She Has a Name never actually names its primary subject–the autistic sister of its primary speaker–whose family unit is rounded out by a stifled, loving father, a sledge of a mother staunch in her battle for her daughter’s rights, and two elder sisters. The latter fight with words or flying playground fists to defend their “clawless” sibling even as they struggle with understanding what “magnetic tongues” might lure her out from internal music. Self-styled in its epigraph as “biomythography” in the tradition of Audre Lorde’s Zami, the collection is strongest in its gestures towards universality through the examination of the particular. Via a steady injection of iconography among the details of family life, Kamilah Aisha Moon’s debut weaves a kaleidoscopic set of poems with intimate insight and textural multiplicity.
We might expect that poems about a family grappling with autism would suffer from a one-dimensional saccharine pity, but Moon’s poems are nuanced with simultaneous grit and tenderness, encompassing a complex range of familial emotions and masterfully slipping in and out of its speaker’s psyches. Some of my favorite portions of the book emerge when the speaker is the mother or father, or when their distinct blend of fierce love and protectiveness is juxtaposed with an honest look at their simultaneous loss of self. In “Names,” the father-speaker is resolute in his acquiescence:
I’ll work myself into pulp; withhold
my tongue and practice nothingness.
Cockroach logic: if I don’t move,
I’m not really against this wall,
back gleaming in harsh light.
I won’t hold my wife’s hand and skip words
like stones. I’ll become a dike of a man,
fall asleep in front of the TV
nightly until I burst.
The poems that consider the inner life of the father are imbued with honest loss, even as his simultaneous love for his daughter overwhelms him. The mother is similarly portrayed, begging her other daughters not to allow their sister to be institutionalized in “Directions”:
…Promise me she won’t inhale
the ammonia smell of group mess halls,
wince at the prying fingers of hired help.
Even so, we see the toll that her self-sacrifice takes from another daughter’s point of view. The glimpse of her own despair in “Outbursts” cuts deeply and strikes me as an archetypal look at mothers who hold families together through sheer force of will. She is yet another woman of steel seen in her private pain through the crack of a bedroom door:
Mama, as my hands look more and more
like yours, I want to use them–
use them to gather orchids and zinnias
to give you now
rather than bittersweet petals
sprinkled on mahogany.
I watched you through
a cracked bedroom door
sobbing on the bed
with pantyhose around your ankles.
Dinner still on time.
The moments of joy that sparkle in the poems are only aided by these interludes into quiet suffering, perhaps because they allow for catharsis and relief. In “Memory in the Park,” the daughter plays on the swing-set alone for the first time with glee:
I remember the day when she swung
back and forth unattended–beaming
as giggles rode the wind shotgun with her.
I saw her pleasure naked.
I saw it.
Some of the later poems in She Has a Name consider topics outside the insular circle of family life, but in the context of the book they are always deeply informed by the speaker’s personal history. Immersion in personal struggle and a tenderness for the misunderstood means that Moon’s poems caress extra-familial subjects with gentle consideration. My favorite poem in the work features a woman crying on the bus, “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express”:
Oblivious to the metro’s bump and buck,
to the toddler begging in Spanish to be freed
from her stroller, to my ogling, you sit
embalmed, racooned, or moosed. You have
the kind of eyes that never quite close,
even in deepest sleep, lids
an undersized t-shirt that leaves belly
exposed. Tears navigate moles, veteran
swimmers of your creek-bed face.
Strong in their universalization of the particular, Moon knows many urban dwellers have seen emotion on display on the bus, or had a family member who struggled: formative experiences that color our approach to her poems. Not unlike the archetypal mother behind the bedroom door, “Dust” describes the experience of dismantling the living space of a presumably deceased grandmother whose piano is caked with dust. Nostalgia and longing take residence alongside the consideration of how material objects are imbued with emotive power:
Often all we have
are banged-up blessings.
move this dust
that has danced in this air
for thousands of mornings,
our mingled skins
glitter caught in sunlight.
Who among us has not been left behind, tasked with cleaning out the material detritus of a loved-one’s spent life? Moon excels at the description of these moments, the ones we share, universal in their specificity. Her poetry is most poignant, immediate, and effective when it is rooted in the minutiae of life, cataloging small injustices and momentary pleasures. She resides firmly here throughout the book, not only giving name and voice to the daughter-subject of She Has a Name, but also offering a way of considering joy alongside conflict, pain, and struggle. In an interview with Nadine Lockhart of Superstition Review, Moon echoes the universality, the expression of human condition that I felt when reading the book as an intended device:
“This is any of us, all of us. Unsure of how to handle something we don’t understand, perhaps misplacing anger or shutting down for awhile… No matter what our individual struggles, we are self-determining and wrestle with our desires and needs. We are all here. We each and all have a name.”
For all of us who long to be named, Moon’s verse comes alongside us with a warm and honest sensibility. Whatever the challenges presented within the work, the current of hope and possibility remains buoyant and ever-present. Like the speaker of the final poem, “A Superwoman Chooses Another Way to Fly,” we, too, can “rise, shoulder blades / aching to split open and bloom.”