The “[h]oly body and slave body act the same,” says American scholar Willie James Jennings in his award-winning book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. In his extensive study, he explores the connection between western colonists’ Christianity and their creation of the social construct of race—and how its long legacy distorts the “vision of creation.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in Between the World and Me, “This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
Charnell Peters’ new chapbook of stunning poetry explores this legacy, this reality, as she strives to shape her own identity in the American Midwest, a kind of middle passage for African Americans rife with the dangers of denial, politeness to the point of insensitivity, and obliviousness to the onerous challenges people of color endure here, generation after generation. “[E]verything I have to say,” the speaker of the opening poem declares, “was fashioned into safe houses / at the pits of my pores / before I knew of a battle / or the labor or a word” (“On Monday I Decide to Eat 5 Kiwis for Breakfast”). That poem, in fact, is one of the most evocative and effective opening poems I’ve ever read in a collection; it juxtaposes the sense of supposed, small-town safety with the threat of danger, as it perfectly weds the kiwi to all the themes of race and identity the collection will explore:
I too spill into my edges
and have been darkening
since birth when I came so early my pigment
still slept once . . .
so let me lay hands upon the ones
who want my body meat-ed
and on the ones who will watch me become meat and say
it was only one body.
I can read the past
to their wrists with my teeth
I can firesing stones
in their stomachs to dust
but if they take me take my palms
cook them up with ham hock
and Lawry’s seasoning salt
and feed them to the hungry
give me to them
name my skin a good name . . .
The body Black, the body beautiful, the body able to survive, the body able to save. The holy body. This poem impressively introduces the readers to the eighteen stirring, incarnational poems to follow, poetry that explores a female body of color in its otherworldly existence marked by systemic racism, the kind most whites never notice, let alone seek to change.
Tightly woven together, Peters’ poems juxtapose one another like provocative paintings in a museum exhibit and build upon one another, using motifs of light and water, skin and pores, palms and hands, prayers and spirituals, as they also allude to other works by authors as diverse as Lucille Clifton and William Shakespeare.
Permeating every poem is the undeniable fact that every African American has “been raced,” something each poem’s speaker didn’t choose, something that has been done to her. In one of several poems that fittingly employs virgules amid each line to represent internal conflict not only within herself but also within the country, the speaker notes how even the nickel passing through her hands in a lunch purchase reminds her of racism embedded in the country’s foundation (even the nickel’s own composition has warred against itself—it is now 75% copper). In that poem, Thomas Jefferson interrogates her:
man in the nickel / screams out / you beast you
/ can you even imagine / I say yes I imagine
always / he says / can you care about your family
/ I say yes I can for them always / he says / can
you balance two pears on your two palms / i
say no/ there is a skull stuffed there it is
difficult to hold pears in both / he shrinks into
copper . . . (“An Uncertain Map of How I Got Raced”)
The questions Jefferson asks conjure the inane inquires posed to Blacks when they tried to register to vote in the South. Of course, they are human and possess imagination and express love. They, too, bear the image of God. But balance two pears in a palm when the system long ago “deconstruct[ed]” it “with a / trowel made of teeth” and buried there a “skull”? No, that’s not possible precisely because of the white-constructed (not God-created) hierarchy of race. The speaker’s hands are already full. What a provocative metaphor for American indifference toward racism’s ever-present reminders. Peters makes it new, and that spellbinding metonymy will never allow me to look at that coin the same again.
Furthermore, “1994” ruminates upon The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In it, the speaker wonders “what [it is] like to be / without strikes on one’s back,” an inventive play on words between “stripes” and the three strikes the law is so famous for. When the speaker proclaims:
I assure you this is the body of a woman
disguised as a dragon disguised as a beetle
this is sorcery cast as gospel
I will magic us all back to humans
I believe her, for by then, Peters has developed a voice both reliable and imaginative, dead serious and deeply spiritual.
This poem isn’t the only one exploring systemic injustice with such surreal yet quotidian images either, all rooted in the American Midwest. What Bible Belt American doesn’t know, as Peters does, “how water makes things new” and what American “in the Limestone Belt” likewise is ignorant of “how water makes things stay” (“After the Mulch Fire in April, Southern Indiana”)? We Midwesterners know these realities. We likewise know the strangely common experience of snow in spring and memory’s shifting certainties. Maybe it was spring. But playing in that snow—the sight of “whole snow rollers, whose trails traced up the hills” is sure—as is the sense of “joy at their undoing” and this haunting observation: “that boy who peed D-I / C-K in the untouched snow by his house” knew “the benefit of having one—wrecking with a bit / more accuracy” (“Snow Rollers”). Ordinary water and snow becoming extraordinary through the ink of Peters’ pen. Sorcery, indeed.
And from the perspective of either coast—Hollywood or New York City—there is nothing more ordinary than the American Midwest. This is not the geographical destination for breathtaking scenery, culinary delights, or enriching culture. In fact, Midwestern life seems shaped by Polonius’s advice to Laertes to be direct in indirection; even the sunlight here “moves a different way across skin / a little less press and more float / a little more hum and less word.” The problem, however, arises when such indirection translates into lack of awareness, denial, and negligence, “when words c[an] be made and unmade / when sounds bec[o]me chants / bec[o]me the body that took the self” (“A Day is not a Day is not a Day”). Why use words when you can just hum along to the tune of your daily existence? the dominant culture in Middle America seems to think. But people of color “collect” such tunes that deny their realities, their bodies. Middle America is dangerous: It is the place where a girl, who “could have / been any of us,” “disappeared to a room” (“Who Can Tell’), a place that “isn’t far / from the verges of ourselves” (“The Only Two Things I Gotta Do”), a place “Black folks been leaving forever” (“Annalise Keating Gets Up to Leave”).
Peters has not only contributed rare and original poems to the literary conversation but also intensely lyrical ones that possess feminist sensibility, historical savvy, and biblical undertones. For instance, the speaker in “After the Mulch Fire in April, Southern Indiana,” tells us her
mothers were strong as tree thighs
chopped into rolling pins
splintered over door frames
painted with a good blood.
And the voice in “Self-Anointment” implores:
on these gravel -gritted hose
pick up my limbs as prizes.
That voice reverberates throughout the collection, as it likewise declares in the eponymous poem:
let us mangle ourselves
on the words of our progenitors
history will not forget
the sins we have laid upon
Indeed, she knew all along that her “palms would come to ken / these places where skin dresses / in skin and swings and sings” (“Un-becoming”).
To say that this first collection of an emerging poet is spectacular is not overstatement; it truly is an astonishing chapbook. Peters’ poetry, like the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, not only introduces a strong, African American poet to contemporary American literature but also has universal appeal and significance. That is the beauty of such work: That it not only can reach all readers but does. After all, anyone can see that “leaves bruise concrete / when they die” and how those “wounds linger”; you, too, want to “shake off your bruises / with a beat / hard / like / this / come into your own” and “sing of your body” (“Whether or Not We Must Descend at All”).
Julie L. Moore is the author of four collections of poetry, including Full Worm Moon and Particular Scandals, both published in The Poiema Poetry Series by Cascade books. Moore’s poetry has also appeared in Image, New Ohio Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Verse Daily. Her essay, “Silent Night,” was also featured in Relief’s latest print issue. An Associate Professor of English and the Writing Center Director at Taylor University, Moore worships at R.E.A.L. Community Covenant Church, a congregation dedicated to multi-ethnic community and racial reconciliation in Marion, Indiana. You can learn more about her work at julielmoore.com.