Strut by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
Agape Editions, 2018. 84 pp.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
Strut is a book that streams with pride, announcing in no uncertain terms that this speaker knows who she is and where she comes from. She celebrates each difficulty and delight equally, with earnest language full of music. In forms that range from haiku to the blues, Tallie takes us on a journey through heritage, relationships, and self-acceptance.
In the opening poem, “Madness” the speaker introduces the reader to the confident voice that narrates the collection.
runs in my family.
Dish hurling, knife wielding,
hard drinking, blind loving.
Ask how I make decisions
it depends on the wind’s shimmy
whether I dream 6 or 9 patterns of coffee grinds
(I) commit myself to the white room of the page,
I write my own damn prescriptions.
This speaker remembers where she came from, and this is evident in many poems that connect a history of bondage and diaspora with an always-present forward movement. In “Blue Libation” the present triggers the past:
I lit the candle of poem
in Mississippi & in the silence
of a blue morning,
libation rolled down my cheeks.
It was the cotton sheets.
My great-great grandparents’
hands & lives bent over
clouds. I slept
in the softness of my hotel
room, wrapped in a whisper
of my history
Poems like “Unhyphenated Souls,” “Mami Wata,” and “Polaris” give the reader unyielding and clear moments that reflect not only the history of the speaker’s family but also of so many others. In “Unhyphenated Souls,”
some say our sanity
is chained to ocean floor.
Those ships. Those ships.
Those ships not only carried many into bondage, they left many behind in the journey. In “Mami Wata,”
Wrapped their breaths
in a siren song,
opened their lungs
to spirit frayed
knows their names.
And freedom was hard-won in other ways, as we see in “Polaris”:
Great grandma twinkling
across the night
Under midnight’s quilt of coal
But Tallie is not content to speak of the past. There is too much life to be celebrated—highs and lows, loves and losses, all with their own sweet music. Tallie uses the repetition and rhythm of traditional blues. Poems like “Brazen Hussy Blues” chide those who would judge that celebration:
people say I’m brazen
I say well that ain’t news
you at home washing dishes
wishin’ you was in my shoes
while “Migration Blues” reflects upon a personal journey:
I left my Daddy the okra and the trees
earned myself a few degrees.
I’d give back those letters put down my pen
if I could just hear Daddy’s voice again.
Several love poems are included in this celebration, always grounding the reader in the speaker’s experience, as in “Why You’ve Loved Me Ever Since You Started Thinking in English (For Dominique)” where the speaker tells her lover that her language, English:
...gives you what your
language does not
cotton, Coltrane, candied
yams, marches, sit-ins,
panthers, black, Black
Black Love and space,
spirits draped in honey,
oh oh oh my God gospel
in bed (and Sunday mornings)...
Through form, rhyme, and a refreshingly honest voice, Tallie takes the reader on a journey through not just one life but life itself. She leaves the reader believing that this “Ars Poetica” is genuine, one that we can trace back through each poem in the collection:
May the poems be
the lifting of heavy things
the putting down of burden
the excavation of laughter & true names
the wild water
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.