Mawiya Bomani’s poetry is steeped in history
There is a darkness in Mawiyah Bomani’s latest writing, Thick Air, with its poems that evoke the shadows and nuances of American history at its darkest.
When Bomani won the Critical Mass 8 Best of Show Literary Arts award in 2020, critic Kwame Dawes described his work this way: “[she] cares about tackling difficult matters of race and identity, valiantly and often with gusto. This award was presented in March 2020, just months before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among a huge number of other black Americans, leading our country to consider race and ethnicity. social justice. To say that Bomani’s work seems premonitory or timely is simply to say that it is part of an important national conversation.
But Bomani is not only interested in the present moment. Her work, currently featured in a captivating exhibition at Artspace, traces the trauma inherited from black people in our country, particularly those who were kidnapped from their native lands and forced into slavery to help build both this nation and the power structures that govern it.
In this intricate collection of poems, Bomani weaves a difficult tapestry of the brutality African Americans endured at the hands of white Americans. The violence in his work is visceral and sometimes difficult to read. It contains weak echoes of canonical or religious texts, such as the Old Testament or Ovid’s Metamorphoses; his characters undergo unspeakable events that lead them to extreme measures, such as the woman who slices his tongue or the man who spends his life feigning blindness. Much of Bomani’s later work takes place on a plantation in pre-war Louisiana, but she adds semi-contemporary moments to these poems, in which the treatment of black Americans is just as savage.
Bomani scatters small writing gems in his poems for the attentive reader. They serve as thematic breadcrumbs to help you get through, but not entirely, its dark woods. In the opening diaristic section, a young girl writes about her grandmother whom she describes as being satisfied with herself for using the word “winner”. She writes: Yeye likes to use gallantry, it looks so grown up, she says, and yet so unrefined. It sets the tone for much of the writing, which is both polished and emotionally raw.
While it is not Bomani’s duty to maintain a cohesive style or even build a cohesive narrative work, this collection of writing appears incomplete in its current state on the page. Her take on this work is much more realized in the immersive exhibit at Artspace, which includes paintings of her daughters and a table ready for a session with her ancestors. The poems themselves emboss in history and genre.
At her best, she writes with lyrical structure. “Poem for Lyman Kinder Henry,” for example, takes on a sinister nature when the slave owner calls out the dogs against Lyman, a runaway slave who pretends to be blind. Lyman sings: Said I’m gonna run / see what the end will be / Lyman run on / you
don’t worry me. Lyman is a character introduced in an earlier poem, which gives the reader the feeling that these poems carry some sort of guideline, although this overall narrative is a bit disorganized. The leap in time and space of Lyman’s heartbreaking 20th century Hell’s Kitchen escape in “Dead Man Stew” is a bit shocking. Perhaps, however, this is part of Bomani’s point: you can swap the time of the poem, you can change the location, but the lack of justice remains.
There is no triumph for any of the characters in Bomani’s poems. They serve as a never-ending reminder of the horrors, big and small, facing black Americans. Even when Lyman escapes, she zooms in on her tattered shoes to paint a realistic exhaustion scene. Yes, Bomani seems to say in every line of every poem, even without slavery, oppression continues.
Lauren Smart is a writer and art critic. She teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.