Reviewed by Phillip B. Williams
Wesleyan University Press 104 pp.
In Hafizah Geter’s poetry collection Un-American exists a multi-layer investigation of selfhood, familyhood, citizenship, and the myth of all three. Here, by myth I mean not fiction, but the grandiose and explicatory view of what is both possible and inexplicable. How does a family, as the poet Catherine Barnett deftly summarizes in her blurb, “composed of a Muslim mother from Nigeria, a US-born [B]lack artist father, and two foreign-born daughters raised in the US” find safety while surrounded by violence, isolation, abuse, and dizzying acts of translation both across the globe and across language?
Geter navigates these complex subjects through sparse poems that shrug off sentimentality (which can often be beautiful and necessary) for barebone and sometimes mysterious lines. Terse in expression and physically isolated from each other, Geter’s lines don’t so much hum as slice, visually cutting into the page like claws digging for answers in a ground that will not give. Take for instance this excerpt from “How to Bring Your Children to America”:
The mothers came by boat,
with wings, forgetting
their own mothers’ uteruses, singing
praises to Allah, they came over and over again
I recreate the spacing here to show each line’s agency, which allows them to strike on their own while working in accord with their surrounding lines. There are several ways to glean meaning here: did praises to Allah come “over and over again”; or did the mothers, by boat, come? The answer is yes.
The first poem in the collection, “The Pledge,” is a contrapuntal exploring the division between mother and father, children and parents, ostensibly caused by (en)forced obeisance to an unfamiliar and unwelcoming nation: “Our bondage stretches / our ghosts in all directions / trying to out-pick the rot / America has grown in our throats.” This feeling of decay, of being part of a parade of the walking dead that is the in-between of nationhood and nationlessness, appears in other poems, such as “The Leaving,” where the speaker “arrived, language’s orphan, / a two-citizen child, no country. / Wake, a dead woman’s / daughter, homesick with no home / to ill towards.”
But native lands also disallow life to those born within their borders, and Geter elegizes Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (all four American), and the estimated 300 girls stolen and missing from Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria in poems that are some of the best in the book, mixing the sometimes elusive voice of the familial poems with one grounded in the violent worlds of the elegized dead. These poems appear on time, when some of the other pieces feel too cryptic, too unwilling to say, because part of the conceit is the inability to say or tell. I think of this beautiful but too tangential moment from “Fajr”: “In the Ohio dark, /coyotes nuzzled the neck of a swan. / The sun and the sky and the blood. / Days later, my mother / jail-sprung.” This after what felt like a solid world of a mother with an unknown/unshared disease, a father and his “forgotten Baptist prayers,” and the sisters “[drawing] dreamcatchers.” It gets confusing at times to know where the speaker’s lens has landed and if we are supposed to be lost or misguided, the latter of which is preferred by this reader but requires just an inch more lead-in time.
Still, the collection is strong, and even in spaces of confusion Geter writes with lovely and enduring language that, if not making up for the slippages I could not grab, comforts with its matter-of-fact delivery and surprising turns. This is a book that shocks, absent of cliché phrases and overused or predictable images. I disappointedly shook my head at the use of “Strange fruit” in the poem “Un-American,” when it was used in a way all too familiar despite its tragic reference. But I grinned at the line immediately after: “Watch as I pull the slave out.” Stark, surprising, rejuvenating.
With more space and time, I would deeply explore how illness, death, and mourning as ceremony propel Geter’s skilled pen. But I am struck most deeply by how Geter writes about nationality and home. To not have a country is to mourn an unobtainable self. To mourn a loved one (or in some cases, a stranger, who by nature of diaspora could be considered a loved one) in a country that refuses to acknowledge Black life is to make available to the living and the dead perpetuity and the right/rite of being seen. The poem “Un-American” says it best at the end: “My grass-stained knees pledge allegiance / to a country that belongs to no one / I love.” These poems are love poems despite.