Arisa White, an impossibly talented and accomplished young poet, released her debut collection of poetry just last year, and followed it up with a new book shortly after. White’s first collection, Hurrah’s Nest, is a brave introduction to a fearless, and astonishingly personal collection of poems. The gorgeous bundle of poetry is distinctively and remarkably presented; there is never a lack of clever line breaks, intelligent and whimsical play on words, or courageous variations of form. Hurrah’s Nest is about family. It is about clashing identities. It is about the scars that are left behind, years after the initial collision and betrayal. Arisa White creates a nest out of pulp, innards, memories, and stories; she defines “home” and its creation.
Hurrah’s Nest mostly focuses on White’s family chronicles; this includes the complex relationship between her and her mother, the mother’s tendencies to abandon the poet and her six siblings, cultural differences within the family, her sister’s mental deficiencies, and the responsibility of six brothers and sisters. In the poem, “We Not Crazy, We Feeling Irie,” White writes, “Her Jamaican accent acquired from Rasta associations / brings tide to steel of city living. // With the complaint that vegetarianism is starvation, / my aunt threatens to call child welfare.” The same genetics, dreadlocks, and skin that White shares with her mother are unavoidable. The poet simultaneously embraces the unique and selfish love that her mother has for her, and illuminates the rebellious philosophy that mother passes on to daughter: “Our hair’s mat and nap is treason against granny’s / straightened bob and auntie’s permed curls.” White’s mother, although teaching her daughter self-expression, has demons of her own. Throughout the book, White depicts her mother as a woman who feels deeply burdened by her children. In “Chore” the mother threatens to take all seven siblings to foster care after the children do not pick up after themselves. This attitude towards unity and unconditional love stirs betrayal and ache between White and her siblings: “Why she breaks us, I can’t understand. / Bursts into laughter and then tells us, Next time I’ll be serious”. Besides their mother’s hands-off approach towards parenthood, the children are exposed their Guyanese stepfather who is depicted in “Disposition for Shininess” as showing little respect for them: “He rarely greets us – what’s the point of saying hello over again? / He stays more nights. This is the beast / crawling down the stalk.” Craving her mother’s attention and also wishing her happiness, White allows her mother to be Cinderella, her inability to stand in between her and a defunct version of a glass slipper.“Hurrah’s nest,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “an untidy heap.”
Through both tidiness and calculated mess, Arisa White puts together a collection of poems that speak to one another. Hurrah’s Nest begins its unravelling with the poem, “To You, Named The Messenger Of God,” a broken sestina which still follows the number of lines per stanza and is complete with 39 lines and seven stanzas total. A grand introduction to her family, the names of her six siblings are repeated and the poet employs the sestina-like structure to cleverly adhere the repetitive motions, sounds, and names. “[….] I body myself like a kayak // and to what shore I pedal, I’m Kayana seized in epilepsy,” is an example of how White uses the form to guide her words and sounds without completely giving in to the sestina’s somewhat gimmick-y nature. White’s poems are sometimes neat and organized by couplets and tercets, but other pieces, such as “Portrait Painter” do not follow strict structure. Stanzas are constructed by six lines and then four, and five. The lines are quick and short, powerful and mighty in their brevity: “It’s different / how our mother looks at us / with sweet and brick / of romances gone.” In the poem, “On That Day,” White’s lines are longer and constructed by quatrains with the exception of the couplet: “On that day the apartment was too quiet a place / for living children, you cried, and we let our minds wander.” The poem in this case, is more wordy. It offers the readers images such as “pistachio paint peel,” but the longer lines also contribute to the narrative quality. In “On That Day,” White specifically shares the story of her mother shirking away from taking care of a hospitalized Kayana. The combination of concise and erratic form is a way the poet can be reckless with her craft. Hurrah’s Nest takes a turn about half-way through; “Ya Smellin Ya’Self, Gal?” breaks free from form completely, and White’s narration takes over. In the prose poem, which could arguably be labeled as a short story, the poet recounts the day she and her siblings lock her stepfather’s sister out of the house. From the perspective of a child, the speaker is embarrassed by the woman, Jackie, because she is different from them, more barbaric and clueless: “But why should we want to take this woman to the pool and she doesn’t even have a proper bathing suit? She gets wet, everyone will see her titties in the white T-shirt she wants to wear.” Descriptive, beautiful lines with interspersed dialogue that depicts Jackie’s Jamaican accent make this a successful hybrid piece. White utilizes the page’s white space in “The Small Places I Go” where the stanzas jump around and travel, appropriately communicating with the subject of the poem: escaping her family and how she deals with the sadness they bring.
Hurrah’s Nest is a book that absolutely needs to be celebrated and read over and over again. In fact, I suggest that you do; Arisa White layers the portrayal of her family with tenderness, sorrow, and whimsy. To fully absorb the richness, the text cannot simply be read once. Tolstoy once stated in his novel, Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” White finds a way to vividly illustrate the complexities of family life. Switching back and forth from the perspective of a child to a woman, this woman-child conquers emotional and sensitive ground that makes Hurrah’s Nest an evocative, beautiful masterpiece. White’s language is meticulous, and her voice strong, intimate, and urgent. Arisa White’s debut collection is an immaculate mess, an exquisite accomplishment.