There is something about the body that makes it an endless source for the written word. Whether exploring the body’s physical aspects, its changing implications in a changing society, or the fact that it’s seen by many (particularly in a religious context) as a flawed vessel we must navigate in in order to reach a place beyond this world, the body serves as a source of pride and tension, both of which Malcolm Tariq captures so intimately in his debut collection Heed the Hollow.
It’s fair to say that Tariq is not only rivaling the best poets writing today, but that he’s adding to the larger conversations regarding identity, sexuality, place, and the role certain bodies play in spaces where they have not been historically accepted. Heed the Hollow, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2018, begins with the poem “Power Bottom,” which sets the tone for the manner in which the poems throughout the collection navigate the complexities of being black and queer in the South:
we said Satan, get thee behind
and I always laughed. A demon child
with a twisted mouth,
at suppertime I refused meat
to suck on bones. In the alley
behind the house what grew besides
berries I was told not to touch? I licked
the blood at the root. A bitter crop,
I came screaming—never tell me
to be quiet again. I know what life
the wind sucks, but what hits harder
than a hungry hand scorn by
a gallant South?
The scene is simple enough: a church where a boy, already aware of the nuances of language, giggles at phrases meant to be meaningful, even life changing. But the speaker, even so young, cannot deny who he is, and hence he goes against the expectations that constrain his identity and being.
In almost every poem, whether implicitly or explicitly, there is an awareness of this country’s troubled past with black lives and bodies, and when this past is explored in depth, Tariq reminds us that the present is not immune to time’s vague attempt at closure:
Nestled among books, the spine bleeds
restraint. I attempt
my chances, finding but row upon row
of property labeled, a record
sorted by interviewer, master, narrator,
state—whose story is it?
How many ways do you find yourselves
here? Names tied to antithesis. How many ways
do I find myself? Thus far, still waiting.
And though located, not found.
The deep root clenched to dirt.
Its blood root deep but unnamable
save the stock or kin.
Here in “Index to the American Slave,” the act of searching through a book doubles as an act of homage, of knowing that although there are details the speaker will never truly understand, he can connect with the past that deserves to be remembered. Given today’s political climate, and the ways in which people attempt to distort or outright erase chunks of history, Tariq reminds us that the personal is necessary, that it can help bridge the gap some would so gladly like to widen.
In addition to trying to understand the nuances of history as it relates to the body, Tariq explores the language of power, especially when it centers around sexuality. There are multiple poems titled “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,” and apart from the ways in which the colloquial terms for “bottom” are implied here (the bottom in a relationship, social hierarchy, etc.), Tariq uses the literal bottom to expand into the metaphorical. In the second of these poems (found in the second section), the speaker’s bottom, and by extension his body and its history, take center stage:
We called it the twerk room, and dimmed lights
at house parties to grind our bodies against walls
and each other. We are two black
boys in Michigan—Georgia and Mississippi
spiraling slowly. There are names for people like us
and we live into them. My ass fits perfectly in
the seat of his person, speaks to the air between us
where I feel him rise and reach. Now his legs
guide us into the familiar;
we bend into the blade of a scythe. Outside,
our ancestors are folding fields, grinding
to heel-toe seed into the ground, their feet
drilling new life, bodies bent in heat to clap the earth,
up and down, black bottoms wading in air,
a feast for house eyes.
Notice how the speaker’s body does not exist apart from the history of bodies like his and of the ways it was once viewed as an object to be used at someone else’s disposal (labor, sexual gratification, etc.). Regardless if the speaker is a bottom in this relationship, there is power in owning his sexuality and of who he’s known he’s always been. At the end of the collection, the “bottom” comes into play again, only this time, it focuses on the United States and the ways in which the unspoken (and poorly studied) aspects of this country deserve to be praised:
Praise the soft bottom of the USA,
her sugar tit still raw with wrought
of generations, her cotton gin gyration
inflicted into the games of children
chattering rhymes on the street corner…
Praise the sweet bottom of the South,
our heft of holler ringing into present
tense, the lift of fists festered into submission,
the perverse sway of swamp housing
the hush of history, the hollow of saltwater
cyclone seeing and sealing truth, our tapestry
of tabby toppling over as testimony …
There are politicians, pundits, and everyday people who either downplay the history of slavery in this country or downright ignore it. Tariq’s poetry, however, brings it to the surface (see the poems “Slave Play” and “1 Yearning” for honest portrayals of the consequences of slavery) and in doing so he celebrates not only what the body means historically, but what it is in the present and what it can be in the future.
The addition of Tariq’s voice in the American literary scene is a reassurance of poetry’s attempt to carve out spaces for ideas and people that are often neglected, and it reminds us that there is always room to reexamine the way we view ourselves and others.
Heed the Hollow, by Malcolm Tariq. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, November 2019. 128 pages. $16.00, paper.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.