Starshine & Clay   by Kamilah Aisha Moon   Four Way Books , 128 pages, September 5, 2017

Starshine & Clay

by Kamilah Aisha Moon

Four Way Books, 128 pages, September 5, 2017

 

REVIEWED BY VALERIE DUFF-STRAUTMANN

Starshine & Clay, Kamilah Aisha Moon's second collection, owes debts to Lucille Clifton's poem "won't you celebrate with me." In "won't you celebrate with me," Clifton describes herself as existing on a bridge built of starshine and clay, celebrating that "every day / something has tried to kill me / and has failed." Moon’s collection contains the sometimes brilliant, sometimes violent light of another type of starshine--lives burning brightly and burning out. In her opening poem “Exploded Stars,” there is no bridge as in the Clifton poem, but there is an experience of explosive energy, whether the body can endure it or not: "tiny supernovae / in our arms. Crushed / bodies craving fusion/keep us brimming/with enough energy/to pass on,/keep us lit & lying/to ourselves about/the eventual & sudden/ways we black hole--" This matter, this starshine, is "haunted by/wholeness—," which instead of remaining intact, is composed of many flares all trying to exist and push forward.  Each word, so carefully aligned and alliterative (as in the work of her influence, Clifton), the poem carves out its path with a nuclear force. Light is sucked away (in her verb, to "black hole") and thrust out again: "--reconstituted/& scorched clean,/new turmoil begging/from the inside out/to burn." Celebration exists in the light itself.

The starshine in this collection is composed of names, each with his or her own poem, or a place within a poem: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice's mother), Walter Scott, Felecia Sanders's granddaughter, to name a few—all African Americans who have been killed or had their lives altered by racially motivated violence. Just as Clifton's poem says black lives matter, Moon's collection does, too, reaching to encapsulate the lives of many, as well as flowing back in time to the lynching of Clyde Johnson, Jesse Washington, so many names, so many deaths.

But then, the book widens its focus to show the connections between the political and the personal. In "To Thelma, Almost Two Years After Your Burial" (a remarkable apostrophe), Moon considers the way the body of an organ donor continues to live on after death: "I try not to get angry / at strangers pressing too close, / choosing kindness just in case / there's a part of you/brushing by." The world is experienced differently once the loved one continues on elsewhere—the gap between Loved One and Other begins to shrink.

Life is at once tenuous and tenacious, short-lived and enduring: "I must have dined near what remains / of you, faithful organ / thriving in a body / spending your hours, strolling past / milestones you won't reach." The recognition of this paradox begins the second section, in which Moon's poems explore injury and illness both of loved ones and her own body: cancer, fibroids, cataracts, surgeries, transfusions.  But while Moon notices how families and groups support each other, draw each other in, she remains invested in the divisions experienced by African Americans, propelled by white division ("Family Ties Unlaced," here in full):

 

Went to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art

to feel a connection

Learn some culture

& view ancestral artifacts

 

My distant kin

from across the water

 

Feeling instead the chasm of the gift shop

where black cashiers grin & chat

with white customers but turn

into stone figures

while ringing up

my poster

key chain

& bookmark

 

My distant kin

from across the counter

 

In poems like “Family Ties Unlaced,” Moon writes in a deceptively simple style, yet uses rhythm and rhyme throughout in ways that pressurize the final torque in her refrain. She at times branches out into formal poems—which include a villanelle that invokes a mom “toking against porcelain”, a ghazal that references a rap song, and, nodding to another great African American female poet, a Gwendolyn Brooks-inspired Golden Shovel. But the imposition of form isn’t crucial to the poems; whether writing in form or free verse, Moon moves through the “solace in thin air” that she connects to the African American existence.  The third section of the book opens with a haiku ("#1"):

 

Oh, we turn & turn

& often, breathlessly, click

but never open

 

Poems in Starshine & Clay turn a magnifying glass on action and motivation. The poem that seems most homage-like, most in the spirit of Clifton, but with Moon’s particular mettle and flair, is her poem, "Love":

 

Once you've decided (it is a decision)

your skull won't bleach

in the sun like a lost animal, what else

is there to do in any desert but study at the feet

of succulents drawing relief out of no where,

bristle with lessons? To walk & walk far past

whatever singed--the trudge

of faith every body afire knows until some

inexplicable, glorious flower or face

sirens the water & honey rooted in your cells, rolls

all of the little stones away from the tomb

that still is your heart & roars

without words, rise

 

Is it an apostrophe to Clifton?  Quite possibly. An acknowledgment of a life and art fought for and embraced, as Moon insists: "Once you've decided (it is a decision)."  Clifton, and so many others like her, have drawn "relief out of no where" (or as Clifton says, "i made it up / here on this bridge between/starshine and clay,/my one hand holding tight my other hand." Celebrate with me, Moon says, roll away the stones that can easily sit over the dead in your heart. Both poets call out to their community: Black lives matter. We are still standing.

 

Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, The Critical Flame, and The Boston Globe. She recently held fellowships at the VCCA and Writers’ Room of Boston. Her book of poems is To the New World (Salmon Poetry), and she is Poetry Editor of Salamander Magazine.