Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, by Saidiya Hartman, delves into voluminous historical archives to uncover and narrate the lives of Black women who tried to take America on its word, its declarations of freedom, so that they could pursue their dreams—but who were brutally reminded that they were still under its thumb, that they didn’t get to decide how to live their lives. The stories of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments taking place in the early twentieth century poignantly depict the injustices these women faced but they do not suffocate the vibrant livelihood of their living out “beautiful experiments” of freedom. In Hartman’s words from the preface “A Note on Method,” “This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practice of these young women by describing the world through their eyes.”

The Black Lives Matter movement is calling—and any myopia I have as a white woman is no excuse. Histories of Black people in the United States of America have been occluded, erased, or relegated to an infinitesimal narrative not representative of an American story. We can’t—I can’t—perpetuate those lies. The movement has brought this negligence and ignorance to the fore, again, because the movement for honoring the legacy of Black people in this nation and for demanding that white people work to undo racism (and more) is blisteringly incomplete. 

The stories in this book speak to my own wayward girlhood, fully aware that I was not surveilled, pigeonholed, or sent to state reformatories to be cut off from friends and family, withstanding cruelty. Hartman’s intimate storytelling doesn’t let us look away—we step into their particular lives. We hear of people that “flocked together forming transient communes, pooling their meager resources and sharing dreams,” in all, holding on to their adventuring spirit that brought them to the cities to start anew, and who felt it better to be unbound than bound. We also hear new angles on investigative reporter Ida B. Wells or the early career of W.B. DuBois as sociologist in the Seventh Ward. We learn the stories of Edna Thomas, Gladys Bentley, Mattie Nelson, Victoria Matthews, Mabel Hampton, among other, catapulted into our lives by story and often by captivating archival photographs. We experience the decisions, desires, and actions of bold protagonists—largely from Harlem, Chicago, Philadelphia—who envisioned and lived their lives as singers, dancers, and actresses seeking a private “pleasure lair” that was not governed by oppressive forces and that allowed interracial relations. Some of the pleasurably lush narrations could make anyone blush. As readers so intimately connected to their spirited dreams of themselves and the world, we find it even harder to face how these bold women, often the breadwinners, were mostly expected to be servants, doing housework or laundry for white families or institutions. They were shut out from so many professions and places, then they were deemed vagrants. Throughout the book, Hartman keenly contextualizes the individual narratives. Here she analyzes these vagrancy laws, aka status offenses: “Status offenses were critical to the remaking of a racist order in the aftermath of Emancipation and they accelerated the growing disparity between black and white rates of incarcerations in northern cities at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Knowing these stories and histories is so crucial. Our bold protagonists finding their freedoms among so much oppression are met by an onslaught of antagonists, such as police officers, legislators, state commissioners, landlords, tenement developers, and progressive leaders, do-gooders, who were setting and checking their moral score. With this repeated conflict in the book, Hartman finds a way to tell the story in daringly multiple ways, enlivening each chapter and allowing to get swept up in the language, the stories, the writing—the “chorus” of them making every possible turn within the space allowed. I wish every history book could be this compelling.

I end with one of many beautiful passages. Speaking about minor characters that she feels compelled to reconstruct from anonymity, Hartman writes, “It some regard, it is to recognize the obvious, but that which is reluctantly ceded: the beauty of black ordinary, the beauty that resides in and animates the determination to live free, the beauty that propels the experiments in living otherwise. It encompasses the extraordinary and the mundane, art and everyday use. Beauty is not luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much.”  


Introduced to me by the poet Nikki Wallschleager, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, is a book I have quickly come to treasure, knowing that I will return to it again and again, for sustenance, pleasure, study, and teaching. Published in 2009, the book also fills in a racist gap left by too many overly white anthologies of an epoch. Why do I strike such a hard blow? For fifteen years I have been reviewing poetry anthologies to decide which books to adopt. Usually I decide to teach individual collections that can center the voices of people of color and provide excellent models for my students, but on occasion I have assigned a poetry anthology that, in my mind, doesn’t disgrace our humanity. I have found Cary Nelson’s Oxford Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, though not without its limitations, to include a racially diverse group of poets. Several poets appear in both Nelson’s Oxford Anthology and Dungy’s Black Nature: Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Ishmael Reed, Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Janice N. Harrington, Natasha Tretheway, Rita Dove, Harryette Mullen, and Claudia Rankine. Except for Rita Dove’s “Parsley” appearing in both collections, no other poem appears in both collections. I have been invigorated by reading so many poems I didn’t know by poets I admire. 

Why weren’t so many of these poems already anthologized by 2009? Dungy’s introduction offers us some answers: Despite “the astonishing degree to which these African American poets and their subjects have aligned themselves with the natural world,” she says, “we don’t see much African American poetry in nature-related anthologies because, regardless of their presence, blacks have not been recognized in their poetic attempts to affix themselves to the landscape. They haven’t been seen, or when they have it is not as people who are rightful stewards of the land.” Let’s say that again: “People who are rightful stewards of the land.” Dungy particularly critiques “nature-related anthologies” and in particular names the Oxford Book of Nature Writing as an anthology excluding in Black writers on nature, but as I read Black Nature I am becoming even more vigilant about what gets anthologized, especially because Black writers has done so much to anthologize the work of Black writers from which other anthologists could collect. We must pay close attention to which Black poems and poets appear for an overall epoch or place and whether the poems are offering a limited repertoire of the Black experience, the editors thus circumscribing the range of their human experience. In a way, having such an extensive reading life, I felt cheated by not encountering many of these poems before. (Ok, yes, I could read even more individual poetry collections than I do.) Beyond the fifteen poets named above, Black Nature includes 78 more poets—with a total of 93 poets and 180 poems, poems which are almost entirely pulled together from individual poetry collections, with about 3 exceptions, notably the journal Ecotone Magazine’s 2008 folio “Over the Hills and Everywhere: Black Poets and the Natural World.” Indeed, Black people have much to say about the vegetal and animal life that surrounds them, with “caution,” and “with deep appreciation, connection, healing and peace.” 

Of the 93 poets in Black Nature, some are represented with 4-5 poems across the collection, such as Lucille Clifton whose poem “surely i am able to write poems” prefaces the collection, Ed Roberson, Yusef Komunyakaa, G.S. Giscombe, June Jordan, and Janice Harrington. The 180 poems in Black Nature are organized in ten cycles, each focusing on a particular angle of this human-nature interdependence (work, pests, disasters, animals, the forsaken, spring, to abbreviate a few), and the acuity of Dungy’s orchestration of these themes is marvelous; I am in awe of how Dungy drew together so many poems from so many individual collections in that reading from top to bottom my experience deepens, thickens, complicates as the collection goes on. We come to understand how, described in Dungy’s introduction “African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land,” how “the poems reveal histories stories in various natural bodies”—robust trees resonant with the history of lynching— and “how “recognitions on the connectivity with worlds beyond the human is revealed as a necessity of spiritual and physical survival.” And Ravi Howard, introducing “Cycle Two: Nature, Be with Us” says, “These words have helped to bridge the distance between an urbanized view of blackness and the natural world, a gap that, left unchecked, leave more room for distortions.” The theme rejuvenation at the end of the book, like the cycles of nature, send us on our way. I have come to love and pass on so many of these poems—I’ve loved so many that I end without naming so many poets, I realize. I’ll end with a short Richard Wright haiku from the section pests, which is brimming with powerful poems:


I am paying rent

For the lice in my cold room

And the moonlight too. 


Artress Bethany White’s poetry collection My Afmerica drew me in with the title—no hyphenation, the letters jammed together, a comingling of racial and national identity that percolate throughout the collection. The title also claims this nation—perhaps a nod to Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.” While we span states and time periods in this collection, from an elegy to a lynched relative in the 1800s to the contemporary moment, we return to motherhood, and to family life in one’s childhood and as an adult with an interracial family, among scores of race-based hate crimes pushing on into the edges of the nurturing home for a family—and for a poem. The undead past ever-present, bluntly paraphrasing Faulkner. From the first poem we are reminded of U.S. History In “Plantation Wedding” in which the speaker is appalled by a woman’s choice to “stage her twenty-first century /wedding on a plantation / where masters slaked their lust /on the shivering bodies / of black boys and girls?” The ghosts of their lives flicker in and out, swerving with the more recent tragic deaths of Sandra Bland or James Craig Anderson—the speaker drives along with them, in life, on the road. In one poem we hear this brutal comparison, knowing that our speaker is a mother and stepmother as well: “how to mourn the death of a child / run down like road kill / for being black.” White rage is the shadow here. Later in the poem “On the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” after describing the “broken bodies / of deer below” the final statement is “I hesitate / to call them dead.” In the poem “Too Many Ghosts” that narrates a moment of tripping down the stairs in a Victorian house and intuiting ghosts, I lingered on one of my favorite phrases in the book: “As I tumbled, my eyes saw his demise: a seemingly permanent plank disappeared like decades beneath my tread, and I caught the somatic whisper, I died here, in midair.” In that “somatic whisper” is what we cannot fully name and what is beyond our senses, yet felt it in our bodies. We tense, we cower, to protect ourselves. What surrounds us is imprinted with the past. Artress Bethany White offers poignant narratives and daring reflections of family life and of navigating through racism in these poems as the speaker searches to be safe and feel free, among so much “somatic whisper[ing].” It itches with history. It leaves no stone unturned. 


Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney. I’ll admit that the book sat on my reading table for months—I think I was afraid of it, its pitch-black cover with shimmery slick-like green text. Toxicity. I’d open to the table of contents and see “Detonator,” “Death,” “Electrocuted.” With so many shadows in my life, illnesses and such, I didn’t know if I could meet it where it was. But I never removed it from that table—Crisis, it rang. Crisis, it seeped—as if it were calling to me to have courage. Next confession: I read it for the first time while listening to one of those delta wave tracks for easing the mind. A book built of two main parts, Toxicon and Arachne, with Toxicon split into four sections, the poems do take flight with crises, the technological, chemical, and bodily all jamming each other’s’ signals; they fulminate against the detritus of the world, they risk spilling over and out. The first poem “Ars Poetica” begins “I wanted to unlock my phone. / I wanted to unlock the geode. I wanted to press it to my skull. I wanted to go right through the temple. Bedazzle my occipital. Be / dazzled like a jeweled vagina or an improved corpse.” Presented in the past tense, the convulsive language is somewhat distanced from the maze of crises, the wandering nerve at risk of shutting down the body. This atmosphere frighteningly neural and stellar, as constellations are named, and I am swept up in its dark matter. 

In the second section the damaging facts of the world linger but they are held tight to their form in a crown of sonnets, with the speaker being “a threat to life.” The speaker fully inhabits the danger. While the beginning gives the impression of being unfiltered, the sonnets serve as filters, compressing what settles in them. And in this section, I became more aware of its magnificently lingual worldbuilding, the whiteness of death, the dark of deep space. The cover of the book I had stared at turns galactic, the words constellations. In section 3, “a diadem of damage” is a central paradox in this book—how so much damage sickens the speaker and how divinely resonant one becomes with the pitch of that experience. Throughout the beginning of the book, the personal details of wreckage are suspended, the cause for so much disarray, and I continue on feeling like I am ingesting ground bones. I trust the delay, the withheld. 

At “Sestina Gratitude,” still in the third section, there is a shift to the personal—the impression of a lost baby. “Thank you any zygote worth its salt,” “Thank you, fontanel.” And “you / and your brain rock there, sapless as a brain / -dead babe.” I can barely take the weight of death striking so vividly, the language ever swerving from the rigor mortis to the verve of death. But something starts to slow as we learn more details of a baby girl who died after only thirteen days of life. Here is when I start to think of my own crises—ectopic pregnancies sucked or cut from my body—and how looking at the pared-down, objective-sounding language of doctors would tilt my situation and I would see myself from afar. In the second part of the book, Arachne, alternates between verse and prose paragraphs that share accounts from the life of a woman “crown[ed]” with “catastrophe.” We have a sense of her coping personally and never losing sight of the blundering and bristling world that surrounds her (galaxies, Greek mythology, pop singers, GIFs, plastics, Keats) and naming and countering hegemonic toxicities. Near the end, we also hear that “mirth is both Physicall and wholesome against the Plague,” text drawn from Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet The Wonderfull yearte. 1603, named in the acknowledgments. Toxicon and Arachne is a book I will read again and again to fully absorb all it has to give, sans hazmat suit.


If I am not reading Spanish as well as English, I feel incomplete—a part of myself wandering around in an uninhabited landscape—so paradox rings when I chose this book to read. Nelson Simón’s Itinerario del olvido / Itinerary of Forgetting, translated by Lawrence Schimel, written in sixteen lush and sorrowful sections of verse, recounts a man’s departure from Cuba in which each act of naming, from the streets and buildings to his family and lovers on the island, becomes an act of dissolution. He recounts his male lovers throughout his days there, their lusts and affections. At times the book reads like a self-elegy—maybe he knows he is dying—until we have details of the “leavetaking” in a “mechanical bird” and the moments of being in a new place. Nonetheless, the places we inhabit inextricably make up our lives; we are that person in that place; and to leave one’s country is a kind of death. By exploring this finale to his living in Cuba, the speaker says, in one of the final sections,

Yo miraba hacia atrás y solo veía

el parpadeo ambarino de las luces

haciéndome borroso el contorno

de todo lo que amaba;

sólo opacas figuras, sombras chinescas

avivadas por el dolor, rostros diluidos

en el bullicio de un país que hervía

a pesar del frescor que trae la medianoche.

Rostros que recorrí y entraron por mis manos

para quedarse impresos

y que ahora, ya no reconicía, 

al quedar sumergidos 

en la resaca de las despedidas. 

And I am grateful to encounter a translator whose work I hadn’t known before. And the translation so wonderfully crafted into English by Lawrence Schimel:

I looked back and only saw

the amber blinking of the lights

blurring the outline 

of everything I loved;

just opaque figures, shadow puppets

enlivened by pain, faces diluted

in the hubbub of a country that boils

despite the freshness midnight brings.

Faces I crossed, which entered through my hands

to remain imprinted there

and which now I wouldn’t recognize,

in remaining submerged 

in the hangover of leavetakings.

It is hard to leave such good books, maybe it is like leaving a country. I hope that some of these books make it to your reading lists.