You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White, reviewed by Clara B. Jones

You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened
Arisa White
2016
Augury Books (NYC)
96 pp
Paper, $16
ISBN: 9780988735576

More than 20 years ago, the artist, Andrea Fraser, suggested that works by women don’t have staying power because women are generally marginalized or incorporated—remaining invisible. Reviewing artistic work by women, then, may be seen as a recovery project to highlight women’s practices that may, otherwise, be overlooked or ignored. In a patriarchy, females are objects, men, subjects, and men speak for women, creating a particularly challenging landscape for women expressing themselves via the spoken or written word (language). One of the pleasures attendant to reviewing books of poetry written by young, female, women of color (e.g., C.M. Burroughs, Francine J. Harris) is reading work with “interpretive power” (Helen Vendler) worthy of being taken seriously by other poets—men and women alike—and worthy of persistence over the long haul. I have been impressed with the degree to which many early-career writers of color, and, many young poets in general, are successfully expanding the strictures of Formalism by integrating form, language, and function.

I read Arisa White’s, You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened (hereafter, YTMBTTH), after reading an essay on feminism and postmodernism by Craig Owens who quoted Fredric Jameson—“…it suddenly became clear that ‘D.H. Lawrence’ was not an absolute after all [a male spokesman about women], not the final achieved figuration of the truth of the world, but only one art-language among others, only one shelf of works in a whole dizzying library.” Young female writers of color, and other female writers, especially, feminists, have taken their place in the “dizzying library” of non-patriarchal forms and, like Harryette Mullen before them, have taken their place among postmodern poets disrupting the status quo by writing, as Owens put it, in opposition to “Western man’s self-appointed mission of transforming the entire planet in his own image.” Contrary to most male writers, most female writers, especially feminist authors, have boldly chosen to address comfort; personal narratives and personal relationships; egalitarian associations rather than ones based on power differentials; emotions and feelings; language as authentic communication rather than abstraction and symbolism; and, a holistic and an organic view of the world.

White’s book exhibits the foregoing characteristics, as well as, being an ambitious and intimate map of one woman’s experiences as a female citizen of the world. Based on an e-mail interview, White stated, “I identify as a feminist poet in the same ways I identify as a black, queer/lesbian poet—these are identities I stand in and write from and out of. These are social locations that help me examine our political and cultural institutions and systems of thought. They are lenses and sites for feeling and knowledge. In many ways, all these things work together to help me nuance the world around me, give language to particular experiences. I am feminist because I care about the political parity of women/females, and I believe this sexist oppression is the root of all oppression.” In YTMBTTH, White addresses themes both subjectively and universally, including, childhood, loss, love, and chaos in lyric-like poems demonstrating a respect for form, function, and, especially, language (“There are little words,/that can fit in little places,/if you say them small enough.”; “She is pretty and perfect in sleep before language must be assigned—“; “When your friends are around, your hands language/near her to confirm she’s close:…”).

White’s poems are decidedly not derivative; however, their cryptic use of language and meaning remind me of Meghan Sterling’s autobiographical and understated, yet strong, poems about female issues relevant to anyone concerned with a humanistic interpretation of life and living. White’s poems invite the reader into her interior space without being didactic or literal (“Men, when they do, cross their legs in the way of academics./Never in the way of churchwomen who keep the secret/covered—there’s nothing to be implored, explored, discovered./In the way of academics, the whole body thinks….”). White’s lyricism often takes the form of homages, usually, to lovers (“Sounds the body/makes to keep quiet/while I take/your camisole down:/purple. Our sable bodies/an inappropriate math/in one stall.”). The author deftly addresses intense issues (HIV, sex, self-concept) without losing control of her emotions or language or focus or material. At the same time, her poetics and style communicate the limitations of language for exposing the full range of experience (Post-modernism), indicated, in part, by her frequent use of nonsense words, repetition (“…There’s no going back from raw. New story/you, mezzo and wood bending. My love, you’re the/darling dang—true-dat, true-dat, true—dat-dat-dat.”), as well as, avant garde conformations (see, especially, and, notably, the poem, “Four Square,” on page 71).

Other themes that struck me as I read YTMBTTH were references to West Indian/Caribbean culture (see poem, “Auntie,” on page 17), and British (colonial?) habits (“I prefer my tea with sugar/when I talk to you. You make/each minute an island where we,/crowned and carpeted by green,/sip Dragon Well from our palms.”). And, then, there is the matter of race—usually present but rarely explicit (however, see the poems, “Who Invited The Monkey To Omen’s Party,” on page 16, and “Drag Up…dedicated to the white people who were asked to raise their hands if they would choose to be black,” on page 18). Via e-mail, White shared, after reading one of my essays, “The essay has me thinking about what it would mean for me to write directly about race, how does it feel creatively within? Immediately, I thinkfeel [sic] about being in an ‘interracial’ marriage, which is more so an intersectional state of being (race, gender, sexuality, class) than a singular way of identifying. I think the pressure is how to write from these intersections/interstices. . . using polarities to make a third thing, to create a lens for seeing what the opposites map out. If black and white are said to be my points of reference, what is the gray communicating in relationship to the blue-black?”

The “intersectional” is postmodern, indeed. Since the 1970s, approximately, identity has become a fluid, personal narrative. My essay, referred to in the previous paragraph, argued that many early-career poets of color, male and female, LGBTQI and hetero-normative, are defining race-gender-class on their own terms rather than writing about race explicitly, directly, or literally. Many of these poets are writing, following Emily Dickinson, “slant.” By her account, some of White’s major influences are Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux, Erykah Badu, Toni Morrison, Patricia Smith, Rebecca Seiferle, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Hart Crane, Medbh McGuckian, Harryette Mullen, Tyehimba Jess, and Ross Gay—artists who challenge Modernism’s meta-narratives, crafting individual voices and impulses derived from their personal experiences, interpretations, and perceptions. White’s next project is in this tradition, “a craft talk about my queer imaginary [that will] unpack the queer imaginary that informs my work, examining the way my lesbian aunt and her friends languaged [sic] themselves in the world and how that became a model for how I create a poem.” My advice to the reader of this review is—Do not wait for her future projects in order to savor Arisa White’s compelling work. Each of the poems in You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is necessary, deserving a wide audience, and, with this collection, the author has made a valuable contribution to the literary community.

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