In this collection of poetry, Khalisa Rae unveils the collective experience of living as a black woman in America. Told through both her own experiences and the experiences of other African-Americans, slave and free, famous and anonymous, who have lived America’s whispered history of prejudice, cruelty and murder, she conjures the dead and the living to weave a story of oppression and ultimately, freedom.
Writing poetry becomes an act of righting injustice, as in the title poem, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, “The South will birth a new kind of haunting…,” placing the reader in the realm of those haunted, the voices of the oppressed forcing their way out of silence into light. Hundreds of years of wrongs are documented in these pages, and those wrongs have forced Rae to speak.
Each poem in this collection tells a different story, often, from a different perspective. In the poem, Livestock, the speaker refers to the purchasing of slaves, by asserting that she is not an animal, but still has the power to wound with her words, “I have neither hooves nor snout./But I have claws; I grunt and growl,/show my teeth. I do not need wings/to create a windstorm, I do not need talons/ to break skin.” For the speaker, revenge is found in the writing of poems, release in the telling of stories, of truth.
In the chilling poem, Southern Foreclosures, Rae lists the places a young Black woman is afraid, and the reasons why:
1. Long back roads
Still rattle me.
Make me fear being asked to step out—
The night stick, the gun. Body turned to roadkill,
Left on the curb. Forgotten.
2. Pitch black nights the torch, deep
Fried flesh—tarred and feathered,
Watch bodies swing like gruesome drive in film.
3. Open fields
Leather whips, raking fingers through grass, blood, sweat-
Lathered cotton, body parts left out for fertilizer.
In the poem, Home-Going Celebration, the speaker narrates her sorrow at the short lives of so many young people in the African-American community,
Not much has changed….Our future is a sad summer…
We gamble with our obituaries like we don’t/have a thousand other ways to die….
so we never have to feel the heartbreak/of morning. There is no mourning here…
Here, a history of early death reigns supreme, where lives are still lost to drugs, to guns, to pain. Rae feels this pain, and allows poetry to be the antidote to a life where to simply survive is to outlive expectations, and to thrive is to defy gravity. As the speaker says in Van Gogh Paints a Hymn, “We are the sheet music of Van Gogh’s memory…Jagged and sharp, our notes/wave to the yellow stars flashing above us…Our black bodies reach/skyward, singing Halleluyah to a god unseen.”
Through sharp, imagistic tension, Rae’s poems come alive. In Moving Mind, the speaker uses a slow, incantatory voice to create rhythm, “My Mind will not lie/still. It is a mare before/the rainfall. A cow/before the slaughter. It knows/the storm is coming…”
In Boil, Burn, Salve, the speaker recounts an abusive father, “He taught us you must first burn your tongue/to taste the sweetness after. I still have the scars,/still haven’t found the right pitch to sing/my slow burn.”
These deeply felt poems become the channel through which the spirits of all who could not speak are heard. As she says so clearly in her poem, American Made, “I do not want you/silent, girl. Not when/there is still so much to say.” Rae refuses to stay silent, recording the history of her people with beauty, intensity, and unflinching clarity. These are poems to listen to, to read again and again, and most importantly, to learn from.
Meghan Sterling lives in Portland, Maine with her family. Her work has been published in Rattle, Cider Press Review, Inflectionist Review, Glass: Poet’s Resist, Sky Island Journal, Literary Mama, Mom Egg Review, Enough: Poems of Resistance and Protest and many others. She is Associate Poetry Editor of the Maine Review, a Dibner Fellow at the 2020 Black Fly Writer’s Retreat, and a Hewnoaks Artist Colony Resident in 2019 and 2021. Her collection These Few Seeds is out in April 2021 from Terrapin Books. Her work can be found at meghansterling.com.