As writers prepare to descend on the AWP writer’s conference in Seattle this week, a number of publishers have chosen the occasion to release new titles. One of the new books on my “watch list” is Alleyne’s debut collection, Difficult Fruit, which has just been released by Peepal Tree Press.
(If you’re heading to Seattle, be sure to check out Lauren K. Alleyne’s reading and book launch party at The Project Room at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, February 28th. She’ll also be joined by Gwarlingo Sunday Poet Patricia Smith and a line-up of other fine writers. Get details here.)
While the title of her first book, Difficult Fruit, is a nod to Billie Holiday’s famous song, “Strange Fruit,” it also recalls Christina Rossetti‘s sensuous, provocative poem “Goblin Market” and the symbolic forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Like Rossetti, Alleyne’s poems are both sensual and spiritual and beautifully capture the narrator’s journey into womanhood and her struggle for self-knowledge.
One of my favorite poems about female youth is Patricia Smith‘s “13 Ways of Looking at 13” (featured here on Gwarlingo), and Alleyne plays off of this well-loved poem by chronicling the experience of becoming a woman in her own age-poems titled “Seven,” “Fourteen,” “Fifteen,” “Eighteen,” and “Thirty.” (She has wisely left “Thirteen” to Smith.) Here is an excerpt from “Seven”:
“…Your Snoopy watch
flares red on your wrist, you clutch
your white handbag like a wish.
you are innocence embodied,
down to your white knee socks,
Mary Janes; and unpierced ears.”
And at “Eighteen”…”here is nipple erupting against the thicketed / chest. Here is earlobe and thigh, the sharp seduction of nails. / Here is naked. Here, light by an exploring moon.”
There is hope and longing in Alleyne’s poems, but by “Thirty,” this hope is becoming seasoned by life’s realities:
This morning, you start from a dream
seasoned with Bourbon. Last night roils in your stomach,
funks your breath, aches. A message
lights your phone, asking, Did you get home safe?
And as you answer, Yes, you wonder
if this is all it means to grow up: you don’t
learn sense. You still find yourself swirling
in a strange city in your reckless boots,
the hum and shudder of liquor driving your feet.
Still, your heart parades its glitter for would-be lovers,
dissolves as they install themselves
in other women’s arms. What you learn
is how to exit with grace. Despite the dark,
the sputtering streetlamp that is your only moon,
you learn to believe the streets will unfold
in the right direction if you just start walking.
Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, partaking in the forbidden, symbolic fruit leads to knowledge, and not all of it is pleasant.
Alleyne explores how the rules of religion, as well as the ideas of others, have been internalized within the narrator’s growing, changing body. It is these internal “arguments,” which Alleyne voices so beautifully, that fuel her ongoing transformation. The “Little Christ-bride” with “Catholic school pleats” and “unpierced ears” struggles to find her way in these poignant, accessible poems. “Maybe older and wiser is just learning / how to put yourself in your own good hands,” Alleyne says.
If there is an narrative arc to this collection, it is this transfiguration from innocence to knowledge and the all-important discovery of free will. It reminds me of Gregory Orr‘s poem “To Choose,” from his marvelous collection River Inside the River: Poems (featured here on Gwarlingo):
God planned a static planet,
With plants that bore
No offspring—as if
Acts had no consequence.
But Eve was there to change
All that by choosing…
To show Adam losing
If you took it all inside you:
The bright fruit, the garden’s
Beauty, the day’s delight
And the night sky with its stars…
Show him how, within you,
It would ripen
And give birth to things
Beyond yourself and your imaginings.
“For me language is the most familiar shape of imagination,” Alleyne told Nicelle Davis of Connotations Press. “I believe that of all imagination’s powers, the most powerful is its possibility for vision: to see what is before us, what is beyond what we see; to see the wall, and then the possibility of the door in the wall; to see what no longer fits, how it is doing damage, how it might be mended; to see ourselves, and beyond our selves; to see others. The key is a verb. The key cannot exist without you—it needs a subject; the key cannot exist alone—it needs an object. The key is active, imperative, literal, figurative, transfigurative. It holds hindsight and foresight, but is root in the present. For all its power, the key is accessible— anyone can use it, everyone should.”
Wish for a working machine
and you’re given a body.
Ask for options and you get
a life with no roadmap and
free will. Say, Give me a reason,
and what you get is silence
or wars continents too far away
to care without exertion.
If you say yes to knowing,
dispossession flowers in you,
and cleaves to your progeny
for centuries. If you wish
to forget, there are pills
with mild side effects –
dreams that grab you
by the throat and pockets
of fear that separate you
from your skin. If you sing
hymns the gods of memory
might waken and strike you
with elegies for your unguarded
heart. Ask for love, and the sky
will unveil itself layer by layer,
its naked blue flame wanting
only your blindness in return.
A Ghazal in Arms
When you sleep alone, tucked like nerveless wings, your arms
pillow your dreaming head, and you’re in her arms.
Her, home. Him, home. God, that flashlight in the dark, home.
Home, Mother’s hand. Home: love’s many spiked and tender arms.
Psalm: O fractile and cadenced world, you are worthy
to be praised. O poets, O heart, lift up your arms!
Einstein the octopus can unscrew jars of food;
not bad for a slug’s cousin, but he’s got eight arms!
The debt-collectors find your new address. At home
the sheriff’s star on a letter, the law’s long arms.
In elementary school, punishment was this:
offenders knelt on the floor, and held up their arms.
In the bible, God promises the Israelites
victory if Moses never lowers his arms.
Stones and arrows, to gunpowder and mushroom clouds:
Our true evolution? The production of arms.
The Trail of Tears, Hiroshima, Guantanamo:
History is written by the mightiest arms.
Michelle Obama’s upper body is to die
for, tabloids say, the first lady’s right to bare arms…
Fourth degree red belt, and moving hard toward black –
the body becomes your race toward secret arms!
Lauren, face it: you’re not ready for love’s quiet
settling, though it woos you with wide open arms…
Love in A Flat
After Dean Young
Dean told us a story about Coltrane:
how one time in a recording, he hit
a wrong note – a real clam.
In the second take, he hit it again,
this time harder, longer.
The third time, it becomes the heart –
the sound all the other notes wrap themselves around,
a different understanding of the melody –
the song beneath the song: the stubborn beat
holding up the heaviness of flesh.
When There’s Only You and Your Dumbstruck Flight
True story: you’re strolling
through Manhattan’s heavy summer
haze; a lover’s hands move you
by the small of your back
through the crowd. Nothing
feels like home: not the slow Sunday
light breaking everything into glow,
not the rubbery wheeze of basketballs,
not the sirens reddening the air,
not the mouth at your ear bouncing
each word Wait. Till. We. Get. Back.
Even the voices hissing sin
sheathe their tongues.
Only a liar could say
it’s easy to live two lives
and not have one plot blunder
its way into the other.
Flash back to church: the sweet-faced
boy at mass robed in white.
Then to college, and his hosanna of kisses.
How you bent your knees for a different blessing,
and thought you’d live out your days
beneath his godful weight.
Clueless, one lover’s fingers trace circles
through the rasp of your dress.
The other walks toward you now.
Ode to the Belly
After Sharon Olds
You who I grab in disdain, your dark
dough spilling from my hands;
mark of the Buddha and Budweiser
– shame-maker, you. Belly,
you are the dictator of fashion,
demanding loose dresses, roomy
waistbands, rejecting swim suits
that expose. You are what I am measured by,
in your fullness, my lack. You, melon.
You, swallowed, unspinning globe.
In my dreams I am free of you –
I wear bikinis, do back flips, touch my toes;
but then I wake up wanting
to cram the world into my mouth
and let it fill you to bursting.
O, proud belly, you are the life-basket,
bearer of the thousand possible births.
You are birthday cake and wedding
toasts, fistfuls of buttery first-date
joy, you are pints of Dulce le Leche
scooping up the shards of my heart.
You are my father’s bread on Christmas
morning, potatoes slow-cooked in ham fat
marking the New Year’s plenty, you are
American apple pie, border burritos,
curried chicken with the skin on,
and Colonel Sanders’ eleven blessed herbs
and spices. You are each day’s necessary moon,
the house of singing, the cavern of bliss, the price.
On the Most Depressing Day of the Year, Jan. 24th
Its been proven, they say –
the bills like a line of ants,
the glamour of the new year
grown dull like a tin ring,
the dark taking the sky like a curve,
half the continent huddled
into scarves and sneezes –
the small engine of the brain
sputters and coughs, spins
the wheel of our brightness
to no avail. My friend tells me
she won’t succumb, not this year,
that she’s armed with a gadget
to simulate sunlight, to trick
her neurons like hothouse flowers
into defiant, artificial bloom.
It’s her birthday, so I smile
but I can’t stop the images
in my own untreated head
– dendrites sprouting threads
like untended ivy, brewing
storms of dopamine and serotonin,
everything out of kilter, ready
to blow. Her face looms over the cake,
the candles spelling the years
she has survived her own wild existence
– a flaming sentence, an almost-sun.
Her eyes squint their wish and flutter,
look at the light disappear.
About Lauren K. Alleyne
Alleyne is a Cave Canem graduate, whose work has been awarded prizes such as a 2012 Lyric Iowa Poetry Prize (2nd place), the 2010 Small Axe Literary prize, two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes (2009, 2011), the 2003 Atlantic Monthly Student Poetry Prize, the Robert Chasen Graduate Poetry Prize at Cornell, among others.
She has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Crab Orchard Review, The Cimarron Review, Black Arts Quarterly, The Caribbean Writer, The Belleview Literary Review, Growing Up Girl and Gathering Ground.
Her debut collection, Difficult Fruit, was published in Feb. 2014 by Peepal Tree Press. For information about upcoming events and to purchase signed copies of Difficult Fruit, please visit her website here.
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All poems © Lauren K. Alleyne. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and were reprinted with permission from the author. Peepal Tree Press is the home of Caribbean and Black British fiction, poetry, literary criticism, memoirs and historical studies.