Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week we’ll look at Field Theories (Nightboat Books, March 2017), a new poetry collection by Samiya Bashir that explores quantum mechanics, the Black body, identity, hybridity, interactions with and in the world, and the intersection of all of these things.
At the center of the book are scientific concepts such as the black body and the white body, where the black body “is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence” and the white body is the opposite, a physical body that reflects all radiation in a uniform way.
Bashir takes these scientific concepts and applies them to race, exploring Black people as the scientific black bodies, absorbing and containing the universe.
On her website, Bashir has been posting a series of poems from the collection reimagined in video forms that play with sound, light, and motion. They feature a Black man dancing, his graceful arm movements punctuating Bashir’s echoing words. In some videos, you can see him plainly, but in others you see only his silhouette, painted with stars or colors.
“You know how the universe can be seen in the night sky,” is the refrain that echoes through the sixth video poem, the symbolism and meaning writ clear in movement. Even the cover features a Black face with exaggerated features, the underlying muscle structure highlighted by green, blue, and yellow lights, like electrical signals.
Although Bashir uses experimental forms (one poem is riddled with bullet holes), her message does not equivocate. These poems declare the existence of the Black body, the right for those Black bodies to exist, and not only that, but their beauty and perfection. Poet and scholar Evie Shockley described Field Theories as “‘black body radiation,’ and you can’t handle it—but you’ve got to.”
Field Theories is Bashir’s third collection of poetry, following 2009’s Gospel and 2005’s Where the Apple Falls. She also edited the anthologies Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Literature & Art and Best Black Women’s Erotica 2 and has released two chapbooks. Her two previous poetry collections were finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards. She currently teaches creative writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
Logo art by Max Winter.