Conversation is at the heart of i be but i ain’t, Aziza Barnes’s debut collection and winner of the 2015 Pamet River Prize. Her poems speak unflinchingly about complexities —including historical and racial tensions, reproduction and illness, and others— that society often sweeps aside. Here are bugs and cysts, but also swagger and verve.
The book opens with the acrobatic poem “how to kill a house centipede by squishing it behind a photo of miriam makeba while contemplating various iterations of rigor mortis in my gentrified apartment complex on 750 macdonogh street brooklyn, ny 11233.” The lengthy title demands attention, slapping the reader awake to uncomfortable juxtapositions that characterize not just this poem, but the entire work. In “how to kill…,” a hideous creature meets its demise in a building that typifies the economic and cultural difficulties of race relations in the United States. Barnes captures the rhythms of casual speech while simultaneously allowing her speaker’s thoughts about mating, collective identity, and dominance to unfold:
The poem vaults from the body of the centipede to its eggs, then to human reproduction, and later to saints, to cremation, to South African singer and activist Makeba and a woman’s place in a divided society, and finally to a devastating self-realization:
The question reverberates back through the white spaces scattered across the page, inviting a reexamination of power dynamics and ethical dilemmas. That “colonizer’s thought” involves the speaker in a chain of historical displacements, even as she aligns herself with the exiled. Is the centipede a stand-in for women, for minority peoples, for anyone? Who wields power and when and how? To reduce “how to kill…” to any single question (or answer) is to miss out on the daredevil grace of Barnes’s artistry.
The poet conveys other types of conversational intimacy with equal skill. “the mutt looks at her polycystic ovaries on a sonogram,” for example, is a raw and resolute poem that sounds like a talk with a close friend grappling with illness and barrenness:
Other poems, like “the woman in my head who reflects on our damn near getting shot in fort greene the first real ass day of summer:,” are conversations with the self. Here Barnes harnesses both sass and self-doubt: “you researching / miracles but how come your dishes can’t make they / way out the sink? sheeyt.” The casual tone, the mundane slang, gently undercuts the seriousness of the violence, but highlights, too, the terrible commonality of the depression that accompanies it.
i be but i ain’t is jammed not only with chatty poems that turn the reader into an eavesdropper, but also with poems in dialogue with poetry and art. The prose poem “pulp fiction: part one” begins with an echo of Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” (“I don’t think / I’m allowed // to kill something // because I am // frightened.”). However, Barnes writes about a living spider and debates fear and implication: “I watch a spider weave her web & I am not afraid. Or I am afraid, but I’m not implicated. I’m unsure if she qualifies as a parasite if she is what she eats.”
This launches the poem into a broader interrogation of American pop culture, using the film Pulp Fiction as a lens through which the reader is invited to examine race relations, who needs who for what and why, and what it means to act out various identities and stereotypes:
Throughout the book other pop culture icons—including Michael Jackson, Ole Dirty Bastard, and Pam Grier—creep in, often connected to questions like the one raised in “we have no conception of bastard”: “what is ‘black?’” Historical interruptions, especially the book’s section dividers that quote Stonewall Jackson, complicate these inquiries further. What is black, what is self, what is bravery, in light of American inheritances? Through the interpolation and intrusion of the voice of a prominent Southern Civil War figure, Barnes implies that that historical dialogue is as necessary as those with modern society, with the self, and with other art forms.
Each poem in i be but i ain’t addresses the ugly and destabilizing without compromising compassion. The final poem in the collection, “a good deed is done for no good reason,” is written in direct address, compelling the reader to ask: Is this a conversation between speaker and reader? Past and future? An internal or external discussion between self and self, body and body? The array of possibilities is dizzying. The joy and the thrill of reading Aziza Barnes is that at no moment does the poet settle, and the reader is continually embroiled in the conversation: