Williams, Crystal. Troubled Tongues. Detroit: Lotus Press, 2009. 75 pp. $18.00 (paper).
Reviewed by L. Lamar Wilson
Shake it loose, baby, double head, double tongue.
By the time readers get to guidelines thirteen and twenty-four from Crystal Williams’ “How to Become a Black Woman” in the final section of Troubled Tongues, they’ve likely run the emotional gamut. They’ve chuckled at the insolent resolve of her spurned subjects and speakers and empathized with the anger and despair caused by deferred dreams in the nondescript, hardscrabble, settings often taken granted or actively ignored: the nail salon, the rundown apartment building, the perfect park perch, the Boys & Girls Club, the playgrounds and porches and MLK Boulevards on the other side of the tracks. If, perchance, these places are foreign or indeed forgotten, Williams’ poems evoke in them a cinematic resonance. She limns the heart of what moves her speakers and subjects to signify and sass as they are prone to do and immerses readers in moments that words rarely fully render. Williams not only makes these spaces real but also leaves her readers pondering what can be mined from their own past and present lives, homes, loves and losses.
Therein lies the power of Williams’ third collection, chosen by Marilyn Nelson for the 2008 Long Madgett Poetry Award and 2009 Oregon Book Award finalist. In “Rituals,” a nail salon becomes the catalyst for a young girl who thinks highly of her good looks to face a sobering truth about the limits of her own beauty in comparison with the ideal Beauty, a character Williams introduces in this poem and complicates throughout the collection. The speaker in “Rituals,” another patron, shows us a girl traversing a vast emotional terrain once Beauty arrives at the salon from “astonishment, bewilderment, & then anger” and before landing in her own
& there is nothing here but loss:
the husky quiet of the forest trees,
or the moment the world rustles unevenly
& you know nothing of it
& you understand nothing
but that you cannot change it. (Pg. 5)
Here, like the girl speaker, readers are suspended in a raw “moment of death & birth” they’ve likely experienced or seen manifest in others in palpable, unforgettable ways. They cannot feign ignorance given what they have now been opened to relive. What began as an unassuming, even humorous, scene in the opening three lines (“hand cradling foot/ [. . .] in Vogue Nails, hunched & humble/ they wash, scrub, polish our feet”) transforms in the next line and a half once “Beauty walks in [&] we all look up/ & ogle—entranced” at her “exquisite [. . .] mix of men, dark & light, maybe Persian/ or some domestic blend.” As the young girl is reminded that “she is regular, understands/ something of what will never be” later on, readers come to realize they have been unmasked ever so slowly, with each word and line break, to a deeper awareness of their own feelings of inadequacy and limitation. Yes, there is a narrative of pigment calibration, consciousness and discrimination in communities of color in this poem, but it is not heavy-handed. It is open for any reader of any hue to enter wherever she or he is on the spectrum of self-awareness about such subjective abstractions as beauty and race. It is open for readers to leave somehow further along in their internal dialogue about these abstractions, if they choose to follow Williams’ insightful, penetrating gaze.
Williams achieves this nuanced, multidimensional vision throughout Troubled Tongues. For example, a very different picture of Beauty emerges in the eponymous poem that follows “Rituals.” She’s still making folk in that dilapidated apartment building look bad when she moves in (“suddenly shabbiness grew shabbier”), but readers learn in this poem that the ideal isn’t flawless, according to the poem’s female speaker:
Beauty was loud, walked as if an elephant had
taken up residence in her small, beautiful bones; & was rude:
never did introduce herself properly. [. . .] She wore tight
pants & weird wigs, some long & black & sleek as all of
sleekdom, others blond, red, & purple plum. (Pg. 6)
Of this new resident, her equally riled sisters in the neighborhood know “Beauty is a broke-down bitch & is getting put out, & God don’t like ugly, & ya get what you give!” In this way, a gaggle of women’s voices melds with the personification of Beauty and full-bodied characterizations of residents for tragicomic effect-among them Lil Quan, who “tripped & knocked his grown-tooth out” because of shoddy hall carpet, and Demetria, who pretends to withhold her rent because she’s unhappy with management when everyone knows she’s already two months behind. To ensure that these voices resonate, Williams instructs readers to read this poem, and several others throughout the collection, aloud. She personifies Love, Happiness, Patience, Faith, Darkness, Black(ness) and Time in other prose poems that follow “Rituals,” interspersing these pieces with meditations on flora and fauna in lyric narratives like “Azalea,” “Polliwog” and “The Horse.” Williams cleverly locates these intangible abstractions and symbols of comeliness, joy and hope in very tangible urban settings where they are not often shown. With her parables—some explicitly named as such (“Parable of the Chicken Wing,” “Parable of Ancestors,” “Parable of Kings & Queens,” “Parable on Liberals”)—Williams makes it clear that readers aren’t in Palmer Woods or North Rossdale, Detroit, or strolling through Chicago’s Gold Coast in most of this book. As she calls roll, her speakers and protagonists show their complex beauty in Black Bottom and Brewster-Douglass, in “Cottage Grove, MLK, / Ellis, St. Lawrence, all”-places where the forgotten know they are forgotten by former residents and by those who’ve never cared (“Cosmology,” Pg. 29).
In “Parable of Divas,” Williams puts these residents’ plight in perspective. She acknowledges that for native Detroiters like herself, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, affectionately called “Ree Ree and Miss D,” were “sweet meat, ours/ to pick over like vultures” (Pg. 13). She says many were once “too young to know survival, song, is enough” but have accepted that in their neighborhoods, “[t]here is always some pigeon nipping at the shoelace/ because it is there & speaks to stature. Aretha & Diana’s contradictions should have readied me:/ from respectable people, damning affronts./ From damnable people, beauty.” “Lace” gives readers another flash of beauty when a nameless boy at a Boys & Girls Club gets reminded to tie his shoes lest he fall, teaching the poet-speaker that when such an easy task of self-protection is forsaken “[o]ur hurts cannot always be bound/ to our healings. In matters like this/ we must slow, take note of what & how we loop, of how & where we knot” (Pg. 21). Another evocative scene unfolds in “Girls on a Porch”:
rat tail comb in the hand of one,
the second sitting on a vinyl kitchen chair, [. . .]
her hair wild & pouting
as if demanding to be kept free,
while the third of you, hands on hips,
mouth open, jacked her jaw,
tilted her head
& let out a laugh,
a single gleaming bulb above your heads (Pg. 31)
Similarly, readers see the sexual naïveté of Bernard, John John, LaMonica and the speaker as they observe “a lady & man ________” and as Bernard emulates them in “Playground: Ars Poetica.” Williams deftly lets readers fill in the blanks throughout the poem, heightening their engagement in her characters’ loss of innocence. Along the way, readers’ deepened understanding of these kids’ “secret language” bridges any divide between us and them (Pg. 27). Lest readers despair, Williams offers glimmers of hope, as the speaker’s mother warns that “the world is bigger than our block,/ & hanging from the jungle gym,/ no matter much panty you show,/ becomes less clever by the day.” In “Happiness,” readers see the eponymous subject “cockeyed & her dress [. . .] a peculiar / yellow,” hear her laugh “something like/ to a donkey” and watch her and “thick-headed” Ollie’s “grand, full-blown, down & dirty misunderstanding” unfold (Pg. 28). They also see a young boy, Patience, mocked and “called Pat because his given name sounded feminine & he wasn’t.” If readers didn’t know it when they began the journey, Williams, their shaman, lures them deeper and deeper into a litany of stark—and yes, no less, beautiful—realities that they are forced to parse (is Patience a feminine virtue alone?), that she and her female speakers have come to know as they have seen the world outside these urban walls.
Williams does not shortchange men in her assemblage of beauty in Troubled Tongues. Men of color appear as shiftless, gullible, gallant and tender as they can be in life. Readers spy how the “poor devils nearly lost/ their minds: took up arms, scurrying around like/ ants under attack, to this corner & that, throwing rent parties” for that aforementioned “broke-down bitch” (“Beauty [aloud],” Pg. 6). Readers also get to chuckle at the figurative language Williams employs to show men’s folly in “The Wives’ Tales,” in which “Crazy As a Lizard held up a store at 7:15 AM,/ just 15 minutes after it opened/ & would have taken away $11.76 had he not been caught by/ Oh No You Didn’t who carted his ragged tail to jail” (Pg. 34). Similarly, “The Men” offers reasons to laugh initially. A dirty old trio sits “still/ as well water” on a stoop and leers at a young girl, probably Beauty or her cousin, as “[h]er breasts/ sway, her small skirt flips the wind/ back” (Pg. 10). As she does with the girl and women assembled in “Rituals,” here Williams’ comic scene becomes somber with the turn of a line: “Their lives suddenly smaller,/ the water’s edge nothing/ to be giggled at, deep & cobalt/ & hopelessly resolved.”
Williams blends humorous and meditative moments masterfully, crafting heartfelt lyric odes to her friends and fellow poets, including “Wake,” for Terrance Hayes, the central character in that previously mentioned picnic scene with his wife, Yona Harvey, and their children Ua & Aaron. A moment with Ua is particularly moving:
his arm scooped through the air her body
bowed to it & how they made for themselves
on the hill over there a perch, balm,
the two, father & daughter
& how the lucent, the stark, brimming sky & how
the world slowed (Pg. 11)
In “Portrait of a Poet,” she pays homage to Major Jackson, the North Philadelphia-bred poet whose urban roots and early love of books her speaker shares, “hoping to hear someone else/ clear & soundly call her name” and discovering a “belief [. . .] pure, unwavering/ & holy” in the power of the written word (Pg. 38). In “How to Become a Black Woman,” readers find Williams grappling with her complex relationship with her white adoptive mother in the wake of her death. (The poem is also dedicated to poet Ross Gay, another poet of color who shares Williams’ upbringing in an interracial home.) Here, in thirty-three guidelines, Williams pulls together all of the troubled tongues alluded to in the book-opening “Invocation” and lets readers know how she has survived being too “Africana?” to be “Americana” in Madrid and being too scholarly in urban centers (“Talk your way out of the beat down [. . .] practice clipping the sharp wings from your words, leaving only the rounded middle-bellies [. . .] ‘shit,’ / ‘fuck,’ ‘motherfucka,’ & hell,’ over & over” (Pg. 47). With No. 31, the connections between Williams’ poems personifying abstractions and her own life crystallize: “When a friend who adopts a child of difference asks how your mother raised such a balanced black woman, look out into the great wing of the sky & say Love, & say Patience” (Pg. 51).
Williams has always interwoven humor and poignancy in personal narratives, but the most striking signs of her evolution since Kin and Lunatic, her earlier collections, are the ways in which Troubled Tongues houses meditations on craft and creative identity. Her new work demonstrates how African-American poets, particularly women, can access a host of languages without pandering to or being imprisoned by any one of them. Like the works of the poets whose names she calls and those implicitly echoed (Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Allison Joseph, Harryette Mullen), the vernacular and philosophical are at home in Troubled Tongues. Instead of struggling with a “double head, double tongue,” Williams has learned to “lay plum pulp & honey to [her] hands callused from/ the weight of [her] heads & tongues” and invites her readers to sit down at the table and feast on the conversation—leaving assumptions and expectations at the door (“How to Become a Black Woman,” Pg. 49). Hers is a voice rooted in race without being bound by it, telling bittersweet counternarratives that question our nation’s burgeoning post-racial one, full of contradictions that transcend the limits too often put upon race-conscious, gendered poetry. Williams anticipates critics who would say her work attempts to harness too much for its own good. In “Boxed, or When I Consider the African American,” a three-part poem in response to a poem in Hayes’ Wind in a Box, she notes one nameless poet’s unwelcomed declaration: “I like your older, less / discursive work: [. . .] the black girl stories, black boys, beauty shops, beat boxing on some stoop” (Pg. 40). But wait, isn’t that what this collection has offered? Indeed, Troubled Tongues takes readers to these spaces, offering readers more insights about beauty than what they may have expected to see and hear. As was true in her debut collection, Kin, nothing is feigned, and certainly little, if anything, is lost as Williams translates the troubled tongues she knows. In an epigraph to her collection, Williams quotes Jack Gilbert’s declaration in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart that “language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say, God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words get it all wrong.” In Troubled Tongues, which comes seven years after Lunatic, Williams gets it so close to right, so often. She helps readers unpack “the box” that is her discursive parable and prose poem—and those of other decidedly black poets who engage race in their work—and invites us to be enlightened by a “deepened/ & deepening,” to “something/ more into which we/ reach,/ something more from/ which we emerge” (“Boxed,” Pg. 41).
L. LAMAR WILSON, an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech and Cave Canem fellow, has poetry in Rattle, Reverie and Crab Orchard Review. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers. Wilson was a 2007 winner of the National Association of Black Journalists’ copy-editing award, a 2008 finalist for New Letters‘ poetry prize and a 2009 finalist for the International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize. In addition to the Cave Canem Foundation, he has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, NABJ, and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.