Boston-based poet Porsha Olayiwola’s debut collection is a phenomenal, moving and fierce assertion of identity
Originally Published: Button Poetry, 2019
To us poetry lovers, it’s the most direct form of expressionism. Having a finite time to say something, as well as the ability to reform and restructure rules, adds to its beauty. Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola grasps all those dynamics by the horns in I Shimmer Sometimes, Too. A powerful, gut-punching assertion of identity as a black, queer, ‘hip-hop feminist’, the 73 pages here are some of the most fiery, lucid and ambitious poems that you’re likely to read for some time.
Olayiwola combines a disregard for conventional layout and scathing socio-political commentary to rip up the rule book right from the start. The opening poem is essayistic, excavating themes like male sensitivity and the decimation of black culture in breathless prose. And crucially, amidst its full-on presentation she hides golden left-hooks, the type of scabrous zingers whose prescience will stalk and unfurl itself as it progresses, like:
‘He might lay a sheet of cayenne over the flesh – a homeland conquered by sun, a fire gouged between cheeks, eyes watering a flag of surrender’.
As surrealist as she can be, there’s always a sense of frankness masked by deceptively simple techniques. Take Continent, for example, where the breadth of the stanzas begins broadly, only to become far more restricted by the end. Interlude At A Neighbourhood Gas Station: 2001 – a total affirmation of Olayiwola’s gender identity – is thrilling both narratively and in the fluidity of its final twist.
Familiar Ground Given New Life
That surrealism, however, also means that fairly commonplace themes are totally revitalised in her hands. My Brother Ghost Writes This Poem is a damning indictment on the mass incarceration of young black men in America, and Ode To Ex-girlfriend, with its theme of the lingering horror of abusive relationships, is colourfully devastating.
The Bus Stop Is Crowned Motif links grandiose cultural posturing and a grim, multi-layered urban reality:
‘Those who have the least are often offered up at a crossroad. Those in need are often slain in the dead of mourning. Those in power smile, name this a just fate. Palms grip to makeshift knives when we travel as to not be the tale they warned us of.’
And she’s not afraid to tear off any comfort blanket that the white middle class might’ve surrounded itself with, especially on the hyper-sexual one-two of Listen: My Right Hand Is Covered In Blood and I Wish To Eat What My Partner Does Not…. The Muse For This Black Dyke Is A Dead White Man is an ingenious counter to T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, espousing how where Eliot continues to be lauded after death, Olayiwola and black women like her cannot expect to be.
Vulnerability and Righteousness
Perhaps the best summation of the entire collection comes in Aladdin’s Genie On Emancipation:
‘not the first time someone has been unarmed by survival’.
I Shimmer Sometimes, Too is the perspective of someone whose identity is as righteous as any, but whose survival is always precarious. But the book is as much a celebration as it is a battle cry. The toing-and-froing within her psyche causing this collection to ebb with power in any context Olayiwola chooses. She uses vulnerability to prepare for the fight, and in a furiously strong way.
You can buy I Shimmer Sometimes, Too here.