American Herstory by celeste doaks
Backbone Press, 2019
Poetry about political figures tends toward the dour, think Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” about Lincoln’s death, or the stirring, like Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” for Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
But Baltimore poet celeste doaks has written something very different. Her new chapbook is a bright maypole of a book, weaving colorful ribbons of poems around a tall, iconic axis – First Lady Michelle Obama.
Dancing and weaving around her central figure, doaks paints a picture of the First Lady that is both honorific and personal. Published by Backbone Press in August, American Herstory features Amy Sherald’s famous painting of Michelle Obama on its cover, a coup that doaks attributes to persevering with both the painter and the Smithsonian, where the portrait resides.
Her collection features poems that center around politics, sure; racism and sexism, yes; but also throws in chocolate chip cookies, Nivea, chard, and a hot booty or three. In 2009, doaks began writing these poems about Michelle Obama, the embodiment of a historic achievement. This October, Backbone Press announced that doaks had won first place in its chapbook competition.
The book doaks has penned about this South Side phenomena begins with a simmer, like the slow bubbles from the bottom of a pot, rising to break with angry pops. The first poem’s title is “Response to White Woman in North Carolina who asks, ‘Why are you writing poems about Michelle Obama?’” The last lines of that poem are: “Because your being uncomfortable makes me comfortable./ Because after Michelle there can be Marisol/ Agnieszka/ Suen Lee/ Judd/ Or whatever the hell else we want it to be …”
Her opening rebel yell of a poem leads into a collection that is woven with doaks’ bright bits – clever haiku about bare arms and the Second Amendment, a sonnet about Obama’s Pinterest page, and a series of iridescent ekphrastic poems about the First Lady’s choice of art for the White House walls and shelves.
The chapbook is a a contemplation of Michelle Obama the woman, including the way the American public objectified her, racially stereotyped her, and denigrated her, but also the way the First Lady of the United States worked around those detractors with strategies like humor, fashion, her chard-filled garden, her “Let’s Move” campaign, her choice of often-overlooked art for the White House walls. She is a Black Barbie in a white dress on Inauguration Day, clearly honored by doaks, a girl who loved Linda Carter and Molly Ringwald, but finally had an African-American woman in the White House who represented what millions of black women see in the mirror.
doaks has paid attention to the flow of the book, with some verses that almost link to the next. One poem ends with an invitation into the White House to share chocolate chip cookies, and the next poem delves into the politics of the First Lady recipe contests. A poem conjuring conversations behind the White House, “In the Garden with Michelle, II”, ends with lament about bikini bottoms not fitting black behinds and Obama’s imagined retort that “fit is only a state of mind.”
The collection’s next poem, which begins with Sen. Sensenbrenner’s racist statement about the First Lady’s “large posterior”, is a hilarious but chilling take on the wildlife documentary. “Investigating the Black Female Posterior, or Hot Booty”. An expert is asked: “What are some habits of hot bootys? Are they nocturnal or diurnal? Do they congregate often or travel in packs?”
“Black Lotus Villanelle” plays with the idea of the FLOTUS as a lotus, the flower symbolic of rebirth and purity. The villanelle is adulatory, almost a church call and response, with the repetition of “We marvel at your beauty, we bless your seeds with light.” In fact, the poem moves into a prayer in the last stanza, “we pray you never wane or retreat to bower”.
doaks personalizes the adoration in her poem “Black Barbie.” She draws a direct line between herself, growing up in a culture that didn’t value black women, and the first brown-skinned plastic female house for dreams, the doll that was “Mattel’s phenom”, brought home proudly by her mother. The ending vectors straight to Michelle Obama: “Inauguration day presents/ a living one/ Draped in white, our/ First Lady doll.”
The verses about Obama’s choice of artwork for the White House are some of doaks’ strongest, interpreting colors and shapes in ways that reveal the characters and priorities of both doaks and the First Lady. Obama chose from the Smithsonian’s collection a series of paintings and sculpture including the more traditional choices of works by Degas and Rauschenberg, but also by marginalized artists, especially African American and Native American. Smithsonian curators and newspapers said the works were “surprising” and “bold” choices.
“I loved their stories filled with ample challenges and triumphs, as well as their visual artwork,” doaks explained. “Mrs. O displaying them inside the White House was a true game-changer: it moved the conversation about marginalized peoples to the forefront.”
In her poem “For “Watusi (Hard Edge)”, doaks describes the bright colors of the abstract work’s acrylics, with “a wicked marigold” alongside blues with “harmonies Thelonius”. The poem feels like it’s trying to correct the centuries in which black as a color meant evil, foreboding, darkness. The piece ends by invoking the “lone black panel, surrounded by white spaces,” that becomes complex and victorious, “The letters on a book not yet written, the pepper in the pot of soup, a quarter note on a five-bar staff, a whisper turned into a shout”
She writes a persona poem in the voice of Jerri Redcorn, the Native American Caddo tribe artist who made the pot with the intertwining scrolls that sat in the Oval Office for years, right by the president’s arm, inducing conversation, invoking ancestors.
Obama also chose for the White House walls a work called “Sky Light”, by D.C. abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, which shimmers with blue skitterings of paint across the canvas. In the first of doaks’ three parts of a poem, “For Sky Light”, the blanks in the poem echo the patterns of brush strokes in the painting. doaks ends the poem with the clean, inspiring lines about a painting by one of the only members of the Color School who was African American: “I am the tapestry of America, color infused with light, come to tell my story.”
Ever cognizant of how Michelle Obama skillfully navigated the discrimination against the first black First Lady, doaks wrote “Michelle Obama’s Pinterest Interest Sonnet”. While starting off on a light note, noting the Pinterest photos of Michelle and Barack kissing, her pulling on a tug-of-war rope, the poem nods to Michelle’s Princeton thesis, entitled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” which doaks, who serves as visiting assistant professor of creative writing at University of Delaware, read. She ends the poem asking, “But will we ever see Princeton’s distaste/ the jeers, and high ivory mountains you faced?”
“As a black woman who has obtained a graduate degree (and now works inside academia), I saw pieces of myself in her investigation,” doaks told me. “I know how isolating it can be.”
The book ends with the collection’s title poem, “American Herstory,” a quietly uplifting piece that still bubbles with doaks’ determined rage at the attacks on women, especially black women, and their quest for human rights. But the poem offers a remedy, mixed in a Mason jar, kept deep in a kitchen cupboard, to hush the ones who would keep women down.
The poem manages to convey the clenched teeth of anger but also the open hand of hope. “Tell them” doaks repeats throughout the poem, implying the oppressors, that women’s history is always under attack. The remedy, the poet writes, is already mixed and stored deep in cupboard in a humble Mason jar: “don’t tell them/ it consists of breast milk, dreams, butterflies, civil rights marches,/ burned bras, a piece of Madame CJ Walker’s hair, prayers,/ Amelia Earhart’s drive, hot-water cornbread, and Sally Ride’s fearlessness.”
Sell that remedy far and wide, doaks pleads, “then watch all the naysayers disappear.”
If only we could all have a swig from that jar. American Herstory is an intimate, inspirational, and occasionally hilarious meditation on Michelle Obama. But the collection also says something dead-serious and vital – that women, especially black women, are still ready to fight.
Susan Thornton Hobby is an artistic consultant to the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, a founding contributing editor to the Little Patuxent Review, writes interviews with poets and novelists for publication, and serves as copyeditor for Cherry Castle Publishing and an editor for many published books of nonfiction, memoir, and poetry.