The command to “build yourself a boat” is a challenge. On one hand, it’s empowering: you have the capacity to save yourself from whatever floods may come; you have the capacity to sail smooth waters. On another hand, it’s isolating: the labor and ensuing journey are yours alone. Will you be equal to the task?
In her smart and keenly self-aware debut poetry collection, Build Yourself a Boat, Camonghne Felix weighs personal power against isolation. Despite occasional connections to kin and community, this bildungsroman spends more time exploring ways the speaker encountered personal and societal harm, armoring herself in response. Though they insist on self-reliance, these poems do not sell “up by your bootstraps” bromides—rather they weigh the psychic effort of rowing through life alone.
The book’s opening lines—from “Lost Poem 4: RX”—illustrate the cost: “The psych on duty in triage / Asks me if I want to die, and I say / Not at the moment, no, but stay / Tuned.” In the psych ward, a suicide risk, the speaker is vulnerable and seemingly in the hands of those who can care for her. But she feels she’s still in charge. She can “charm my way out / Of anything” and “save my own life.” She describes herself as “the talented / Tenth of disassociation, the power / Of being just a body within a body / Of jewels.” Much rides on the term “talented tenth”—a concept coined by turn-of-the-twentieth-century white liberals and popularized by W.E.B. Du Bois—which describes the one-in-ten African Americans who could rise to leadership and prominence through education. The concept, at once hopeful and problematic, suggests a route by which post-Civil War African Americans could find equality with whites, while simultaneously reinforcing ideas of exceptionalism. Only classically educated elites will achieve it. Felix expertly leans into this turn. The speaker is among the “talented tenth”—the elite who have “made it” in a world of “charm,” but her expertise is in “disassociation.” She has had to distance herself from feeling to survive; she has had to armor herself in “jewels.”
Will the second poem, “Contouring the Flattening,” nuance the flattened emotional state described in the previous one? “I try not to tell about the stories / still bleeding. After all, who wishes / to lead their own mother to wolves.” But the poem cannot resist telling, at least a little bit, and it continues with a chronicle of an infested childhood home—cockroaches, mice, and men leave eggs, limbs, and detritus behind. Without specifically pinning blame on the mother, the picture here is one of poverty and, at times, neglect. The speaker wishes to “unstitch / this plaque sewn over my / mouth” but instead:
I keep my sob stories to myself. I keep my
smile white and my fists closed. I let survival be
survival, I grow into the shoe. I keep the world
big and my sanity small.
Though the hands remain “fists,” the last image is one of control—perhaps it’s even a nod to respectability politics, with its “white” smile. The speaker keeps herself in check, her story untold, her psychic space “small,” in order to survive the world.
Through poems about the speaker’s childhood, Felix complicates the “sob story.” In the prose-poem series, “Cutting w/JB,” the speaker and her teenage friends Emmy and JB play hooky—seemingly without consequence. These pieces are by turns sad: “No one’s looking for us. Emmy’s mom died 5 weeks ago, so as far as she’s concerned, what the fuck is a parent”; proud: “my spliffs pull the best because I’ve got my mother’s piano hands and I’m the only one who can roll the J tight-tight”; and full of teen aspirations “[JB’s] seniority makes her the queen of sexual prowess and we want nothing more than to baste ourselves in her dirt.” The speaker is self-destructive and invincible. One poem finds Emmy and her “bowling each other down three flights. We’re bruised and tickled about the idiocy of it.” They emerge with matching scars, an emblem of their sisterhood.
These poems celebrate a bond formed in deprivation. While Emmy no longer has a mother, the speaker “never had a best friend.” And while economic and personal hardship bleed through the cracks—“Housing won’t come fix your broken bedroom window”—these are works about teen power. These pieces, along with “Imagine??? My Sister an Astronaut???” in which the speaker wonders at her sister going to college to “study / some aerospace biomedical nanoscience // shit some shit only white people think / to study because access is a frame // of reference,” are some of the most celebratory in the collection. This poem juxtaposes the vernacular—“some shit only white people think”—and the academic—“because access is a frame // of reference”—demonstrating a playfulness that occasionally surfaces in Felix’s collection, especially when discussing moments of solidarity. Alliance and allegiance are sources of strength.
Unfortunately, the speaker has many reasons to put her guard up and keep playfulness buried. In poems like “Thank God I Can’t Drive” she is keenly aware of her Black body as a locus of danger.
I could go to jail for anything. I look like that
kind of girl. I speak only one language. I am
of prestige but can’t really prove it. Not if
my hands are tied.
Enjambed lines keep the tension high: like the speaker who fears what’s around the next corner when “the streetlights go out,” the reader must round each line’s break to see what will transpire. The speaker’s “brain is trying so hard to outrun this”—the poem leaves readers mid-panic, certain there is no escape.
In a five-part series entitled “Zimmerman Testimonies” the speaker watches the televised trials of George Zimmerman, a white man who was acquitted in 2013 for killing unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. The series focuses on members of Martin’s family, his mother in particular, then moves towards introspection. In “Zimmerman Testimonies: Day 4” the speaker recalls a time she spoke up after being accused of something she did not do:
I chew a word they don’t expect and how
the narrative goes from miss to Ma’am once
you’ve mastered the Master’s language
and I’m thinking about it and thinking about it
“you speak so well”
and thinking about what if I didn’t.
Survival as a Black body in a white world hinges on not only learning but “mastering” “the Master’s language,” on enduring the microaggression “you speak so well,” (which of course betrays the listener’s surprise). Again, Felix invokes the idea of the “talented tenth,” of education as a tool for survival, as entry point for being treated as “Ma’am” and not “miss” in a dispute. Of course, this only works if she has time to speak, time to “chew a word they don’t expect.” Trayvon Martin’s fate lies beneath the poem, and appears in the final, left-justified line that aligns with the left-justified lines at the poem’s opening. The right justified lines—the story of the speaker being falsely accused and then respected—feel like the dream or anomaly. In the context of the Zimmerman trials, the speaker and the poem land back on the left side of the page, where the answer to “what if I didn’t” is embodied by Martin’s death.
Sex and sexuality become sites for both isolation and independence. The first in a series of “Google Search Keywords:” poems lists strings of search terms: “kids; having; sex // cousin; love // incest; what; is // what; is; molest // what; is; rape.” Without naming or describing an “I,” Felix allows us to grasp quickly that the speaker who performs these searches is a child so new to the world of sex that she does not yet know how to define molestation and rape. The answers, presumably, lead her to still worse things: “how; to; die; on; purpose.” She’s alone with these queries and answers; she either does not have another person to ask about these things or doesn’t want one. Other poems in this series convey different private questions, ranging from relational—“how; to; know; if; girls; like; you”—to spiritual—“what; non; human; forges; marks.” Unmediated by syntax, context, or other formalities a speaker may use to address a reader, these pieces feel like lines directly into the speaker’s mind.
By contrast, the snappy and linguistically performative “Trap Queen” asserts the power of sexuality, only to take a sharp turn in the poem’s last third. The poem opens: “I’m your Trap Queen. // In these shorts, I’m all ass. / My clap don’t quiet. My tongue don’t lie.” As the poem builds braggadocious momentum, the Trap Queen speaks of herself in third person. She becomes a mashup of femme fatale and mammy figure:
Trap queen so spectacular she everybody’s tit.
Trap queen is everybody’s mama. Everybody’s
abandoned land. Errybody excuse. She
errybody’s lifelong lament.
“Everybody” becomes the vernacular “errybody” as she feeds, cares for, and breaks those who cross her. Her blackness is a source of power and spectacle. She addresses the audience directly:
You love that shit, the way
she flex in it, put her whole foot in it, so black
you can’t divorce it, so black you don’t speak
her language, black in your wet dream, she come
Black. Her black is residual
will not wash out of the duvet
Weight falls on the rhyme in the middle of the lines—“shit” / “flex in it” / “whole foot in it”/ “can’t divorce it,”—which propels them forward. The poem spans two full pages, and the turn comes midway through the second page. The relationship between Trap Queen and “you” shifts, subtly at first. Her blackness is both her appeal (“so black you can’t divorce it”) and the source of disconnect between “you” and “her” (“you don’t speak her language”). She leaves residue that “will not wash out.” Does this attract or repel?
Two lines later, at the hard turn, you “send the wet silencer / down her throat, love to shut her up.” By putting the reader in the position of the lover/killer, Felix makes her case for the pervasiveness of misogynoir. Those who seem to revere also revile the trap queen. The poem’s couplets shift further right, and in the last movement, the Trap Queen becomes “I” again; her playful rap falls away into plaintive truths. “Trap Queen don’t fear shit, except an unlimited / caricature, except the way they tow my narrative // right out of my own mouth and iron it out flat.” Even a powerful caricature is a caricature, a reduction of a complex being to presumed characteristics.
Don’t fear shit except the way my
lonesome is your invitation, the way
all my power sustains and sanctifies,
the way the world will lay
its violence at the threat
of my able black body.
There is nothing for the Trap Queen to fear except everything. Her power is stolen by others; the human beneath the façade is inevitably destroyed. A wordplay: we shift from trap music to the idea that to live within a black, female body is itself a trap.
This is a self-aware, intellectual book, and its poems take on multiple and varied shapes. While one poem, styled as a press release, positions itself as a “Statement from Camonghne Felix,” there is also, halfway through the book, a “Disclaimer” which informs the reader that “This is not an attempt at confessional poetry.” But “nor is it a gesture toward postmodernist conceptual lit… Assembly of self is not voyeuristic.” By anticipating and undercutting potential descriptions of her project, Felix leaves the reader wondering—doth she “protest too much?” Or has she found a way to position us not as voyeurs but as witnesses, students, or even confidantes for the speaker’s experience? The speaker dazzles and in the next moment names that dazzle an act. She is the ringmaster, the circus, and the clean-up crew. We are complicit in enjoying her virtuosic act. She wants us to know the mental and emotional labor is exhausting.
There are eleven footnotes sprinkled through the book—at the end we realize they’re snippets from a letter to the author from her mother. Their language is less tight, and they often drew my eye away from the poetry itself. That said, I loved the idea of the mother’s story running beneath the verse, suggesting the inheritability of trauma, and the echoes of a mother’s experience within her daughter’s life. By placing her mother’s letter last in the collection, Felix signals that in our self-built boats, there may be room, after all, for others to slip behind the oarlocks and help us to somehow stay afloat.