By Laura Vrana, PhD
Over the recent holidays, I found myself struck by a poet-scholar’s query on what many of us — in a tone suffused with affection and/or disdainful disregard — dub “Poetry twitter.” While compiling a list of forms invented by Black poets, she found herself centering products of male writers, so she was seeking more invented by women. Enthusiastic replies poured in, citing (among others): Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “gigan,” Tara Betts’s “4-1-1,” Allison’s Joseph’s “sweetelle,” Nicole Sealey’s “obverse,” and Ashley Lumpkin’s “disciple.” Too, poets and scholars used this thread to engage generatively about how to define an invented form, suggesting Claudia Rankine’s “American lyric,” or Patricia Smith’s “triple sestina,” or works “undoing traditional forms” like Tiana Clark’s “broken sestinas,” could qualify. I wondered: what, and who, do those of us who research and teach Black poetics include and foreground when considering innovation?
This query was particularly on my mind since I was about to begin writing a piece on Amanda Johnston, so I was struck when Johnston herself chimed in on this very back-and-forth unobtrusively mentioning her “genesis”. She describes the form as “comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems create a sixth prose poem, and italicized words create the final seventh poem when read independently as a visible erasure.” Johnston’s tone, putting herself forth for consideration yet doing so quietly and briefly, encapsulates the simultaneous humility and well-warranted braggadocio with which Black women poets today innovatively “make poetic culture in their own images” (Leonard 27). I mean “braggadocio” not as a critique. Instead, I hope it and this piece will celebrate Johnston, even as I suggest that innovative precursors paved the way for her triumphs. Johnston recognizes this lineage; readers should also situate her work against this backdrop to fully understand her contributions to contemporary African American poetics.
One of Johnston’s most vital ancestors came up recurrently in that thread: Gwendolyn Brooks. One scholar posited that Brooks’s “sonnet-ballad” and “anniad” are invented forms; others highlighted that Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” could never have emerged without Brooks. In these meditations, I want to argue the same of Johnston: a boldly innovative versifier herself whose works come into sharper relief when seen as partially descended from Brooks.
Like Brooks, Johnston is equally adept on page and stage. She has won honors for slam and performance work in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and has published in journals like Callaloo and Poetry, along with two chapbooks (Guap and Lock and Key) and her full-length collection Another Way To Say Enter. Many “slammers” like Johnston engage in textual innovation encouraged in part by their training in MFA programs: Johnston earned her degree at the University of Southern Maine. Yet these innovations are equally indebted to Brooks’s model of poetic invention. In addition, she and Brooks share extraordinary accomplishments as poets and tireless advocates for their peers. Johnston devotes herself to opening doors for Black authors: she has served as Board President of Cave Canem, co-founded the reading series / social media campaign #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and founded Torch Literary Arts to promote Black women’s writing. Through these labors, Johnston, like her foremother, links poetry to social change.
More should be said about Johnston’s labors on behalf of Black writers as well as about her performance work. But I will focus here on her written texts, particularly how they derive inspiration from Brooks in treating centrally the variegated subject of Black motherhood. Countless Black poets have penned riffs on their foremother generally and especially on her works on this topic (including Robin Coste Lewis’s “the mothers”). However, Johnston’s entire oeuvre centers motherhood in modes topically and formally inspired by Brooks’s “the mother” (1945), locating her as a modern poet of Black motherhood. Johnston’s body of work addresses how the experience of shepherding a young life into and through a world that subjects Black children to additional forms of precarity yields internal conflict and heightened raging at social (in)justices.
Her speaker(s) return(s) repeatedly to dwelling on her/their mother(s). The ars poetica “With Apologies to the Poem” from Lock & Key, for instance, apostrophizes her verse with sardonic audacity a lá Brooks (or her foremother domestic poet extraordinaire Lucille Clifton). It opens: “you complicated flutter of sound / broken and bent meaning / all the best,” then continues in ironically self-aggrandizing self-effacement: “I can’t // connect the sky or birds / to my mother // I tried // as you did” (8). These lines via paralipsis do connect “sky” and “birds” to the speaker’s “mother,” insinuating that the poet-speaker finds this character, and, I argue, this theme meaningfully unavoidable.
On top of this returning to one’s own mother, Johnston’s full-length Another Way to Say Enter reflects a pervasive preoccupation with the speaker(s) as mother. Numerous poems overtly address being a mother, from the haunting narrative in “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted,” to “What We Dare Not Say” positing that “unconditional / motherhood / could be driving / your young into the sea” (27). Even in poems not specifically addressing motherhood, images like describing the domestic task of peeling potatoes through a simile equating the vegetables to “a newborn baby’s head” (23) raise the specter of this role.
I will unpack just two of these motherhood poems: “My Beloved Be Loved,” and “We Named You Mercy.” The former revises Lock & Key’s “My Beloveds” and appears in Enter with the epigraph “after Toni Morrison,” situating it as allusion to Morrison’s novel and embracing Morrison’s influence on her representions of Black motherhood. This poem stunningly lyricizes Sethe’s decision to perform matricide, inhabiting this mother’s consciousness and rendering her supposedly monstrous choice explicable in just six couplets. But its treatment of the so-called choices involved in Black motherhood also has roots in Brooks’s “the mother,” especially in how skillfully Johnston extracts maximal ironic effect and societal commentary from small-scale devices like punctuation and diction.
For instance, Johnston expands Brooks’s devotion to exploring exactly what the action of “love” — a verb she features prominently thrice in the anaphoric, haunting final stanza of “the mother” — means to Black mothers. To do so, she excludes the comma that should appear for clarity in her title between the vocative “My Beloved” and the imperative. This absence (like Brooks’s brilliant double-edged meanings of “in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”) provokes readers to recall that the former, often-saccharine endearment “Beloved,” is etymologically equivalent to the latter passive construction, “Be Loved” and that true maternal love involves action, not mere words. This immediate juxtaposition also highlights that white supremacy attempts to leave Black mothers powerless. But against such passivity, the piece centers verbs: “I grab,” “I know,” and “I will hand.” Thus, the poem emphasizes that Black motherhood always centers maternal care enacted in action — even if that mandates matricide or abortion, and even if others view these women warranting confinement in the poem’s “cage[s].”
Johnston’s “We Named You Mercy” extends this Brooks-inspired work of depicting mothering complexly via minute, deliberate formal details. “Mercy” is written “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and transports the “mother,” discussing abortion into our century. Despite the homage, a stark contrast differentiates Brooks’s piece from Johnston’s. Readers can infer that Brooks’s 1945 speaker likely obtained the abortion(s) before and without revealing her pregnancy/ies to others, to retain some modicum of control, perhaps thanks to physical or socioeconomic necessity that others might devalue. Johnston’s speaker instead induced abortion out of medical necessity; it remains unclear if only the child’s health or also the speaker’s was imperiled. In addition, this would-be mother inhabits different domestic circumstances and shares the experience with a partner: clearly, they both longed for and “love[d]” this unborn and so only chose abortion to express “cold mercy.” In light of these conditions, Johnston’s speaker’s emotions become even more double-edged than those of the speaker of Brooks’s poem. Both poets depict the children in ghostly terms, but Johnston tonally describes the child in beautiful natural imagery and alliteration, its “toes” “small petals,” its “closed eyes” “pulps of possibility” (5).
Juxtaposing her work with Brooks’s emphasizes that Black women may, regardless of circumstances, view abortion as hardly wholly their choice and as a result experience conflicting emotions. That Brooks’s speaker endures her loss in silence (except the outlet of this poem) becomes pronounced in her mournful final repetition of the singular first-person: “I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” While Johnston’s speaker has recourse to first-person plural, society nonetheless still veritably forbids speaking publicly about miscarriage, medically-induced abortion, and concomitant mourning; this remains somewhat true even if others beyond one’s domestic orbit knew of the pregnancy, as may be the case for Johnston’s speaker. Such taboos make it difficult for Black women to process guilt, shame, or self-doubt.
Yet “We Named You Mercy” violates these taboos in content and via aesthetics used. Johnston’s tools for representing her speaker’s sense of self-blame and culpability mirror Brooks’s: both center compound neologisms and pose unanswerable rhetorical questions. Johnston’s neologisms like Brooks’s create an overall indeterminate mood. Her first-person speaker declares: “I saw your face once and, yes, I did / kiss your cheeks and cry for your sweet not- / quite nose, not-quite lips” (5). Brooks’s “sucking-thumb” and “gobbling mother-eye” condense memorably the haunting experience of envisioning the unlived lives of (a) child(ren) aborted; Johnston’s adjectival “would-be” and “not-quite” and nouns “almost-children” and “half-wing” operate in parallel to summon the children into pseudo-embodied form. Like those ghostly phantasms, these linguistic neologisms might seem mere fabrications to those around the speaker; this liminality parallels how others denying her anguish validity might increase its keen ache. Johnston’s speaker also blames herself in the same form as does Brooks—unanswered interrogatives. “the mother” poses two haunting questions: “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” and “oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” Johnston expands this to five. Her speaker queries early on: “Would I get / another chance to see you if I held the knife? Cold, the sterile / the taker’s tools” (5). Near poem’s end, these questions accumulate in an accelerating, frenetic compilation: “Did you see me? The one with / empty arms stretching to embrace a / a [sic] silhouette of you? … / Or / did I make that up to keep you with / me a little longer? Did you stay until the no / I set upon your body untangled itself from sprigs of hair / and released you from the softness that tethered you to the / love in our cold mercy?” (5). In these rapid-fire queries, the speaker questions her complicity and sanity.
She also blames herself when she imbues speech with the capability to enact the abortion, describing it as a performative utterance, the “no / I set upon your body.” Thus the “mercy” extended feels tepidly “cold” indeed, directed at the unborn fetus and thereby denied the mother herself. It is fitting that Johnston also implicitly evokes Morrison here: her final image of “almost milk that did not swell, but was light as air” (16) recalls Sethe’s last days at Sweet Home, when her “swollen” breasts tortuously subject her to abuse by white enslavers and serve as material reminder of the child sent ahead whom she is desperate to follow. Johnston’s poetic invocation of milk-laden breasts are an absent presence, “airy,” yet real — like that “ghost” of possibility provoked by holding the lifeless child.
Too, Morrison often ruminates on “mercy” ideologically. Her A Mercy (2008) describes a mother begging a white man whom she judges likely to treat her daughter humanely to “take” her into enslavement, an attempt to protect her from their present master’s rapacious sexual abuse. To her, his accepting “was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (195). Farah Jasmine Griffin glosses this passage:
For the mother, the white man offers a gift of mercy, but is the mercy an act granted to the slave child by the man Vaark, or one granted to the white man to whom she is given? Is the act of mercy his ability to see Florens as a child and not only a piece of property over whom he has power? Or is it God’s mercy that the enslaved mother sees Vaark as a human being who might do right by her child and not as a monster who would cause her great harm? All she knows of white men would lead her to see them, to believe them, to be monstrous and evil. Yet, she sees this one as a human being, capable of kindness (28).
We might similarly ask in Johnston’s poem: who requests mercy — child, mother, father, poet? — of whom — child, mother, father, poet, readers? If even trading in humans can seem merciful depending on the relative situation, then (Johnston suggests) the choice to prioritize an unborn child’s quality of life over the mother’s well-being qualifies, too, as an act of mercy. The unborn “Mercy” embodies such grace to her mother — Griffin also asks: “Who can be more deserving of mercy than a child” (29) — even as this speaker serves the God-like role of extending her offspring mercy. The body of the poem only incorporates its key word “mercy” once: in the phrase “our cold mercy” that thus carries tragically key dual meaning. In context sans capitalization, it primarily describes the parents’ tortured decision. But read in light of the title, this phrase also evokes corporeally encountering the corpse of the child.
As parallels between these two poems evince, tortuous cycles persist for twenty-first-century Black mothers denied equal access to resources and exposed disproportionately to environmental and institutional hazards that make them and their children precariously vulnerable to negative health outcomes. “We Named You Mercy” is not only a potent document of personal trauma. It is also a rallying cry to rectify such circumstances, or at least to grant Black women platforms to express losses and to advocate implicitly for reproductive justice.
For the ability to hold the child, to write this verse, and to lyrically name the child does proffer something to this despondent speaker. That the name is “Mercy,” however, ultimately encapsulates the tragedy of the loss and the parents’ feelings. Johnston’s speaker experiences the “cold” comfort of sharing her burden with a partner and writing in a somewhat more accepting era. Yet it is undeniable that Brooks’s formal and thematic innovations, as well as her meditations on this under-discussed facet of Black motherhood made a pathway for Johnston to follow in her own work.
Before closing, it seems worth thinking about the choice on the part of this poet of motherhood to dub her created form the “genesis.” This audaciously positions her as fertile and god-like, authoring creation and the text representing it. This mirrors Nikki Giovanni’s tone in “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” when she declares: “I turned myself into myself and was jesus.” Both poets make Black women, so often societally abjected, godly. And rightly so, for Johnston’s invented genesis is itself a wildly creative hybrid form, demonstrating her formidable talents and demanding fresh reading strategies. She formats the five separate pieces, spread across multiple pages, as individual columns for independent reading. But they also together, read left-to-right and up-to-down across the columnar divisions, create a sixth longer poem. Finally, she invents a new sub-genre, the “visible erasure,” by asking readers to identify the seventh poem hidden in plain sight. Each columnar poem contains italicized phrases; assembling these left to right across the two-page spread comprises a seventh poem. But locating this invisible (yet hyper-visible) seventh poem asks readers to do the impossible: ignore the roman typeface text they have already read. Those words haunt this seventh piece interpretatively. Reading such work — let alone innovating such a form and writing effectively therein — certainly requires and displays capacious, generative poetic thinking.
Thus, Black women poets (Johnston among them) indubitably deserve treatment as creators of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American verse. That Twitter thread ultimately helped me continue dwelling on key broader matters in twenty-first-century African American poetics. Many assert that now that Patricia Smith won the Pulitzer and “slammers” (with other types of Black poets long held in abeyance by the academy and literary establishment) are being increasingly recognized, these poets now exercise full freedom. Although “gatekeepers” initially “pushed” slam and its “artists to the margins or jettisoned it” (Johnson and Blacksher 170), such institutions have begun to “recognize the literary merits of slam” and “bring slam and spoken word poets” into their legitimizing spaces (Johnson Killing 2). Keith Leonard recently asserted that twenty-first-century Black poets can wholly “create as they please” (29). Amanda Johnston’s career gives me (qualified) hope that he is correct, or soon could be. For she is to some degree recognized by the establishment on stage and page, and collectives like Cave Canem and the Affrilachian Poets help her reach broader audiences and craft her own platforms.
However, reading her as poet of Black motherhood and emphasizing her innovation remains in order. As Brooks’s brilliance is kept at the fore through the tireless labors propagated by the Furious Flower conferences and center, among other efforts, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring Johnston’s work before readers and position her as a modern daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks in these pages, where we with the writers tend and foster African American poetry.
Johnson, Javon. Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2017. Print.
— and Anthony Blacksher. “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death On the End of Slam (?).” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 169–79. Print.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. New York: Norton, 2021. Print.
Johnston, Amanda. “About.” Amanda Johnston. https://www.amandajohnston.com/about. Web. Accessed 1 Feb. 2022. Electronic.
Leonard, Keith. “New Black Aesthetics: Post-Civil Rights African American Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 17–30. Print.
@nadia870. “Hey poetry Twitter, what forms do you know of that were invented by Black women poets? As I begin forming a list of forms created by African American poets, I realize that none of the folks I’ve found so far are women. Please help!” Twitter, 29 Dec. 2021, 10:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/nadia870/status/1476234444625358851.
Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and a proud alumna of Penn State, where she earned her Ph.D. in English. She researches 20th-century and contemporary Black poetics, and her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including MELUS, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and Obsidian and the edited collections Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, and two volumes of the Cambridge African American Literature in Transition series.