Metaphor by Any Means Necessary: Destiny O. Birdsong’s Negotiations
Destiny O. Birdsong’s debut collection of poems, Negotiations, explores the constant adjustments that Black women make to survive. The negotiations in this collection are not compromises—they result from compromised situations. A “land of the free” is founded on slavery. Food is nourishment; food is a trigger for illness. A nurturer is a destroyer; a lover is a rapist. How do these impossible conditions, superimposed upon one another, coexist?
In Negotiations, Birdsong establishes metaphor as a negotiation between parties. As a body of work, the collection mediates between the quotes that form its epigraph:
What moves between us has always moved as metaphor.
– Terrance Hayes
The worst has already happened to us, she said.
What good is metaphor now?
– TJ Jarrett
Hayes’s quote is mysterious, and maybe that’s part of the point—language is a placeholder. “What moves between us” is unknown, abstract, best rendered via metaphor as it is inexpressible by direct speech. At the same time, Jarrett’s quote reminds us that metaphor is not neutral. What good is metaphor? As in, who is it good for? What good does it do us? Who is “us”? I read Jarrett’s “us” as Black women. I recognize that weariness.
The speakers of these poems are harmed by others, themselves; their bodies harmed by other bodies, by their own. Not only does each party in such situations coexist—the situations they find themselves in must coexist, rarely by choice. But Birdsong writes her poems’ speakers out of violence into joy and comfort, wit and love.
Metaphor can make life more bearable, meaningful, or simply comprehensible. But that transformation can also result in a refusal to accept reality. In such a case, metaphor can be used to ignore, obscure, or even erase violence by directing our attention elsewhere. Birdsong refuses metaphor such powers in the title poem, “Negotiations,” which, as the first poem, teaches us how to read the collection. In the opening stanza, Birdsong rejects metaphor outright:
My pussy is not made of microfiber.
I can’t put it on my head to conduct business,
or plan insurrections. It’s not big enough
to hide in, dear reader. It’s not bulletproof.
It can’t be offered to neo-Nazis as a lure
for conversion therapy. That didn’t work
for Sally Hemings. I know it can’t work for me.
Full stop. There is no metaphor here.
Instead of saying what the speaker’s pussy is, Birdsong defines what it is not. There is no Pussyhat™ in “Negotiations.” By avoiding metaphor, “my pussy” is literal; descended from and subject to literal violence.
If anything, this poem’s “pussy” is metonymical, a part standing in for a whole. In this case, metonymical parts of the body—private parts—stand in for the entire body as the speaker navigates public space. Later in the poem, “pussy” stands in for the speaker’s “unwhite body” as she faces the public, “takes a stage.” Birdsong’s attention turns in the next line to another metonymical body part, “my head,” to “conduct business” in public. And so the whole body is subjected to the violence that, at first, it seemed part of the body was subjected to. That violence includes being rendered a body in the language of the public rather than a person. By refusing to define the speaker’s “pussy” through metaphor, “pussy” remains private. “My pussy”—what it is—is never revealed in the poem.
What is in the poem, as revealed by metaphor, is “the history” of the speaker’s slavery:
The history of my slavery is a history of fabrics:
osnaburg, wool, denim, linsey, linen.
A few skeins of thread and a handful of blunted
needles. Later, sandwich boards, glitter paint,
a bit of chain draped fashionably across the shoulders.
Historically, the speaker and poet’s body as a Black woman has been the subject of a “puncture-resistant tongue.” The poem turns over its embodiment by vacillating between concrete parts of the body and related conditions of that body—emotions, history, health. In this way, the poem and its speaker teach us not who she is, but rather how she is read due to what she has.
When tracking the speaker’s possessive pronouns (my/mine), there’s a back-and-forth between parts of the body and qualities that lack form. The poem moves from “my pussy” and “my head” to the formless (“my anxiety,” “my slavery,”) back to the body, (“my hands,” “my unwhite body,”) and what else it holds: “my rage,” “my rage” again; “my illnesses,” “my brain.”
Some corresponding metaphors: the speaker’s rage is a ball-gag. The speaker’s rage is “sedated by the pre-filled syringe of history,” which implies that the speaker’s rage is a body unto itself. Every quality without form ultimately takes the shape of its container—the speaker’s body. But even as the speaker collapses history through metaphor, she cannot abide her body becoming metaphor—a vessel for others’ imaginations—in this poem. Likewise, Sally Hemmings’s body was and is not a symbol. Sally Hemings was a person.
Later in the collection, “Spilled Milk”—a poem dedicated to hoteps—critiques a lover’s misogyny and questionable pan-Africanism through wry symbolism. The conservative hotep belief system that the lover inherited from his father emotionally and physically harms the speaker, a Black woman with albinism. The lover attempts to erase the speaker’s Blackness within the first line of the poem: “He joked I was the whitest thing / He had ever put in his mouth…” But Birdsong next redirects Afrocentric imagery toward her speaker, showing that, not despite, but because of her skin tone she, too, has a place within hotep mythology, albeit a marginalized one. This speaker is “the Bambara proverb for what could happen / to children conceived in daylight.” Her breasts are the “white elephants / in a room of African violets;” her skin color and sexualized body an unspoken embarrassment for those in the room who may or may not acknowledge the speaker as Black. Yet the speaker’s experience within the lover’s public and private spheres is one only a Black woman could have.
Part of this speaker’s negotiation with this lover (“[she’d] draw the drapes, / he’d drop his khakis; we made ourselves dark,”) is a negotiation between his desires and her own. The speaker desires to recreate herself through procreation, creating the possibility of a child with albinism (“the one I made up”) via morning sex, per the proverb. Yet the speaker suffers for her desire of such a future. While her ambitions for a child may be met, her physical and emotional needs are not. Her lover’s willingness to “drop his khakis” is eclipsed by his unwillingness to see the speaker as Black (“…You don’t know what it’s like / to fall in love with a woman who isn’t…He’d drift / without finishing, and I’d fade to black”). For the lover, the speaker’s complexion is an inconvenience. For the speaker, the lover’s belief system—which is tied to his projection of whiteness onto her body—physically damages her:
The son and I, we fucked, and later, because
I stopped believing in his household gods,
each of my stomach’s valves blistered shut.
Now, he tells me my diseases don’t really exist;
they’re just European fetishes, like pasteurization.
Visually, we’re confronted with a back and forth between indented lines mediated by white space. They drift, alone, without stanzas—rooms—to build or hold them. Read between the lines the absence of language, single lines of silence.
If we return to “Negotiations,” the collection’s first poem, a man runs the speaker off the road while shouting n****r. That man still waits “somewhere in the trees” as we read “Spilled Milk.” And still “the pickets blister” the speaker’s hands, just as in this poem the speaker’s digestive system has “blistered shut.” he unspoken command behind the poem title “Spilled Milk” is “don’t cry over…”
Though the poems in Negotiations are not necessarily narratively linked, they are spiritually linked through repetition of words like “blistered” as the poems call back and forth to each other, “a splintered chorus.” In this way, the collection’s poems invoke one another to create a metaphysical space behind and between their narratives. Each poem happens and re-happens as the worst has already happened to us.
But as the worst has and continues to happen, so does everything else. Reading the collection, I find myself asking, what is non-negotiable? Where don’t Black women have to compromise? Almost nowhere, it might seem. But pleasure peeks through in private, intimate, solitary spaces as the collection continues.
In the prose-poem “hypervigilance” for example, the speaker is a soucouyant, a Caribbean folkloric vampire-like creature who sheds her skin each night to roam for blood—usually men’s. “hypervigilance” begins with a rare moment of the ease that comes with being unobserved enough to just be.
I like the feel of walking around without questions.
Sometimes I stand over the pots on the stove, let the heat
seep through my breastbone like a balm. Sometimes I sit
in front of the box fan and sing into the stream of air. My
voice splinters, comes back to me as chorus.
The speaker strips herself of visible identity, enjoys physical sensation, and takes pleasure in the inner self that turns up and does as she pleases. Yet this is all framed by the poem’s title—hypervigilance is a (chronic) response to (chronic) trauma. In this poem, the dark of night is freeing: that is when the soucouyant has power.
In the morning, I must return to my skin. Beneath it,
I will burn until it is night.
Though trauma in the collection occurs day and night, in public and private, the speaker must live in a skin that is gazed and acted upon by others in public. This moment of privacy echoes others. In the poem “My rapist explained even the water company gets a bill,”
Every night I turn onto my stomach in the bath,
I think of it as a ritual of refusal.”
The poem is one of sequence: the title “My rapist…” eventually transforms in another poem to “My therapist…” As Negotiations concludes, the splintered chorus of the poems’ speakers heal themselves, feed themselves, love themselves; become their own lovers as they re-negotiate their relationships to self. Birdsong writes her body and the bodies of Black women before and alongside her inside out—bones, viscera, blood at the back of the throat—to arrive at a transcendence of Black women’s bodies beyond sites of violence. Whether that violence is internal or external, physical, or sexual, systemic or self-inflicted, or any combination therein, all begins and ends in the body. This collection is “a ritual of refusal.” There may be negotiations, but no matter the compromising circumstances, there is no compromising between Black women’s survival and joy.