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Book Review: Teeth by Aracelis Girmay

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Aracelis Girmay's poetry collection, Teeth, though rather new on the scene, is no timid voice on the poetic stage. The poetry of Teeth is often bold, brave, and dark, but also joyously triumphant. It is both a poetry of protest and of celebration. It rails against discrimination, despair, death, rape, and war, and celebrates the enduring beauty, strength and perseverance of peoples, languages and cultures.

Aracelis Girmay is a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She was born and raised in Southern California and has a degree from Connecticut College and an MFA from NYU. Girmay is a current Cave Canem Fellow and former Watson Fellow, and her work has appeared in Callaloo, Bellevue Literary Review, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, and MiPOesias Magazine, among others. She has worked as a writer-in-residence with the Community-Word Project and Teachers & Writers Collaborative, as well as the CARE project in her native Santa Ana, and believes her work as writer and educator to be integral to social change. Teeth, published by Curbstone Press in June 2007, is her first collection of poetry.

Girmay begins her collection with a poem of protest entitled "Arroz Poetica." The title alludes to Horace's Ars Poetica, a long epistolary poem on the art of poetry. Girmay substitutes 'ars' (art) with 'arroz' (rice). Instead of discussing the art of poetry, this poem discusses poetic rice, as in rice as a metaphor, a symbol of protest. It opens with a friend's suggestion that everyone against the war should protest by sending George Bush little bags of rice inscribed with "If your enemies are hungry, feed them."

The rest of the poem argues, essentially, that her enemies

    are not hungry.
    They are not standing in lines
    for food, or stretching rations,
    or waiting at the airports
    to claim the pieces
    of the bodies of their dead.

Rather, her enemies "ride jets to parties… eat meat & vegetables at tables/ in white houses where candles blaze, cast/ shadows of crosses, & flowers." Her enemies, dressed up in "ball gowns & suits & rings" sit around "to talk of war in neat & folded languages/ that will not stain their formal dinner clothes/ or tousle their hair." Her finger points directly at George Bush and his administration as the real enemy, and she will not send him worked for rice while the death toll rises, while the "radio calls out/ the local names of 2,000/ U.S. soldiers counted dead since March," but "will not say the names/ of an Iraqi family trying to pass a checkpoint." The imagery is powerful and personal.

While the opening poem is about war directly, there is much else in this collection that is dark, about discrimination, despair and death. Particularly powerful and disturbing is "Sudan," a poem about rape in Darfur. It paraphrases a line from the Darfur Testimonies: "You are black, woman,/ & you are/ our slave."  She connects it to similar atrocities committed much closer to home — "Or, it is not Kornei, & it is not Sudan, & her/ children are not in a field, but in the next room,/ waiting." There are also poems referencing inequality in America, both past and present.

Not everything in this collection is dark and depressing, however. The poems I enjoyed most in this collection are, on the surface, about food. "Ode to the Watermelon" is a celebration of enduring symbols and pleasures despite oppression and slaughter. In Palestine, where it is forbidden to fly their own flag, the watermelon with its red and green and black is raised in its stead. There is beautiful language in this poem — ripe, playful, sexy.

The watermelon is a "Ripe conjugationer of water & sun… bandera of the ground,/ language of fields," a symbol of hope, wafting its scent even under the blade. Addressing the watermelon directly,

    Men bow their heads, open-mouthed,
    to coax the sugar
    from beneath your workdress.
    Women lift you
    to their teeth

    And most hopeful,

    yours is a sweetness
    to outlast any slaughter:
    Tongues will lose themselves inside you,
    scattering seeds. All over,
    the land will hum
    with your wild,
    raucous blooming.

(Listen to Girmay read from this poem) 

Also celebratory and rich with meaning, and also about food, is "Scent: Love Poem for the Pilon." Food is used wonderfully here in both it's literal and metaphoric senses. The narrator is thankful for the Mercado, for chopped onions, oregano, salt, cloves, red beans, black beans, and rice. She is "thankful for the kitchen table:/ block of wood, & nails,/ & the carpenter's hand," thankful for the pepper grinder, "the clean smell of tomatoes & cilantro."

And most potent and most pregnant with meaning, she is thankful…

    …for the pilon
    that burst the knots of garlic,
    thankful for the way it always worked & worked
    under a fist. How, even now, after washes with limes
    & soaps, the scent of what it's opened
    still lingers there.

The pilon, the pestle and mortar, and the garlic whose smell endures all cleaning attempts, are powerful symbols of the endurance of culture, the lingering aroma that cannot be washed away. Food, perhaps the most tangible, most palatable marker of culture, is used wonderfully in this poem to celebrate its enduring power.

The apparent lack of structure in this collection, and the seemingly arbitrary line breaks, though common in modern poetry, are uncomfortable for me. I prefer more structural constraint in poetry, more devices, both visual and auditory, to set it apart from prose. But that is largely a matter of personal preference. Girmay employs some wonderful imagery and clever language. But most importantly, she tackles serious subject matter, giving voice to those who are often unheard. She is at her best, it seems to me, when approaching serious subject matter obliquely, at an angle, as in "Ode to the Watermelon" and "Scent: Love Poem for the Pilon," rather than head-on, as she does in "Arroz Poetica."

Teeth is, whatever one's stylistic preferences, an important collection of poems.  It's a bold and fresh voice in poetry.

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About Abram Bergen