The American Poetry Journal
Book Review Special Feature ~ September 2017
Woodcut of Lightning Hopkins
by Charles D. Jones
The Poems' Truest Allies: Grit, Music, and Playfulness
Review by Carolee Bennett
My Black Angel: Blues Poems and Portraits
64 pp. Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2014.
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In her introduction to My Black Angel, Kim Addonizio writes, "I grew up a long way from Dockery's Plantation and the Mississippi Delta. I never picked cotton, fashioned a guitar from a box and a broomstick, or took a train to Chicago to try my luck in the more tolerant North. I never set foot in a juke joint or met the devil at the crossroads. I was a white girl growing up in a suburb of Washington, DC" (Introduction ix). The music in her life at that time, she says, was rock 'n roll, but when, in her forties, she learned how much rock owed the blues, "it knocked me down," she says, calling it a "coming home" (x).
That's when Addonizio took up the blues harmonica, and I urge you to visit YouTube to hear her play. In one video from a Page Meets Stage event, Addonizio – lilac, fingerless gloves holding a harmonica to her lips – accompanies fellow poet Derrick Brown as he reads. She watches him and responds to the lines of his poem with the blues chords and riffs she's mastered. In doing so, she creates a third piece of art. There is the music. There is the poetry. And there is also the energy generated by the back-and-forth of their combination.
The same kind of interplay is at work in My Black Angel, which places poems from Addonizio opposite – or more aptly next to – woodcut prints from artist Charles D. Jones. In other words, they share the stage, set initially by the textured surface of a large—but thin—hard cover, which is as much stage curtain as book cover. Arranged in two narrow columns, My Black Angel's table of contents reads like a pair of set lists: image names down one side, poem titles down the other. Everything about this first impression—both the energy between poetry and art and the “stage” created for them—declares that it's a performance.
However, it would be a mistake to label this book's artistry as exclusively performative. The book contains many traditional elements, as well. For example, Addonizio uses allusion throughout the collection, including references to both the Bible (like the rib in “Cigar Box Banjo” and snakes in several places) and Greek mythology (like the Lethe River in “Creased Map of the Underworld” and “Heraclitean”). She also employs form ("Half-Hearted Sonnet" and "Northeast Corridor Blues"), blank verse ("Creased Map of the Underworld" and "Open Mic," for example) and poems written in homage to both Gwendolyn Brooks ("Queen of the Blues") and Shakespeare's Macbeth ("Spell Against Impermanence").
Another element found in contemporary poetry collections is arrangement of the poems in a kind of trajectory (or narrative arc) that showcases a transformation in the poems' speaker. My Black Angel does a bit of this, as well. The opening poem speaks to possibility:
Blind Willie Johnson could coax
music from a single string. God plucked a rib
and found a woman. Concert aria
in the gypsy song, long groan
of orgasm in the first kiss, plastic bag
of heroin ripening in the poppy fields. ("Cigar Box Banjo" lines 1-6)
The poem is full of starting points: the first kiss, a bad idea "traveling along an axon" (8) and heroin ripening, for example. It looks ahead toward what may come and gives the reader the sense that the narrator is invested in those outcomes:
The heart may be a trashy organ,
but when it plucks its shiny banjo
I see blue wings in the rain. (14-16)
In contrast, the final poem is a kind of lament. Its narrator reminisces about cherries in "a Shirley Temple my father bought me" ("Wine Tasting" 3), "chlorine from my mother's bathing cap" (5) and "last winter's kisses, like salt on black ice" (6). However, even as the narrator recalls these and wishes for a chance to revisit more, she also expresses less attachment to the outcomes as Addonizio writes:
I'd like to taste,
one more time, the rain that arrived
one afternoon and fell just short
of where I stood, so I leaned my face in,
alive in both worlds at once,
knowing it would end and not caring. (13-18)
The speaker in this final poem is free from the expectations (good and bad) established in the opening poem. Although Addonizio deploys this narrative arc skillfully (just as she does allusion, form, and other devices), the collection’s truest allies are grit, music, and playfulness.
Grit exists in many forms in the bluesy, boozy poems of My Black Angel. Grit is what these poems are built upon: the bad ideas in politicians' brains ("Cigar Box Banjo" 7), the "loves that failed and failed” ("Blues for Robert Johnson" 9), the dead, pain, addiction, bullets, war, poverty, prison, smoke stacks and box cars. The grit in these poems isn't afraid to be raw: the rivers are made of "Fuck yous and orchids" ("Creased Map of the Underworld" 31), and the heart "lunges like a dog on a chain" ("Open Mic" 32).
In the blues, grit like this is always accompanied by music, and My Black Angel keeps with that tradition. Many of the poems employ rhyme and repetition so palpable that they provide the poems' momentum. This is especially true when the poems are built on the blues stanza itself, end-rhyming tercets with approximately 12 beats, clear repetition in the first two lines and a third line that "brings it home":
Give me a pint of whiskey with a broken seal
Give me one more hour with a broken feel
I can't sleep again and a black dog's on my trail
You're singing hellhound, crossroads, love in vain
You're singing, and the black sky in playing rain
You're stomping your feet, shaking the windowpane ("Blues for Robert Johnson" 1-6)
The blues' prominence in these poems gives them a visceral quality. We not only read that the characters and narrator face life's struggles head on; but we feel it, just like Addonizio feels her way through Derrick Brown's lines at Page Meets Stage.
Other times, the poems' music is much more subtle, as with the "o" sounds in "Cigar Box Banjo" (axons, pockets, cobra, orgasm, heroin, groan) or this faint echo in the opening lines of "Black Snake Blues":
I'm tired of dragging a man's name
like a stick along fence slats
and the song always broken
and the light always asking me for money. (1-4)
The only repetition here is the word "always" and the grammatical structure of lines 3-4. Still, it's enough to create a musical connection. By adjusting the "volume" of rhythm and rhyme poem-to-poem like this, Addonizio varies the experience for the reader. In one poem, a reader may have to lean close to hear the music. In another, the music may knock that reader out of his or her chair.
My Black Angel does the same with playfulness (another part of the blues tradition), giving each poem in the collection a wildly different "volume" of play. The effect is delightful. In some places, defiance is stated simply. The poems "lay down their cards for love / and go all in" (Queen of the Game" 7-8) or sing their "hurt like pressing a thumb on a bruise" ("When Joe Filisko Plays the Blues" 6). Other poems, however, build to quite a crescendo:
Couldn't keep him from harm.
The spirit burns away; what's left is char,
until someone pulls up a kitchen chair
and starts in on "Chickasaw Special." No
tears for Noah Lewis. Moan
and sing Take a woman from another man
and bang like holy hell on a coal-oil can. ("Harmonica" 9-15)
What starts as story, ends with exultant banging. But even this "banging like holy hell" isn't as boisterous as it gets. At its maximum, playfulness in My Black Angel is unrestrained and ecstatic:
baby you up and gone.
Those ol' seminal vesicles done rambled on.
Corpus cavernosum, mm-ahhh—hmm
hmmmmm-ummm-ohhh-mmmmmmmm. ("Penis Blues" 19-24)
Here, the poem totally surrenders to play through sound. Instead of being pulled out of the poem, the reader enjoys the ride, having been primed for friskiness in varying degrees throughout the book.
Even the blurb for My Black Angel is playful. Written by singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, it appears in lineated verse instead of paragraph form and on paper stock that's different from the rest of the book. When Williams says these poems are "of the beautiful and mighty / rising out of the dust," she's right; these poems are alive. In fact, they are alive in two worlds: the poetic tradition and the blues tradition. My Black Angel showcases not only Addonizio’s poetic chops but also her mastery of the blues. She demonstrates an awareness of the weight of her own voice and an understanding of the power of the stories around (and within) her. Like a true blues singer, the stories compel her to “bang like holy hell.” And that’s exactly what she does in My Black Angel.