All Blue So Late: Poems
All Blue So Late: Poems by Laura Swearingen-Steadwell
Northwestern University Press, 2017; 80 pp.
Reviewed by Maya Marshall
If you could give advice to your 14-year-old self, what would you say? In this book, the speaker’s answer is a battle cry for staying alive:
I’m the monster. I don’t want to spare you any pain. /I want the unbroken woman you will be to exist.
Like her debut collection, How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps (Write Bloody, 2011), Swearingen-Steadwell’s second book showcases her interest in formal variety and experimentation. The sonnet crown serves as the collection’s backbone. Haibun, pecha kucha, and less traditional forms, including the prose poem and rolling tercets, serve as more than mere ornamentation for these intimate reflections on girlhood and the power of female sexuality. In this poet’s hands, each form feels inevitable in the service of the narrative. Consider the poem, “When the Man Talked Around Me, When He Talked over Me”:
In the world of men, I sewed my tongue into a stone
and grew small. It was how to survive. I removed
vertebrae as a parlor trick. I sawed off my feet and
sanded my limbs down gradually, an inch or so at a
The italics, set against the preceding stanza’s roman type; the single-spaced, enjambed lines against the preceding stanza’s airy double-spaced and endstopped lines—underscore the haunting ghosts and darkness in the narrative itself and reify how a woman can compress herself in the name of safety and, ironically, in service of her own destruction.
Swearingen-Steadwell’s poems are crystalline, full of travel and water. The core narrative reveals a speaker whose depression, like menstruation, comes on at puberty, requiring its own set of receptacles for disposal. Those receptacles figure as addiction, sensation, and sexual freedom, as the speaker simultaneously examines her girlhood anxieties about blackness, body image, and other coming-of-age issues.
This book is about living despite having wanted to die. It follows the speaker through various cities she’s lived in over the course of her life: Oakland, Cleveland, Oaxaca, Amherst, Charleston, Orvieto, Rome. Swearingen-Steadwell’s ripe narratives usher us through with the sure force and vitality of a locomotive.
Language and knowledge are her weapons. For her, we, poets and black women alike, are in constant battle against institutions, false narratives, and white supremacist notions that begin with the schooling of our children. The poems chitter with black girls whispering to one another. Relationships are complex, fraught as they are with desire, admiration, competition, and viciousness. In “The Dead Black Girl Doesn’t Care”:
the dead black girl is abandoned on the curb
we put her there
even you—who tells the legend
one black girl whispers
to another to prevent
our own vanishing.
This beautiful collection could very well have been written to save lives—the speaker’s, yes, and mine (a black woman poet). Perhaps, even yours. I’d slide this volume into the hands of any black girl or woman on a cusp—the coming-of-age 9th grader, the 18-year-old striking out on her own, the woman exiting a relationship, pairs of female friends (for doesn’t friendship always exist in a liminal space?).
Swearingen-Steadwell is a true logophile, as seen in the way her careful diction and well-wrought images offer the reader glimpses into her worldly travels. One of the book’s many pleasures is the way she’s seeded these lyric-narrative hybrids with place details and subject-specific lexicon, a testimony to the superb wordsmith she is. For the curious and attentive reader, this book opens like a flower, one poem at a time.
Maya Marshall is a writer, editor, and poet. She is co-founder of underbellymag.com. She holds fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her chapbook Secondhand was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Marshall earned her MFA from the University of South Carolina, and she currently serves as a senior editor for [PANK].