verse of past, present & future, wingtips & bowties, Black art & the Black Arts, bluesy blues & blood-red woes, ampersands & desperate demands for whispers to become drums. To become stronger during a time when emotional strength is most needed in America. That prefix “be-” is at the heart of so many of ford’s poems (“numb became shotgun became sunflower became / battleaxe became dumb became whisper became / drum”). & more black is more than a book of poetry—it’s something that should be sung, performed, & screamed down Pennsylvania Avenue:

my hair be a graveyard of black fist picks
my hair be a locked bag of magic tricks

my eyes be like two machetes shining
my eyes be like cosmic stars divining

my nose be like a magnolia tree
my nose be like Harriet black & free

Many of the bodies we observe in these poems exist in close proximity to the ground and/or dirt and/or root systems swelling beneath the dirt. There are bodies forced onto or into the ground. There are bodies stuck in the “foreground.” There are also voices heard singing in the “background.” All of these instances of “ground” are juxtaposed against that lively, drum-like “be,” resulting in a life-or-death/death-in-life poetic language. ford herself has said she’s interested in the idea of black narrative voices that go dark and come back to life. & more black offers us many traces of the Gothic, an unstable, interrogative, lyrical “place” that María Negroni has described as “an infinite metaphor for the strange—that is, for terrifying freedom,” can be found in the poems of & more black:

we was born year of the boogie: 73
a brand new heavy      mouthful of feathers
& tar & guitar    we was fly collar blue
black      descendants of the letter R
rhyme with horror      got ghosts up in our throats

Reinforced by the book’s title, the conjunctive ampersand that fills ford’s poems—a corruptive of “and per se—and”—expresses the idea of a de-limited body that swells and expands outwardly. The ampersand itself suggests poetry’s powers are capable of twisting, specter-like, somewhere between life and death, always coming back around to make some noise. There’s also something arguably erotic about the way the pair of different colored ampersands on the spine of the book have been linked to the two nearly symmetrical variations of Alexandria Smith’s “The Skin We Speak.” In both works, the nipples of two women have conjoined, one penetrating the other. This type of erotic/maternal inversion has also been explored in the art of Kara Walker, another artist ford pays tribute to: “hardly defenseless after all they had / no panties & pounds of black pussy.” Given the queer plurality of ford’s bodies and ampersands, it might also be interesting to consider the now obsolete plural form of ampersand: ampussy. Whether breast-like or vagina-like, the interconnected ampersands of & more black express an unapologetically black female sexuality (“pounds of black pussy”) ready to retaliate against a “great / white whoosh of wires”:

is being double-handed a big butch badge?
awkward tomboy whacking wayward while
femmes wedged themselves between the great
white whoosh of wires—plan b: wait for warm
wrists to kiss mine as she whines: nooo, like this

The poet repeatedly takes command, shifting us with her interpellative gaze, telling us to look “there” or prompting us to contemplate the imagined experiences of a “tomboy.” Whether moments of childhood or adulthood, ford invites us in, but with a controlled amount of distance that feels reminiscent of photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ 1990 Kitchen Table Series. “I made them all in my own kitchen, all in my own house, using a single light source hanging over the kitchen table,” Weems has said of her photographs of domestic scenes, a series she specifically made for black women. A series she has referred to as a “battle.” Similarly, ford makes it very clear that & more black is her house and her rules:

in my negrodian naivete     the white gaze
never phased me      but skittish with skittles
i skedaddle    straddle life & breath    battle
death rays aiming to amaze me    immortal
nothing & errythang twirl:      the do or die portal

ford’s only light source is black. It is “all that glitters.” One poem in particular, “if someone should take your picture & make you black,” juxtaposes black celebrity, multilevel racism, food, and rage. Critical of both cultural consumption and the threat of white-controlled images of blackness, ford cycles our eye up and down the page from different bodies to different foods. Dedicated to Aunjanue, the nostalgic poem begins:

remember when r&b singers were all
the rage & all the rage was trademarked Black
& Mary J. Blige wailed coked-up love songs
& Oprah was king of every little black
box inside whitefolks minds & whitefolks
minds wasn’t nothing but a pancake box
of stereotype & Al B. Sure!’s lightskinned
voiced pimped the airwaves—& then came Wesley

Moving forward in this book sometimes feels like a moving backwards through time. The lines “box inside whitefolks minds & whitefolks / minds wasn’t nothing but a pancake box / of stereotype” suggests that the white American mindset has actually only grown more uninformed, thus more dangerous (as evidenced by white Americans who genuinely believe “All Lives Matter” to be an appropriate response to the Black Lives Matter movement). & more black is a reminder—to all—that black people, black celebrities, black icons are still battling for recognition and authority. ford goes on to nourish readers with a milk-like gravy, with her breast-like ampersand, with the constant reminder that black art isn’t going anywhere. That there will always be more black & more black & more black:

i understand how tiring it is      the way rage
bubbles like a pot of grits except ain’t
no Al Green or any other reverend
to receive your holy metaphors & you are
better for it      & the world is better
because you present like Christmas morning
& Aretha’s gospel ain’t nothing but black
magic in the way that flour & water
& fatback make gravy    in the way we
die broke & indebted with nothing
for family to inherit but our gifts
blood-borne & cosmic & illegitimate
& inexplicable as any bastard—black
as any mirror staring back at us
with our own eyes

& more black, by t’ai freedom ford. Brooklyn, New York: Augury Books, July 2019. 104 pages. $18.00, double-sided book.

Paul Cunningham’s translation of Helena Österlund’s Words is forthcoming from OOMPH! Press in October 2019. He edits Deluge and co-manages Radioactive Cloud. His work has most recently appeared in Ghost Proposal, the Kenyon Review, Poem-A-Day, Quarterly West, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Spectacle, and others.

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