Poetry Collection Review: for the love of black girls by Tatiana M.R. Johnson

Inside The Bell Jar would like to thank?Nix Thérèse?for their standout review of?Tatiana M.R. Johnson’s ‘for the love of black girls’. Tatiana’s poem ‘My Mother and I Loiter’ was selected for publication on Inside The Bell Jar earlier this year and can be enjoyed here.

Nix Thérèse?is a sonically-driven poet from New Orleans, currently pursuing their MLIS with a focus on archives management. They serve as Associate Digital Editor forFairy Tale Review & Contributing Editor for the Wilds while enjoying stories as rich as their lipstick.


It’s unsurprising, but heartbreaking that ‘for the love of black girls’ chronicles how often communities & lovers fall short of recognizing Black girls – here, perhaps permutations of the same girl – in needed complexity and beauty. Power in naming how & why they’ve been boxed & commodified & manipulated manifests in validating their responses and lives in the process. This depth of investigation attaches us to those internalizing and fighting (for) their environments, but also questions how much growth we expect from shallow nurture. When chosen to engage with those who have been pulled to sidelines, we know it as a hard but necessary communion.

“add half & half for sweetness” does the early work of highlighting the ephemeral nature of beauty – a main theme throughout – through a surprising & compelling braid of metaphors. The pound cake shifts to “clouds in black hands,” pulling heaven into something so accessible that you can fold it into palm & mouth. The batter’s mutability rivals her hair: like the cake diligently whipped together, the curls are coaxed into smooth consistency, but they won’t firm up forever. Panning to boys with hair like “granite against the wind of a jumpshot” produces envy. Their bodies match their dogged pursuit: as heat bleeds on them, they captivate without trying to hold any outside gaze. Yet she resists drawing humidity & sweat & water closer lest she spur the “revolt” back to curls. Straightness, like all finery, is prone to evaporate before anyone takes in “how sweet” she’s become. Isn’t it a crime to cheat this rare moment of delight where she feels “more girl and less black thing”, before she tastes herself as “rancid”? Sometimes hair feels like ground unfairly salted, but for a moment, her “dangling beauty” blooms. Here, sweetness is always expendable: the cake gulps all the cream & the hair undoes the press’ sizzling handiwork. But the hunger to be known as irreducible can’t be squashed; this grumble echoes beneath every girl’s skin.

The gift of nuance continues to extend only to a certain point, as evidenced by “are you turning black, girl?” We’re offered “a black woman’s ghost / who watches her skin / become a coat // sees the coat / bury a white body deep.” Far from the humane shearing that saves the animal from overheating, this indulgence masks itself as comradery. Tanning becomes a reversal of Black lives being unduly taken: a costume pulled off at will replaces those eviscerated forever. The mockery calls us to remember that American society wants our humanity to be mutable and deniable while others are solid and prized. But Johnson rightfully shies away from Blackness as taxidermy, instead offering the speaker’s present, yet dissociated, body and her ancestors. Space is the only real container for grief and the revolts of any Black woman who can’t settle into peace while she’s missing parts. “Float” particularly feels horrifying: the one continuous feedback loop of mourning currently trumps the respite needed to go back into the world and begin again.

Yet many of the narratives find the Black girls reconfiguring their realities. In “holy women”, the speaker consciously unnames “the man [she] is dating”, reducing him to both presence and absence with the constant repetition of this honorific. He consumes her space and being habitually, yet she connects more deeply with the lineage of “lonely women” to carve out her own expanse: “we are our own constellations /…we give birth to ourselves / again, again… / we throw our dignity to the wind… / large and messy in beds that do not miss / the ones who left.” These women find their own order, even if it’s not presentable to the outside world; denying his cage, they create breathing room that’s unconcerned with performing for another’s comfort. The “God in her fingers” is a reflection of her own genesis, a worldbuilding that requires deep knowledge of self. Even this reflection of “holiness” must learn how to exist singularly, and she dutifully leans into the task of becoming. This note continues in “there was a black woman once” where the speaker critiques how Black womanhood has been erased from the larger literary canon and societal consciousness. When these women “held to the light / like punished gods”, imagine them stuck under a magnifying glass where the heat is just starting to crisp their skin. How better to penalize them than clearing any traces? Yet her insistence on placing her mothers in their proper context summons them into the room. You feel them linger in the wings of her voice.

I loved how this collection reads like a winding archive of overlooked narratives, a stream that won’t allow you to perch in the shallows when wading in can wash you clean. The last psalm is fitting: Black girls can dig into their own depths and pour into the endless sea. The invitation to “melt into the halo of [their] own [selves]” and “scream unruly – coarse – fragmented – displeasing to the ear” encourages them to be undone and unfettered, naming their frequent displacement in the body and the world. She wants universes that rely on the boundaries they set for themselves over just accepting inherited histories, traumas, destinies. Even when the world “cuts into [their skin] – tries to convince [them] that [they] are the cause of [their] own bleeding,” they are urged to keep breathing. The blood strained from them isn’t as powerful as the rivers still rushing inside, pulling their stories and lineages into their own sparkling orbits.

 

You can purchase Tatiana?M.R. Johnson’s first collection ‘for the love of black girls’ on Amazon?and if you enjoyed this review, be sure to check out Nix Thérèse’s website here.

Inside The Bell Jar

Inside The Bell Jar

Inside The Bell Jar is a literary journal dedicated to providing a raw and honest insight into the complexity of mental illness. We hope that you enjoy reading our stories and poems, and that you might consider submitting.
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