is that a poem?
no. it’s a question.’
—excerpt from “mermaid”
Allison McCarthy reviews two inspiring new poetry collections by Mai’a Williams
In reading the work of Mai’a Williams—journalist, poet and co-editor of the forthcoming and hotly anticipated anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines—it’s hard not to be excited by the sense of possibility. The work in her two new collections, No God But Ghosts and Monsters and Other Silent Creatures, takes the reader across Egypt, across time and across connections between the speaker and audience. The primary relationship in both books is one between mother and daughter. Williams’ autobiographical, lyrical poems are a kind of magic: the incantations can be found in motifs of mermaids, the moon and motherhood.
No God But Ghosts is divided into three sections: moon, beasts and stars. There’s a rhythm to the repetition found in poems like “April in Cairo,” where Williams asks questions that start with “Do you remember those days after the revolution” and “Remember the acrid tear gas” and “Remember the way you said I love you?” The effect is also prominent in “Girls Like Us,” where the author describes girlhood with passionate tones. In the poem, girls like us are the ones who “dream and fight,” “are supposed to be too broken to speak, too / stubborn to love, too angry to breathe” and “are not angry because we will die one day / But because we don’t get to exist in the first place.” The book also deftly addresses complex lived experiences about race in “If Black Could Shine” (“Sing me to sleep / And let’s pray that we don’t dream / Yeah if black could just be / Free.”) and “Mixed” (“I try not to talk about race at your dinner table, everything hurts / in my body as I hold back the sound of me coughing”). The collection is exquisitely intimate in its storytelling and showcases the author’s eye for political truths.
In the acknowledgments of Monsters and Other Silent Creatures, Williams says that this book was written “in response to the wikileaks video, collateral murder, which showed an apache helicopter in Iraq opening fire on civilians… I wanted to tell the story of what monsters are. And the people whom monsters silence.” The various speakers within the collection share their perspectives on violence and recovery from trauma. “Might” eschews the debate between pen and the sword, arguing instead that “he might sleep without nightmares tonight / I might keep paying his salary / we might have the same great great grandmother.” Using repetition to chilling effect in “No Matter What,” the speaker claims “today I shot a man / and another / and then another one.” But the end of the poem speaks of love: “and then I called you / and you said: i love you” – an ending that floored me on the first read.
Both collections are for sale by the author right here: Samsara Press
Allison McCarthy is an excellent freelance feminist. Her work can be found on xoJane and beyond.