Promised Lands: Poems from the sovereign of dishpan sonnets, by JT Stewart
by Amal El-Mohtar
I read the six-line prologue to JT Stewart's Promised Lands and smell smoke. It is titled "Holocaust."
Poems are fused
from old angers
ignite my brain
On my first reading of this collection I gave this poem little time, thinking it only small and compact, effective in what it wrought, unaware of its significance to the whole of the book. After I'd read the collection in its entirety I came back to it; I read it over many times. I saw that it was in fact a six-toothed key, the shape of it suggesting the tumblers it would unlock over the course of Promised Lands. It is more than an opening poem, setting mood and tone to smooth the way for what will follow; it is also a map, a legend, and an emblem for what is to come. It is at once so succinct and so vast that for ten minutes I could do little but turn it over and over in my head.
This is a collection full of angers that are acknowledged as old, but also as enduring; they are angers acknowledged as formative, as intrinsic to the identity which speaks and, in speaking, must of necessity propagate awareness of the wounds from which these angers spring. These are poems that present and interrogate history, but in a way that actively resists the concept of history as inhabiting a walled-off country we call the past; history, with all its cruelties and injustices and horrors, lives among us, taints the air we breathe. It is history that places glass walls around living culture and calls it history; it is history that needs to be stared down and confronted in order to find ancestors, music, community, and change.
The organization of Promised Lands is brilliant. In addition to the Prologue, Promised Lands is made up of three sections and an Epilogue. The sections are named I. Masks/Secrets; II. Testimonials; and III. Blues/Transformations. Each section heading is accompanied by a quote followed by a note, with each illuminating each like nested boxes spilling light. Each quote—a saying from the Asante people of Ghana about translation, a Swahili proverb with a note explaining that Swahili is a syncretic language, and words attributed to the goddess Oshun—speaks of that which goes and dwells between: between languages, between cultures, between shores. Appropriately, there are further poems to be assembled in the spaces between these headings and the poems they contain and by which they are surrounded; I cannot help but see how beautifully each couplet from "Holocaust" anticipates a section heading and engages it in dialogue. Several readings in I feel these pieces stretching long fingers across the collection, enlacing a conversation:
Poems are fused
from old angers;
if it falls behind you, pick it up
ignite my brain
the daughter of a lion is still a lion
This forest burns
the waters are restless
The whole of Masks/Secrets demonstrates a longing for heritage and a suspicion of the structures that would appear to provide links to it; Testimonials picks up the latter thread to explore and unpack the historical narratives that silence, marginalize, and erase those on whose backs the narratives are built, and challenges them; Blues/Transformations is made up of three long, gorgeously complex pieces that partake of everything that came before. I found myself reminded of Lucille Clifton in many parts, thinking of her words about whose memories she is expected to remember.
Within each section, the poems themselves are rarely less than devastating.
Stewart's use of language is needle-like, sharp and bright and clean, capable of stitching together such images and truths as make me gasp. The following is from "History Lesson: Diaspora":
First they stacked us
in the holds of their dark ships
Then they feasted on our mothers
our names our blood our shadows
Stewart is also very deft at shifting from visual to aural style in her poems. She uses stylistic flourishes to good effect—notably "w/" instead of "with," and the use of extra space around words for emphasis and pauses instead of standard punctuation—but also writes some poems in call-and-response style and some poems using slashes instead of line-breaks. Stand-outs for me included "Alien Dance Hall," "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus," and "Promised Lands: Urban Style." There is a tremendous poem closing out the final section titled "An Outsider Writes from New Orleans," a tour de force about experiencing the city before and after Hurricane Katrina, that left me feeling wrung out and ready to embrace the Epilogue. But my absolute favourite piece, the one that made me need to get up and walk away from it in order to pace out its electrifying effect on me, is "Strange Fruit: II," a poem in conversation with Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit."
The poems in general are in conversation with many aspects of popular culture: music, film, television. Some poems have dedications, while some are headed with epigraphs either establishing a frame or providing a fulcrum for the narrative. The titular poem has quotes for its bones, performing a slantwise evisceration of D. W. Griffith, juxtaposing sections of the Declaration of Independence with excerpts from U.S. Supreme Court rulings that declare, variously, Jim Crow laws to be constitutional and slaves to have no personhood or rights. Stewart's lines are knowing looks, communicating with tone and image and rhythm what prose cannot easily convey.
The final poem, "Words: From the End of My Wrist," is a coda closing out the whole, and is perfect.
bereft of images & hope
w/ only my tongue's dying
impulse to guide me
I tackle the headwaters
of kubla khan
for I am the sovereign
of dish pan sonnets
It reads like a sigh.
I found this book electrifying. Reading it was a lesson in intensity as well as an overall education—not only did it teach me new things, but it made me aware of how much more I don't know, how damagingly curated is the museum of my education. I could write much more about this collection—Stewart's ambiguous use of masks as both obscuring and revelatory, the ways in which her poems anticipate and are layered over each other in counterpoints that feel simultaneously improvised and certain of where they will lead, and most of all their fierce, relentless beauty—but it is ultimately best experienced.