Northwestern University Press
Review by Ruth Williams
Read two of Ama’s poems in Bear Review issue eight.
In Ama Codjoe’s debut poetry chapbook Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020), winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Prize, myth, history and art serve as a referential landscape through which Codjoe poetically busts. Artfully exploiting the intersection of content and form to deconstruct racist and sexist narratives, it is clear these poems aim to liberate.
Take, for example, the title poem of the collection, "Blood of the Air," a found poem constructed from internet search results for "Leda." The poem contains an epigraph, a quote from a lecture by literary critic Hortense Spillers: "Touch is probably the single sensual realm that most defines the difference between enslaved and free—or I suppose we could say enslaved and relatively free." This quote emphasizes the connection between touch and consent; touch is a troubling realm, especially intimate touch, as without consent, such touch is a violation. Furthermore, which touches one can give and receive often mark one’s status in culture; and, the way we "read" touch—as consensual or a violation—often depends on the social status of the individuals involved.
While the above paragraph’s discourse on this epigraph might seem excessive, parsing it allows me to give you a sense of the intentionality Codjoe brings to the construction of her poems. Sometimes formal elements, such as epigraphs, can end up feeling like window dressing to the point; conversely, here the epigraph frames the poem in a way that deepens its meaning as the Greek myth of Leda’s encounter with Zeus, the subject of "Blood of the Air," showcases the various ways we "read" touch. Codjoe chooses to assemble the search results in a numbered list, a form that emphasizes the variations in the way the story of Leda and Zeus has been told across time. In one telling, Zeus is described as falling in love with Leda, who he "seduced" as a swan. In another, Zeus "lay down next to Leda, and impregnated her." In still another, in the "form of a swan [Zeus] consorted with Leda…" What is interesting to me about Codjoe’s list is the absence of the word "rape," a common enough way of describing what Zeus did to Leda. Why doesn’t that version appear here?
At first, this may seem like an odd elision, but the epigraph helps me make sense of it; it is far easier for our cultural narratives not to contend with sexual assault, to even go so far as to "un-hear" the voices of women who refuse to call non-consensual touch “seduction” "consorting" or "laying down with." This feels like the subtext Codjoe has artfully led me to; a subtext that she explores at length in the poem "She Said," which appears just after "Blood of the Air."
"She Said" depicts a similar story about competing narratives of touch—consensual or violation? In addition to her own text, Codjoe juxtaposes quoted testimony from a rape trial held in Italy in 1612 and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s September 2018 testimony in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Quoted material from the 1612 text reveals victim blaming has been with us for a long time: "How long after it happened [did you tell]? Why didn’t you tell it immediately, and if immediately, why didn’t you bring suit?" and so on. Such questions implicitly critique the actions of the victim, shifting the burden to her rather than focusing on the actions of her rapist. Codjoe captures the exhausting nature of such questioning, isolating the following quotes, placing them in a list that takes up 2/3 of the page: "To the twentieth, she said… […] To the third one she answered" and so on, a move that mirrors the exhaustive questioning of Blasey Ford.
I want to go on to close read the whole of this ambitious long poem, which appears at the center of this collection, but I feel like that would reduce the power of reading it on the page. Suffice it to say, in another dovetailing of form and content, Codjoe enacts on the page the "silencing" rape culture performs on survivors of sexual assault, allowing readers to literally see the struggle to speak, to be heard, as well as the pushback against certain kinds of speaking.
In addition to excavating the sexism that frames discussions of sexual assault, Blood of the Air takes on racism’s sadistic myths about black women. In two poems that draw inspiration from artist Betye Saar’s assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Codjoe conceives of Aunt Jemima as a figure of insurgent agency. In the first poem of the series, Aunt Jemima declares what she’s "gonna" do once she lays down "the splintered broom" and "the wailing baby." After assertions that center Aunt Jemima’s sexual pleasure as free touch she seeks out, the poem refers back to the myth of Leda and Zeus. Aunt Jemima declares she’s "Gonna bloody the head of every god, ghost, or swan who has torn into / me—pried me open with its beak // Gonna break the nose of mythology." Though radically different in their context, both Leda and Jemima have been subject to stories which, like some touch, they did not dictate themselves. Aunt Jemima aims to destroy the myths that devalue the bodies of black women via racist myth, including her own stereotyped figuration as a submissive, white-nurturing mammy.
In light of Aunt Jemima’s pledge, in the second poem of the series, "Detail from 'Poem After Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,'" it is not Zeus, but Jemima-as-goddess, whose children emerge from her "gushing head.” Codjoe describes them: "the first woman / wore the charm of her unmasked hair […] the last woman / modeled an anonymous version of herself—an 'I' that didn’t remind anyone / of anyone else." These figures possess a freedom to define themselves, free from received, restrictive myths. This liberation feels like part of the project of Codjoe’s poetics in Blood of the Air, a quality that places her within a constellation of feminist poets who have similarly sought to break down and refigure racist and sexist representations, myths, histories and stereotypes.
In a gesture to the liberated future that Blood of the Air points toward, the last few lines of "Detail from ‘Poem After Betye Saar’s…" depict Aunt Jemima’s generative motherhood. No longer in service of white masters or racist and sexist stereotypes, Jemima births a lineage of black women who embody freedom, "flying, without shoes / or wings, from her maternal, amber body."