Lauren K. Alleyne is a past contributor of the Sister2Sister interview series for femmeliterate, author of the poetry collection Difficult Fruit, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, a professor of English, and a madly, gorgeously gifted poet and person. And now she and New Issues have given us the handbook for how to live in a difficult world, a world where the black body is in constant peril, where the climate is collapsing and the comforts of home and family are far away. Honeyfish is portal and companion for how to be a pilgrim in this world and how to see the numinous, the bleak and unbearable beauty that stands behind every ordinary thing.
From the first page, the collection is a response to and a guide for navigating difficult spaces, spaces fraught with danger to the physical body, places inscribed by loss and grief: “better to just leave. Get your body out the door / and into the blue day” our poet tells us in “Poetry Workshop after the Verdict,” which confronts a world where a jury finds the murderer of Trayvon Martin not guilty. “You bring your pen and notebook, your poet’s eye. / You try to follow instructions: Write what you see.”
Trayvon is not the only murdered black body that Alleyne gives us the language to grieve. Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Aaron Campbell, and the victims of the Charleston shootings all receive moving elegies in a voice capable simultaneously of fury and grace: “How slender the tether / between life and not-life,” the poet writes in “Killed Boy, Beautiful World.” “How ruthless with beauty the world seems.”
And how elegantly Alleyne balances the ruthlessness and the beauty, holding the most ancient horrors alongside tender reverence, the exquisiteness of living even in pain. In “Trojan Sun,” watching “the dizzied roses / of my small garden” she contemplates how climate change is destroying the world we know, yet “For now, the beauty / of it all fills my heart to breaking / as I head out into our numbered days.” “What to weep for,” she writes in “Self-Portrait with Impending War,” “but what is going, / somehow, to be gone?” Yet even among the lamentation, she captures the wary awe of being the survivor, of “feeling alive, that beautiful sting.”
Part II of the book navigates different relationships, ones that feel deeply specific and yet universal: daughters and mothers, daughters and fathers, daughters who venture into new places but feel always the pull of “Home, / the blue shore the inescapable / sweetness of sky” (“Gretel of the Caribbean”). “Memory and possibility” are the twin dangers here (“Return”), but also the the dissonance of being an immigrant, a voyager onto new soil:
Look. You’re crystal
clear and fragile
as a bulb, by which
you mean sometimes
you’re only a projection–
your own best trick
At the same time she tells us without flinching how it feels to wear black skin in a world full of racism and violence:
I’m a woman with skin
that summons crosses and flame.
Which is to say I am always burning.
Which is to say I do not have enough
tears to put myself out.“Self-Portrait with Burning Crosses”
Part III of the books thrums with a restless longing for what is beyond, the urge to break barriers, cross boundaries, sail into the broad and open and new. Islands float throughout the work, with all their magical incantations: the islands of the poet’s birth country and homeland, and the Greek island of Serifos, which conjures myth and a heady blue. Part III contemplates how to return after absence, how to return when the home feels strange, how to be in a body when the world is altering around it: “I made my way through / grief’s stubborn endlessness / back into body and time. / My life awaited me, glittering” (“Red Pilgrimage”). And it contemplates how to reconcile the grief that runs through our lives, the people we’ve lost to distance and those we’ve lost to death, how to keep breathing through our hungers, “When the bone, thin as a wish, / lodges itself in the pink flesh of your mouth” (“Honeyfish”), and how to hold ourselves together against the battering tide of existence:
An ocean opens within you,
makes your body a shore
upon which memory crashes–
You feel the walls in you becoming
ruins, holy and broken.“Reading Among the Ruins”
You can read these poems endlessly for their craft; even fiction writers like me, with only the dimmest comprehension of how to construct poetry, can sense the highest levels of skill at work here, the way these poems move step by step, jewel by jewel to the crashing, crushing clarity at the heart of each. The way each poem speaks to the others in its section, the quiet amplifications and echoes, and the way certain leitmotifs move throughout, never heavy, but placing each thread in just the right place to create a book that is overwhelmingly beautiful in its whole, poems that are brilliantly faceted with meaning, and intricately perfect in each stitched word.
But you can also read these poems endlessly for their pure breathless beauty, for that exquisite balance of understanding and grace, for the sorrow that leads not to despair but an aching compassion, for that anger that leads not to destruction but to blazing truth. This is a book you can carry with you and never tire of. This, my friends, is Poetry.