alice by moonlight: Anastacia-Reneé’s sheroism and survivals

by Julie Philips Brown, PhD

&

prayer
dear anastacia renee anastacia-renee –renée –reneé, dear luna dear alice o, saraphina. dear super-shero,[i] queer shero of color, dear play(wright) muse(maker) painter & civic siren. dear poet, moon(light) with me us you. when we arrive at the river drowning. body floating like a lily pad, heart gurgling for air,show us how to stand how to draw ourselves up to finish upon the earth, halcyons burning — [ii]

Let us begin with an invocation to our muse, whose mythic force has only just begun its glorious thunder. The author of four books, Anastacia-Reneé published three of them within a matter of months in 2017: Forget It from Black Radish; Answer(Me), a Winged City chapbook from Argus House Press; and (v.) from Gramma Poetry. Each of these collections demonstrates the poet’s remarkable range, and together they chart a richly evocative oeuvre whose sudden, almost supernatural arrival belies her long years of labor and care for her craft.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.[iii] To experience Anastacia-Reneé’s poems is to marvel/wonder/wander in their exquisite architecture, their tangled roots and branches, their involutions and unmakings of identity, consciousness, and the ontological certainty of things. Each collection proceeds according to its own aesthetic logic and narrative particulars. Forget It is a cross-genre, fictionalized memoir, its oblique recollections of miscarriage, divorce, surrenders, and resurrections told in lyric prose poems, as well as surreal dream texts, subterranean subtexts, annotations, confessions, dialogues with alter egos, and asides to the reader. Answer(Me) rollicks in the intricacies of two women’s love affair, celebrating and lamenting the passages of pleasure and plight between them. Tyehimba Jess has described (v.) as “a blackgirl womansong” (Publisher’s Blurb). Inflected by the long history of violence against men, women, and children of color in America, as well as the white supremacist resurgence following the 2016 election, these poems respond to the current crisis of race, and especially to the perils and precarity of Black women, with an historical awareness as deeply rooted as this nation’s original sin. In each of these collections, Anastacia-Reneé complicates prevailing notions of the self and proposes a fugitive poetics. Through her annotations, asides, silences, and narrative disjunctions, she splits self from self and shows her readers a way to survive — as super-shero alter ego, as lover, as civic siren, and as mother to “her daughters,” i.e., future generations of young Black women.

* * *

answer

Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

& she came (came, naked & unashamed) by moonlight (lord thank you), the heart a tenant, the heart a house. heart(broken) she came to tell us the city, a tired woman after a long day of being black, to low for the pelvic bones. then went away again. she is / was / be here, she is inside the mirror she does not reflect she is any real thing she _____ me us her, for real & so much.[iv]

never tell a story without a beginning middle or end or annotations or footnotes or translations or or or or never let it be headless like a horseman riding through the days night. tell it not as your [sic] remember it but as it truly is/was/be///for this (namaste) get inside the mirror so as not to be a reflection of any real thing so as not to see your true self only an image of who you thought you were to be. never stain a walkway or a person only mark yourself (31).

Though these words come from Answer(Me), they serve as both ethical edict and ars poetica for much of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. Never tell a story without structure, but never tell it, too, without exceptions, contextualizations, subversions. Never let your story be haunted. Against the vagaries of memory and reflection, Anastacia-Reneé proposes what “truly is/was/be” and the ontological certainty of “any real thing.” The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of such a proposal is evident in her temporal conflation of the simple present, simple past, and present (or is it future?) continuous, as well as the cryptic modifier “truly.”

For the poet, recognition (of “any real thing,” or of the self, though not “your true self” but rather “an image of who you thought you were to be”) depends not upon remembering, but forgetting: “for this (namaste) get inside the mirror” [my emphasis]. Within the very word “forget” lies “namaste,” a term that blesses and recognizes an other, but also a word the poet deconstructs as “namaste. nah ima stay. ima stay. stay”— and therein, too, lies equanimity and salvation. Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

* * *

Forget It. Anastacia-Reneé’s cross-genre, fictionalized memoir begins with this counter-intuitive imperative: forget it. Forget what, and why? How? The book begins in the mode of “pre-memoir,” perhaps a pre-conscious state in which “you dream of alice,” and find “alice says / she’s dreaming of you” (3-5). Almost immediately, it is clear that the reader has followed Anastacia-Reneé into her dreamworld, a kind of mythological present in which alice has always already been waiting. Certainly, she is the Alice of Wonderland, but more pressingly, she is the alice metropolis of Anastacia-Reneé’s recent play, 9 Ounces[v] (she also appears in (v.) with Luna, her younger compatriot from the play). In Forget It, alice becomes the speaker’s primary interlocutor, a half-dreamt, half-remembered alter ego whose voice sometimes blends with that of the speaker.

Alice’s most important function in the narrative is to embody the possibility of survival, if not outright resurrection. In Part V of the book, “Re(member),” the speaker “meet[s] alice” in what “is not a believable / fairy tale,” and here remembering is not only recollection, but the reconstitution of the body and the self (55). The prose poem “No Fairy Tale (2)” depicts an Opheliac scene, in which a young girl almost succumbs to the river, only to split from herself and raise herself up again:

once upon a time a girl met herself at the river when she nearly drowned. her body floating like a lily pad. her heart gurgling for air. when she felt herself begin to slip. she, herself rose from the river to save her. self. & this is the tale we tell our daughters. the ones we never push through our heavens. the ones we meet along the way in classrooms, coffee shops or crisis hotlines. this is what we mean when we say love. yourself. (58)

This “she” is of mythic origin: “once upon a time.” If “this is the tale we tell our daughters” to teach them to survive and to love themselves, then it is also the tale that testifies to the power of narrative, and to the ways that poems see us through the gravest of circumstances.

The struggle to survive, especially for Black girls and women, is as old as the fairy tale itself, and in the way of most traumas, the cycle of peril persists and repeats, again and again. Thus the speaker finds herself at the river, drowning:

my body floating like a lily pad. my heart gurgling for air, myself, she too. was drowning. & when we both thought we were sinking. to the bottom of our lifetime many little girls drew us. back to finish upon the earth. & this is what i will tell my daughters. the ones i won’t push through my heavens. the ones i won’t meet in classrooms, coffee shops, or crisis hotlines. i will tell this tale to the daughters who are bent. open. whose exhales are wedged between fetch & swell (58).

Though the tale repeats itself with a grim, relentless certainty, it does so with a critical difference: this time both the speaker and her alter ego are drowning, and neither alone seems enough to save the other. It is only the thought of the “little girls” before her and after — the ancestors who lived, and the daughters who will survive her — that calls the speaker and her self “back to finish on the earth.” And somehow they do come back — perhaps that’s just the sheroic thing to do.

* * *

No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert.

Anastacia-Reneé’s chapbook Answer(Me) is a deftly structured text, both in its visual presentation and its dramatic narrative. The collection recounts the (un)couplings of two lovers over the course of three acts, “Debut,” “Milieu,” and “Fin,” with each act presenting a series of contiguously numbered scenes. Most of these scenes are further divided into four parts: a prayer, an answer, a proverb, and an aside addressed to the collection’s “dear reader.” No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert. They flirt and plead unapologetically in their supplications to various female deities, such as the “goddess of magical realism & chocolate dipped in truth on a waffle cone” (11).

The poems are particularly unabashed in their evocations of the female body and the unparalleled pleasures the two women lovers find in one another. Early in their relationship, the speaker pleads for one more sleepless night, so much the better to enjoy her lover:

dear sleep goddess don’t come to our garden tonight. (s’il vous plaît) do not use your powers of the sand and secret dust. we have to fuck (all night.) & we are not adam & eve about this—no shame in our desire to stay/lay/pray/gay awake, eyes/arms/legs (wide open) (15).

Of course, these lovers are not “adam & eve about this” — they are two women, unashamed, and, as the text makes clear with its visual pun, “(wide open)” in the throes of their sensual delight. Everywhere in this prayer, and in its answer, the sacred and the profane meet: Lo, the speaker seems to say, “& sleep did not show herself until we called her … & we did not know she draped herself upon us until we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you)” (15). What better image than church fans to conjure the subversive ecstasy and exhaustion of their passion?

Later, in “Fin,” we find the lovers still together, but also no longer untouched by the risks of intimacy. As the speaker later warns in the language of her francophone lover: “Ne jamais tomber amoureux” (30). Never fall in/to/(ill) with love; it is sure to be your downfall. For Anastasia-Reneé’s speaker, it is clear that sustained intimacy leaves her vulnerable to profound longing and therefore risks the integrity of the self:

dear readers have you ever missed someone in the way you miss yourself & you say where oh where have I been? & you look for yourself in your clothing & you look for yourself in your job & you look for yourself in yourself & yourself looks back at you & tells you she is unavailable asks you to please leave your number & a message (25).

What a peculiar turn this speaker takes: to pursue her own self like a would-be lover whose affections go unanswered. Anastasia-Reneé literalizes this conceit, insisting on an absurd situation in which she calls her self, leaving this message “at the beep” (25):

hey self, I want to let you know
I found you! you tucked yourself
away inside your lovers black hair
in a bobbi pin around your
favorite curl & for this reason
you will never be lost or forgotten
or misplaced because your lover
has a thing for bobby pins … . (25)

Ghosted by her self, the speaker nevertheless takes comforts in the “bobbi pin” and the slight, “favorite curl” of her “lovers black hair.” These might seem too passing a place to call home, but perhaps it is as good as anywhere. At least there is this: the vulnerability of greeting and recognizing the beloved, of declaring “nah ima stay.”

* * *

… the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

In the book’s afterword, Rezina Habtemariam describes (v.) as “a raw meditation on the politics brutally imposed on the bodies of Black girls and women,” in which the poet “interrogates what she poignantly describes as small deaths and the fracturing of selves they cause” (122). The signs of violence, death, structural racism, and misogyny are writ everywhere throughout these poems, though they astonish in their range of style and subject matter. (v.) includes paeans to “Becky the Patron Saint”; anti-fairy tales and anti-lullabies; autobiographical lyrics wrenched by microaggressions; blues poems; dramatic personae poems; orthographic deconstructions; vodun incantations and zombis; multiple-choice test questions; letters; glossaries; nature lyrics; and a long poem for Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister. These poems are by turns flirtatious, hilarious, plaintive, rage-filled, distraught, tender, resigned — they are as generous and tumultuous as the lives they imagine, represent, resent, remember, and memorialize.

In certain poems, such as “… kill us,” the traumas recalled are at once personal, cultural, and historical. Following news reports of the shooting of Korryn Gaines[vi], the speaker is overcome not only by her sense of unfathomable loss, but by the insidious, terrifying ways that public discourse frames, accounts for, and ultimately dismisses that loss:

you are not sure how to process a baby
wrapped in mama’s arms & her being shot & it
being all over the news & people are keeping tabs
about what she did wrong about her sanity
crazy black bitch
about if she had a right to be angry or to have

weapons if she had a right to be human (81)

The court of public opinion weighs — feels entitled to weigh — not only Gaines’s sanity, but her humanity and her right to her own life, to her son’s life. The verdict is rendered in an instant by her killer, by the social media mob-mind, which shouts, “crazy black bitch.” The speaker is painfully aware of the cultural and historical dimensions of this tragedy, that “this is not the alpha or omega / of this” loss. Rather, the murderous “they” recalls the drowned bodies of the Middle Passage, and now the speaker keeps “tabs” and remembers that this terror is always ready, in an instant, to “be true for / you & yours too”:

& you know “they’re
trying to kill us” is trapped at the bottom of all
oceans is overboard & above & in between
time & you feel like (keeping tabs) it could be true for
you & yours too, “they’re trying to kill us.”
“they’re trying to kill us.” “they’re trying to kill us.” (81)

In this poem, and beyond, Kodi Gaines’s words — and the piercing accuracy of his perception — will echo for all eternity.

The traumas of history are never far from the present in (v.). One prose poem in particular, “Master Tale,” simultaneously evokes chattel slavery in the fields of the past and economic drudgery in the corporate plantations of the present day through a series of spliced images and double-meanings:

we hid our accents (act/sense) never wanting our masters to know (no) who we really were. we dressed (the part) & made/maid our hair as perfect as perfect could be. when it was time to separate us, first by color, then by body type, we tried very hard to appear stone-faced and complacent, always texting each other & emailing our disapproval in code. i guess i should feel lucky — my master plans on giving me a 401(k) and time off after i have my child. he laughed and said, can’t wait to have that one on board with the company too (80)!

The slave and corporate “masters” judge and separate each body, and imagine unborn generations already bent in slavery, oblivious to the coded messages the anonymous “we” shares amongst themselves. In both times and realities, these speakers confront the dehumanizing white gaze through evasion, silence, and withdrawal. Their ultimate recourse comes in community, and in the quiet, unseen work of holding each other up, holding each other together:

& we try our best to hold each other up    we try our best to cover for each other when one of us is down down down way deep in the fields when one of us has lost all shuck & jive & accidentally returns from lunch late with a feather or two & a bit of blood soaked through our cotton shirts (80).

What then, when one is “down down down way deep in the fields,” when the “shuck & jive” falters? Not “if,” but “when.” The poem leaves us with no easy resolution. If this is survival, it is the long arc of cultural survival, and it is a bloody, vicious one. Thus the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

(pro)verb

sometimes a heart is a tenant & sometimes a heart is a house. neither knowing which is which until the house or tenant vanishes.
       or
we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you).
       or
we are already walking
dead we are already
ghostly bodies risen
& risen again & again[vii]

Let us give thanks for our muse and these poems. If you meet yourself at the river, drowning, forget it — go back, keep reading, and finish upon the earth with her.

Fin.
(Debut)

* * *

[i] In her biographical statement accompanying Forget It on Black Radish Books’ website, the poet describes herself as “a full time queer super-shero of color moonlighting as a writer, performance artist and creative writing workshop facilitator.” I offer this invocation, and the answer and proverb that follow, as one poet’s humble tribute to another.

[ii] The quotations in this “prayer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s “No Fairy Tale (2)” in Forget It, p. 58.

[iii] Though I say “our,” I do not wish to elide the differences in privilege and pain experienced by the poet and myself. As a straight, cis-gender white woman, I am by definition an outsider to many of the experiences that Anastacia-Reneé recounts. These are poems for Black girls and women, first and foremost, and so I am grateful even to be a small party to this conversation.

[iv] The quotations in this “answer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems “4” and “14” in Answer(Me), pp. 15 and 31, and her poems [“today alice is a marshmallow],” “The City (1),” “No Fairy Tale (2),” and “No Fairy Tale (3) in Forget It, pp. 32, 43, and 58-9.

[v] Perhaps alice metropolis is Anastacia-Reneé’s answer to W. C. Williams’ Paterson and Charles Olson’s Maximus, though she also seems to hearken towards the poet’s own term as a Hugo House writer-in-residence and Civic Poet of Seattle. Indeed, alice metropolis’s refrain in 9 Ounces, “keep it moving,” echoes and overturns the original meaning of Olson’s famous exhortation, “Keep it moving, Citizen,” from his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse.” Whereas Olson’s phrase is in homage to the speed, privilege, and compass of his (assuredly white, assuredly male) citizen, Anastacia-Reneé’s revision emphasizes movement as a means of survival for black bodies in hostile public spaces. For more on 9 Ounces and “Projective Verse,” see Rebecca Garcia Moreno’s review of 9 Ounces­­.

[vi] Korryn Shandawn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother of two, was shot while holding her son, Kodi, by Baltimore County police officers during a stand-off at her apartment. The words “they’re trying to kill us” are Kodi’s and were originally broadcast on Instagram during the stand-off. Gaines’s murder received national attention and ultimately garnered a $38 million settlement for her wrongful death, as well as the injuries Kodi sustained in the shooting.

[vii] The quotations in this “(pro)verb” come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems: respectively, “No Fairy Tale (3),” “4,” and “Dead to You” in Forget It, p. 59; Answer(Me), p. 15; and (v.), p. 30.

Works Cited

Anastacia-Reneé. Answer(Me). Winged City Chapbooks, 2017.

—. Forget It. Black Radish Books, 2017.

—. (v.). Gramma Poetry, 2017.

Jess, Tyehimba. Publisher’s Blurb. Gramma Poetry, https://gramma.press/bookshop/v/. Accessed 18 June 2018. 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


jpb_authorphoto

Dr. Julie Phillips Brown is a poet, painter, scholar, and book artist. After earning an MFA and a PhD at Cornell University, she served as the NEH Post-Doctoral Fellow in Poetics at Emory University’s Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Angels of the Americlypse, Columbia Poetry Review, Conjunctions (online exclusive), Contemporary Women’s Writing, Crab Orchard Review, delirious hem, Denver Quarterly, Interim, Jacket2, Mixed Messages, Peregrine, Posit, Rappahannock Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Talisman, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Lexington, Virginia, where she teaches creative writing, studio art, and American literature.

 

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