Review of Hindsight by Sofia Ivanova published by Sunday Mornings at the River, 2021

Frequently, when we read poetry collections by young poets, like the teenage poet Sofiya Ivanova’s Hindsight, we try to classify them and put the feelings and images into the category of the coming of age piece. But Hindsight counters this coming of age with the catharsis and reflection usually reserved for someone much older, as she resists “growing up” and makes us see her and by virtue of her skill, ourselves, just growing.

Reading these poems causes you to look back on your own life to try and access those feelings that you chalked up to adolescent fantasy and give them new context. Why couldn’t all of those feelings be true? Damn those that said you would grow out of them. The earnestness of what happens when you look in the mirror of another’s eyes is something we seek till we die, and it was no less powerful when we were young, than it is now. What Ivanova shows us, though, is that those waves we ride in our youth aren’t on the sea of resignation like most of our adulthood, but rather an ocean of possibility and experience.

The collection starts by mooring us into Ivanova’s emotional life as she pairs her outsized feelings with the gravity of a male figure (I think her grandfather) that understands her and keeps her heart from spinning out of control. As the collection goes on, and the poet ages, she slowly winds out this rope as she explores the labyrinth of what it means to become. The next poem All You Need to Know About Me seems so direct, almost too direct in the first two stanzas. It reads like a classroom poetry assignment, but the first two lines of the third stanza cracks the veneer of youth, and shows why Ivanova’s collection is something different. “I like myself when I’m not speaking. Which is ironic, because I talk too much.” The self-reflective journey as introduction has been done a million times before, but Ivanova gives permission to see her in this awkward moment and for the reader to celebrate the catharsis of seeing yourself for the first time. 

What follows this strong opening are poems that detail the struggle to explore the emotional life of lesbian attraction behind closed doors. Growing up, we all face the fear, judgment, and power of attraction. Puberty spares only a few, and those of us in its grip suffer the ache of desire, and the lack of control. In its first half, Hindsight captures these moments of fleeting connection and fear with lines like “there’s nothing beautiful about checking the lock on the door twice,” from Star-Crossed and the wages of what others call sin, but you call love, when Ivanova says: “We are all dirty;/Mouths-dirty;/Feet-dirty,/But your heart is pure” in Easter Sunday.

There is no doubt that even at her young age, Ivanova is a poet to watch. She is at her strongest when she weaves her imagery and mastery of language to create scenes of bodies and hearts meeting, or descriptions of how the body changes when it feels the stress of our emotions. One of my absolute favorites is the first line of Late Night Thoughts, “there are bees caught in the tips of my fingers.” It’s such a deliciously vivid line that captures the vibrations of want, which she carries through in an extended metaphor for the entire poem. Hindsight contains many scenes of meeting, wonder, and loves lost and found, which are wonderful to explore, but if there is a weakness in this collection it is that there are too many of these moments of relationship reflection. It’s wonderful to watch Ivanova’s skills as she looks back on these encounters, but when you read through the second half, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like if she used her skills to dissect and reimagine the world outside and her place in it.

You can see the promise in the second half of Hindsight, in poems like 2:22, Are You There, God? Do You See Me, Lover? a nice play on titling since she is certainly not Margaret, and containing one of my favorite opens “It’s a sticky, warm July night, and I am invincible.” And she closes with a strength of being able to let it all go to see the world as it truly is in The Sound of the Earth. In that way, Hindsight not only reads like a coming of age collection as an introduction to the world of a new and gifted poet. But, it is also an exorcism and celebration of the past as she becomes a poet that sees the world with clarity and beauty; a poet that we all need.

Sean Felix, 2021

“Africa is the World, the World is Africa” foreword to A Womb with a Heart that Beats All Over the World published by Sunday Mornings at the River, 2022

One year, I was in New Orleans to attend a family wedding. The day before the wedding, my wife and I took our two children to get beignets at Café Du Monde. As we ate and drank coffee, we watched the other tourists drink up the scene, sip on hurricanes, and create their own dissonant jazz music as young dancers busked for money doing tap routines with their crushed can taps. The children were in heaven as they tried to cover themselves head to toe in as much powdered sugar as they could muster. They were truly a sight to behold. When we were done, and had sufficiently cleaned their faces, we went for a walk to the river. It’s not very far, maybe a couple of minutes, and you are standing on the bank of the Mississippi.

That day, the sky was clear, and the sun shown down on the smooth skin of the brown bottomed river, and the reflection of the light danced on the hull of the ships passing lazily by. I looked over toward the other shore and imagined what it might be like to try and swim to the other side, knowing that even on this calm day that the danger of the river lay beneath its skin, not on the surface. There is a power in the river that folks that never grew up near the water don’t understand. Water is life, and it is also death. As I stood there reflecting, I thought of Langston and the fact that in that moment I was a negro dreaming on the river.

Some of my father’s family is from New Orleans. I have/had a great uncle that owns a restaurant down there. And my last name has ties to the French and the Spanish. So, at least some of my ancestors were very well acquainted with the Caribbean and French/Spanish slave trade. This is my connection to the mighty river that stood before me, the gulf not too far away, and the majestic ocean that also served as a trade route, kidnappers path, and a graveyard to the wicked and the innocent alike. I am a child of the diaspora, and I call the United States my home.

I come to this book by way of oceans and rivers, as do many of the authors within the following pages. They tell stories of power and pain, intrigue and nostalgia, desire and rejection, and all of them are stories of Africa. Alkebulan, the title of the very first poem in the collection, and also the indigenous name of Africa, orients the reader to prepare for encounters from some of the 54 countries of the continent, and the songs of those of us who grew up away from our ancestral home. In a world where Africa is as much a shorthand for a particular way of life, or a reduction of massive diversity to a single identity, these authors take pains to sing songs that only they can, through a connection that they carry in their melanated skin.

Opening the pages of this book, you immediately move away from the rivers of the U.S. and hear the rush of the Congo and the Nile that Langston professed. You can also feel the breadth of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. But then as you read, you feel the heat of the Sahara, and the cold of Kilimanjaro. Every page of the book is replete with the footsteps and grandeur of empire, and knowledge. The Great Pyramids are here. The Savannahs are over there. The cradle of human existence sits on the Horn of the great continent. This is a book of great beauty, and heralds a shared ancestry, not just of the authors, but indeed of the entire world. For Africa is the world, and the world is Africa.

But because Africa is the world, the lines of the poets in this volume speak of its majesty, and also the pains of its people. In Rainbow of Emergency Karabo C. Modise elaborates the struggle of black women to live freely, to dance freely, to love freely. “Brown girls haven’t been given the freedom of innocence to see rainbows as promised/Brown girls are afraid to feel alive/She might not make it through the night.” Jerome Coetzee opens his poem Flesh of Their Bones with the past and present struggle, “Africa blended by history/Divided by history makers/Made poor by looters.” The stain of colonization, first national and now economic, took and continues to take the value out of the African soil; the African people.

There are moments of sweetness and frivolity, romance and truth, as Afi Kosi writes so beautifully in Happy Days, “I will write you poems/that smell like rain on chocolate day/when silly girls like me/fall for shy boys like you.” It is a testament that life goes on and the pain that we all know and see around us every day is worth it when we have these moments of life. In this volume there is triumph in The Beautification of a Lagos Girl. Taiwo Aloba lists so many names from so many places, and as I read it, I wanted to meet them all and call them my sister. And then of course there is the smell of the food and the taste of the memories of Guyana in Gail Fawcett’s The Curry Pot. “Ma’s the same/A kitchen treasure trove/Filled with burnished gold /clouded bakes/a curry pot/The dish that smells of home.”

The power that lies in the centre of this anthology rests in an old knowledge, held together by the wisdom of elders and the strength of black women. In a world beset with the desires of “big men” to bring the world to heal, we know that we call Africa, mother, for a reason. If there was a central spoke to this anthology, it would be Grace Louise Woods’ Don’t Underestimate Me. The poem is a grand testament to the mother, the woman, in contrast to the loud and big man of Fela’s reckoning. The sounds of the continent, the sounds of the black woman are big beneath the skin, they do not need to yell to show their power. Men seek to name and diminish, in order to set the order of the universe, when in fact, the true name is quieter and lives on the song that the world whispers on the wind.

Of course, there is more that I could say about this volume of poetry, but I will let the poets speak the rest for themselves. This anthology is filled with griots and ciphers telling our stories, so pay attention to their voices. And yes I will come back to New Orleans where I began.

The wedding I attended was on an old plantation, which disturbed me at first. I sat on the lawn of this property, Spanish moss draped from the trees overhead, as my cousin in-law said his vows with his new wife. I watched black teenagers walk by the wrought iron gates on the street, holding ice cream they had gotten down the block, and for a moment I almost jumped up to join them, to get away from this place. But I stayed. My black body stayed in that place and watched two people and their families celebrate a wedding on land that had probably felt and witnessed some of the worst crimes in history. The contradiction of my existence there reverberated in my eyes, till I saw my children, my two sweet children running along the grass with bubbles blowing and ribbons streaming in their hands. Their joy is the future. I will teach them the history. I will teach them of Africa. We will go to the continent together. They will learn of the great empires, the great sadnesses, and the great joys that we share. They, like this anthology, are the past, present, and future. For they, like me, like us all, are Africa, and Africa is the world, and the world is Africa.

                                Sean Felix, 2022

Foreword to Cough Syrup by Jude Raed published by Sunday Mornings at the River, 2022

If you walked through a gallery of your own words, what scenes would come out whole? The fragmentary nature of thought versus experience, thought during experience, or thought as experience is the landscape of Jude Raed’s Cough Syrup. From the moment I began to read, Burroughs immediately jumped into my mind. I seemed to be involved in a world that was wholly foreign, strange to me, though it was one with which I was vaguely familiar. Like encountering Burroughs’ soft machine, I know my own, and I know that mine is wholly different than his, but that is only because of our interpretation of desire. Do I want to fill and be filled? Absolutely. But god my body, my soul, could not handle the punishment of soul and degradation of his fulfillment.

While Raed’s Cough Syrup does not take the reader on a harrowing journey, like Burroughs, encountering her world can seem almost more surreal and difficult. Opening the book is like walking into an art gallery filled with empty canvas (an image she uses at the midpoint of the text) where the works compose themselves like a Schrödinger’s painting, only existing when the viewer chooses to look. The book opens with an “Arabic word, Mo’aqqat, meaning momentary; temporary.” She lets us know that what is here, is only there for the moment, and like some great artistic sorcery, if you look away, and then look back you may see something different.

The text fluctuates through a number of forms. Inside her gallery there are dialogues, free verse poems, recorded conversations, concrete poems, and short theatre pieces. Each one contains a certain power, showing an artist at work. The poem shahrazad catches you with its opening lines: “i bend down and pick up my guilt/slithering on its belly/all muddy and reeking of a leftover conscience.” This poem, titled after a heroine who puts off her execution by a murderous sultan’s hand by telling stories, opens with such viscera but tells a story of desired innocence in spite of a broken world.

There is a sense of escape in many of the lines: “The night is a good time to be brave. Maybe even the best time. Is anybody listening? I am cradled in the arms of everything…” or “Tomorrow means nothing if today means everything/And so I—/Escape through story—.” While this is seemingly explicit, there is a whimsical, riddle quality to the poems of wanting us to get out with her but other times when “Yellow breaks through the parted branches/of an old forest/ only you and I know,” and there is a secret place where we stop with her to look at the other travellers.      

What’s interesting is the cerebral quality of Raed’s journey. There is very little feeling described in the text. Almost all of the feeling is generated by the reader, and only if the reader is so inclined. There were moments where I was completely detached and let the text carry me along, moments where I marvelled at the genius of a line or an internal rhyme, and then moments where an image sunk to my heart and I felt so deeply that I had to scramble to remember where I was so that I could continue on our journey.

Raed lets the reader in on the secret multiple times. There are moments like the poem Welcome which seems to defy the labyrinthine quality of her gallery and exposes true memory. The poem is a defined space where memory of someone else and the world they share is allowed to unfurl and take shape: “gather me in your prayer/between your forehead and the praying mat/Or at least, the version you remember of me.” As you move toward the midpoint of the book though, she flips that expectation like in A handful of story where there is a shift in perspective. The vast gallery hall leads to a theatre of nostalgic absurdity. This place is where reality tears into the narrative once again. The voices/characters in the theatre piece are the facets of the same person speaking as they try to make sense of an inevitable future composed of unmatching stone. There is an acknowledgment of the audience that has been brought along in the gallery. In a number of texts, self-conscious texts, that is, the audience is acknowledged only insofar as the author knows who they are writing too. Here, in this absurd theatre, the readers have become participants in the creation of the play itself.

The book is built on iteration and repetitions that change perspective and intensity when paired with a new scene. In a later part of the book she says in a prose poem: “The day is like a fever dream, playing over a broken loop and I wait, for you, some days, other days, I wait for me.” How many times do we find ourselves making the same motions, but feel like we are trying to move ahead? How often do you tell the same stories trying to get at some deeper revelation with the people around you, or are you just boring? How often do you reach out in the same way with a new lover, hoping that this time, this time both of your waits will be over?

There is so much inside this meta-narrative to discover. A reader may go through the book once and in a state of epiphany understand all of its nuances and references. But really this is a text to return to multiple times. Will this book be for everyone? Absolutely not. It is not conventionally pretty, or poetic. The combination of conventional poetic and narrative forms will be jarring for some readers and if you are used to your poets laying out their world at your feet and sprinkling it with emotional dew and petals of confession and catharsis, then this text is not for you. But if you wish to think and observe, if you ever wondered about your mind-body connection, if you’ve ever considered your own soft machine as a work of art, then welcome to the gallery.

Sean Felix, 2022