(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2021)
In her stunning debut collection, Music for Exile, Nehassaiu deGannes acts as a symphonic or choral conductor, deftly incorporating a multitude of voices, themes, and structures from Kamau Brathwaite, Jay Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, the Apostle Paul, Alberto Rios, and others. Yet, simultaneously she renders each poem as uniquely hers, each new opening line a lifting veil to reveal something dynamic, lyrical, yet disturbing. (“I have lost two children, a hand to marry, some change, a few pair socks” unveils the second poem, “Mutter.”) Imbuing the titular theme throughout her collection, deGannes invokes a graceful, methodical yet natural cadence — echoing blues, librettos, ancient incantations, hymns, oral folklore, as well as the natural musicality interwoven in the framework of formal structures like sonnets. Such interplay between the theme of resistance in her imagery and the formal structures in which she captures and releases them give voice and magic to the scenes she presents: a Philadelphian “black heroine” walking in on intruders in the house, a tamarind cow and two girls by a river in Waitukubuli, memories of a father who paints his daughter’s fuschia desk and lays bruises on both her and her mother. The poems are divided into four parts, each introduced by a different epigraph that collectively recall another theme in Music for Exile, migration and what is lost versus what is discovered in the transition. This is a book of movement, movement set to music, and Nehassaiu deGannes’ sweeping soundtrack invites the reader to partake in its intimate scenes across time and transcontinental space.
Music plays an integral role in the many motifs of this collection. Amid roasted breadfruit in a roofless house, the sounds of a bouzai and drums soar.
I can’t say
her drum entered my body and the moon rose
below me and the bouzai were stars
but all was a flickering vessel rocking and
rocking and somebody’s palm leaf
kept whispering this is you girl
this is you… (“Letter for Khadejha”)
Here, the music is a bedrock for self-discovery, an introspective glimpse at the woman’s body and the politics thereof. The speaker of the poems returns to the body again and again, casting a voyeuristic glance at the Dominican women in the three “Undressing the River” poems; the slave girl Mary Wamsley whose body she offers up to the white child on her hip; the three-year-old girl from Dominica whose body is reduced to biscuits and raisins nibbled by her next-door neighbor; the “red equators” of the bikini-clad girls being captured by a camera shutter by the river; or the “negress” body explicitly assessed in pseudo-scientific reductive language that ascribes her worth and function based on flat feet, wide buttocks, and flared nose. After breaking down the body, deGannes gathers back the pieces; she reassembles lines that echo like choruses and refrains, shifting the agency from “this feeling of being hunted persists” to “there is persistence in being the hunted” (“Vortex”). She reclaims what is lost, “Dear disappeared town, the flowers / at my window” and instills hope: “No one can say gone is gone. / Not the disappeared town, not the flowers” in the cyclical poem “Refuge,” whose stanzas reinvent the preceding stanza’s sentiment of defeat and despair into determination and power.
Other motifs reside in their own poems: honey in all its literal and idiomatic forms in “Bessie’s Hymn”; the incisive wordplay of socks in “Mutter”; water as a vehicle for rhythm, a landscape for epic origins within the body of an impregnated women, and as an object for thirst in “Night, a Suburb.” And when she is not operating with objects as motif, she carries narratives as mini-sequences that thread back to a collective tapestry: the immediate succession of “One Fine Philadelphia Morning,” “Fugitive Witness,” and “‘Yes, He’s Black,’” each with a signature voice crafting the slightly altered repetition of lines reminiscent of a ballad or blues, yet each chronicling the separate yet interrelated events of experiencing, then bearing witness to, then considering the aftermath of a robbery. Other poems-as-motif, like the “Undressing the River” trilogy, span several sections, thus enjoining the different aspects of exile in one shared breath, one persistent image. The image she offers up insistently and lyrically is one of resistance.
“Ocean Voyager,” for instance, summons Harriet Tubman as a spiritual sentinel, “fixing / my one good eye” as she and “Tubman[s] / other Creole / daughters across.” She reins in her legs, otherwise targets of exoticism and voyeurism, and casts a deliberate, equalizing gaze upon the male “Yank” traveler, thus “Refusing / to look down … Refusing / to be the one / explored.” Similarly, the poem “Ironweed” showcases a historic woman emblematic of defiance: the slave girl Angèlique, whose retributive act of destroying her master’s property in response to being resold by him resulted in her torture and public execution, is now invited by the speaker of the poem in an indictment against the ironic naming within the colonies, “HOPE ST.” and “Providence.” She is quick to note the ubiquitous presence of iron: in fences, posts, ironing boards, chains, the iron in blood. Fire assumes a remonstrative role as well, as “Rhode Island ignites the palingenesis of a name. / My bilingual retina hosts her smoldering, my ironic hunger for home.” History, despite its attempts to rename and thus rewrite, ultimately incriminates itself. deGannes’ near-final offering in the psalm to the unbroken woman recurs in “Isis Prepares for Resurrection,” a woman who is felt not by her flesh, but by an aging copper bracelet, its greenness signifying an aging potency as an amulet. Yet,
with both wrists naked
we alone touch a copper band
its pattern like some faint fertility symbol
breath echoing at the source of our hand
we are singing
The captive invokes an ancient power, and shackle becomes a coil “of life and death,” “part covenant part bone.”
Music for Exile is an anthem to the Caribbean migrant, and deGannes builds a theatre for human narrative and song in her scope, cinematic imagery, and dazzling reinvention of language. She commands an unwavering audience to follow her through a richly erudite journey of literary, historical, and transcontinental cultural allusions. Her debut work creates a mandatory space for itself on every poet and poetry-lover’s bookshelf, as well as reserves a place for any future collections we can only eagerly await from the formidable mind and musicality of Nehassaiu deGannes.
| | |
Shannon Nakai’s reviews have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, and her poems have been featured in Cincinnati Review, Cream City Review, Atlanta Review, Image, Midwest Review, Gulf Stream, and Cimarron Review, to name a few. She is also a Fulbright Scholar and Pushcart Prize nominee.