Gospel music, like its secular cousin the blues, never wallows in pity, but instead seeks to transcend pain and reach glory. Bashir’s book makes the same trip.
Gospel, the word Samiya Bashir chose to title her second collection of poems, is one laden with connotations. It echoes the cadence of the pulpit, the call and response of preacher and congregation, songs of joy and praise and reliance on a higher power. It even claims the notion of a singular truth. But it’s the word’s original meaning that I think Bashir best exemplifies in this book—good story or message—because Gospel is, at heart, a collection of poems that suggest we are not alone in this mess of a world.
Which is not to say that Gospel is a book of simply inspirational poems; it isn’t. In fact, the Christian God plays a remarkably small role in this book. Our guides are, instead, two ravens from Norse mythology, Hugin and Munin, who served as Odin’s eyes, and even they inhabit the concrete world. But while they speak occasionally, the primary voice is the poet’s, and there’s nothing ethereal about her choice of words. In “Remainder”, the speaker tells her lover “you can have that / bottle of whiskey left under my kitchen sink,” but to:
leave the sponges, the mop and the lemon scented bleach.
leave the protein powder i save for my uphill days. i unstuck my salty laugh
from the birdlime bottomed basin. traded your negro league cards for new shoes.
It’s the last half-line that sticks with me in particular—there’s something crazy about a person who stows protein powder beside cleaning supplies, but there’s a special kind of spurning happening when a lover trades your collectibles for a new pair of shoes.
The poem “Topographic Shifts,” which opens the second section of Gospel, takes the reader to a more ominous place:
of thick black hair
screamed from its roots
loud and intact only
for two days time
she must be
The topography that shifts here can easily be read as one of identity; the threat in the above lines combined with this moment from the next page, “No one ask the body. / Its response cannot / possibly merit the wait,” extends this poem beyond the at-home amputation of fingers and toes. This is the dismantling of individuality, the bulldozing of a hill that disturbs the smoothness of the horizon. The speaker orders, near the end of the poem, “Defeat // secular variations / at their earliest / appearance.” This is not a request.
The final poem in that section, though, has a completely different tone. “Carry her for me” has the speaker recognize herself in a member of her community, a “bitter toothless / mumbly old lady” who “shouts at the government / via satellite” and who supplements her diet with cat kibble provided on occasion by a man at the pet supply store “if she comes out back / and it ain’t busy.” She’s one of the forgotten, one of those that polite society does its best to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. The speaker, though, imagines she “bump[s] heads with her / in the shower sometimes.” There’s a sense that shared despair is lessened, and that echoes the effect of the music for which this book is named.
Many of the poems in this book are alive, sensual, sexual. In “Here. Now.” the speaker and her partner seem to have sex during a church service; in “On Summer Evenings” the speaker says “bid me singe with you. I’ll sing.” In “Hoof & Jive” the speaker unites with her kin and says “We steady rock / four by four. We dervish desperate transformation. We creep / tender.” This not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the word gospel, Ray Charles aside, which is why the poem “Jesus gon’ hear my song sho’ nuff” stands out so much in this collection.
This is traditional gospel, the being carried aloft on wings of song and salvation, the rocking of the church choir resplendent in satin robes, the call to salvation roaring from the pulpit. I can feel every moment of this poem; I’ve been in this church, and been swayed by the palpable emotion. As far as description goes, this poem nails it. The poem lacks tension, however—the speaker expects to be transported by the moment, and is. The closing couplet reads “Only the rafters and his lifeblood kiss / can keep me from glory on days like this.” This is the kind of poem you might expect to see in a book titled Gospel, and it’s a good thing, in my view, that this is the only one of its kind in the collection.
The title poem, however, does a much better job of marrying the sensual and the spiritual. Here are the opening lines:
wind in fire
candles on altar
walk through the temple sing
stir fingers though holy water
pull dampness through hair
over temples loosen
plump curls dance with holy
The use of the holy water to wet the hair, loosen the curls—this is not the kind of dance King David lost himself in when he had the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem. No, this speaker says “make me a holy chamber / and I’ll make you whole,” and this is more than just a spiritual union. This is a way of transcending religion. The poem ends with “the word says / we are holy / the stars will agree / that what we are / is holier yet / than the whole / of the world.” This is Bashir’s gospel, her good news, that there is something more holy in joining with each other than in any belief system.