Poet and playwright, Lenelle Moise has given us a new collection of poetry, Haiti Glass. This book of poems, from City Lights Books, shines and glistens. Its language is delicate, intricate, and tender. It challenges and breaks your heart at the same time. One good word to describe this book’s power is “sonic.” These poems were meant to be heard. They work on the page, for a reader savoring them alone. But their truest life comes when they are heard. I found myself reading these poems aloud to myself, by myself. She is a playwright and a performer so it’s no surprise the power sounds plays in her work.
Let me dive right in to some of these poems. City Lights/Sister Spit Books has created a beautiful book of poems. Haiti Glass is nearly eighty pages of crafted moving poems. These poems push and play. Some are pure joy and some are all sorrow. All of them are good.
The collection’s second poem “mud mothers” takes us right into the heart of Haitian history:
“the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay
because in 1804 we felled
our former slave captors
the graceless losers sunk
teeth into our forests”
Much of this book takes us into Haitian history. But it’s all accessible, understandable, and moving.
There are reflective essays in this book as well. Perhaps they are prose poems– I’m never quite sure what those are. But the reflective writing, that appears less like poetry, still captures me and moves me. In “adaptation” the author recalls coming to New York from Haiti for the first time.
“I wore a gown: crushed red velvet on top, layers of sheer white on the bottom. Panicked, Papi paid a pretty stranger in a fitted dress to sit beside me on a plane that flashed ‘American’ on both sides.” These reflections often tell the story of departure and arrival, learning to be in a new place, a strange place that eventually becomes a kind of home.
“we live up here” tells the beautiful and sad story of two young girls’ friendship. “roxy,” her friend from the Dominican Republic is older, more experienced.
One of the most beautiful poems in the book is “gift a sea.” This poem speaks of identity and family. This poem explores the sadness of family members who disown one for loving someone of the same sex. But it rejoices in the accidental ways families help us find ourselves. Thinking of a typewriter that “splashed,” a machine from a thrift shop that was “thrifted” — this is masterful language.
“after i became
grandfather called me dry
stood small in my kitchen
baking hisses at midnight
against the women
in my love
when i was tiny thirsty
he bought me a vintage typewriter
heavy and teal it splashed under my palms
a thrifted gift a sea in my blood
the first tool
my damp fingers used
to cool and name my self.”
It would be impossible to write about modern Haiti without some treatment of the 2010 earthquake. Several poems deal with elements of this event. One that does so beautifully is “quaking conversation.” This poem links Haiti’s earthquake to other historical incidents that have created the modern Haiti. She uses the device “i want to talk about…” as a spine on which to build this poem and she does it well.
The poem opens:
“i want to talk about haiti
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming”
She later writes:
“how after weeks under the rubble,
a baby is pulled out,
awake, dehydrated,adorable, telling
stories with old-soul eyes.”
A beautifully tragic poem dealing with the earthquake is the poem “her remains.”
“when you come to dig up
a daughter deemed corpse, when you see
the smashed arm peek out of her
humiliated house, try to know
the bloated skeleton was
a woman once famous…”
The poem that most shook me was “life is another word.” This poem is so moving you have to read it for yourself. Nothing I write can prepare you for it.
In “silence equals death” she writes of a gay uncle, dead from AIDS. This poem captures the isolation and shame family members inflict on one another.
One of the most moving reflections in the book is “seeing skinhead.” This piece details an encounter on the #1 train in New York City. It begins with “My partner and I were headed uptown…” and it moves from there. The encounter is frightening, dangerous and, in the end, liberating.
One of my favorite poems in the this book is “pray.” This poem, built as a list around the word “pray” is a bowl to hold all the concerns of this book. Its rhythms and beats are rich and clear enough for God to hear.
You will not find many books of poetry as well crafted and as moving as this work by Lenelle Moise. If you love good writing, if you love Haiti, if you love history, this book will satisfy some of that longing.