Heaven and Earth: Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon
If we were to accept the notion that the individual body is a microcosm of the world, and a person’s disease and illness can be mirrored in the ruin of the broader world, then we would have no trouble believing that somehow, each of us struggles between the proclivity for self-destruction and the perpetual hope for healing and survival. If we’ve ever thought about the parallels between these two organisms – the body and the world, then we would have no trouble tracing the logic of Kamilah Aisha Moon’s second collection of poems, Starshine & Clay.
Named after a line in Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me?”, Starshine & Clay names the symptoms and at times, the experience of recovery, gives gentle advice about the path to redemption, but ultimately suggests that the cure is not up to us but to the logic of nature and art, inexorable in their continuance. So while the myriad assaults to the body and soul are random, the poems themselves are not. They are controlled by patterns of the sonnet (e.g. “Mercy Beach), the villanelle (e.g. “Peeling Potatoes at Terezin Concentration Camp”), or the pantoum (e.g. “Allergy (Why We Can’t Be Friends), reminding us of the order in the chaos. This order is the only reassurance the book offers to us amidst scenes of brutality and violence.
The first two poems, “Exploded Stars” and “Mercy Beach,” lay down the groundwork for the dichotomy of body vs. world by announcing the concerns of violence and mortality in the poems to come. “Exploded Stars,” easily the most beautiful poem of the entire collection, reminds us of the human struggle to live no matter our doom, that the burning is not only the desire for life but for meaning, in this case, art, poetry (“…Crushed/ bodies craving fusion/ keep us brimming/ with enough energy/ to pass on,”). The second poem, the sonnet “Mercy Beach,” is a meditation on the severity of nature – and by extension, the world. Here, the volta is the poet’s faith that we find the love that overcomes adversity (“May they find caresses that abolish pain”).
Then, the suffering gets on the way with the book’s first poem, “The Emperor’s Deer.” It’s about hunting. To be accurate, it’s about the hunted. The “Emperor” in the title brings to mind the phrase “The Reign of Terror,” which is exactly that for the deer in the poem, and by extension, for the citizens of color in America. The poems that follow are about the individual “deer” – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Walter Scott, and so many more victims of shooting and other forms of random violence.
And if the victims are the deer, then the Emperor – in this case his legacy – is the statue of Jefferson Davies. The sestina “Eternal Stand” meditates on the tension between nature and artifice as it describes the statue in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. This tension not only harks back to the book’s title, but to Clifton’s poem itself (“here on this bridge between/ starshine and clay,/ my one hand holding tight/ my other hand;”). It’s the archetypal struggle between good and evil, heaven and hell, but equally, it’s a struggle between past and present and the blood of that struggle seeping through. Mostly, it’s the body at war with itself, and death and destruction is everywhere.
In the later sections, the contemplation of the world as one organism killing itself narrows to a closer look at the random ways in which the body disappoints us, attacks us, kills us; it also tells us that despite destruction, we hold on how we can because it’s also our nature to transcend this cruelty, to do the heavenly thing. In the first poem of this section, “To Théma, Almost Two Years After Your Burial,” Théma has donated her organs after death, and this saintly act ameliorates the speaker’s grief. “I try not to get angry/ at strangers pressing too close,/ choosing kindness just in case/ there’s a part of you/ brushing by.” This section is mostly about the devastation visited upon the body by natural illnesses, such as a mother after her mastectomy (“The First Time I Saw My Mother Without Her Prosthesis”), or the speaker herself besieged by fibroids (“Fibroids”) and eventual surgery (presumably a hysterectomy). All these ailments require amputation of sorts, which brings us back to the original disease of racism and how its eradication does not guarantee emancipation from the damage it has caused. In fact, the phantom limb persists in the statue of Jefferson Davies as it would the deliria of the speaker in her post-surgical state.
The phantom sensations apply to the amputation of love as well – as the last two lines of “Allergy (Why We Can’t Be Friends)” put it, “The best relief is total retreat/from the love of residue remains.” The best cure is the complete lopping off of the offending agent, but again, the elimination of the affliction doesn’t always mean deliverance. The poems about love are grouped at the end of the book to speak to the poems about hatred in the first part. However, in Moon’s world, heartbreak is just as hard to get over as any physical devastation. In “Ex-Crossing,” the phantom limb appears fleetingly as an ex-lover walking pass. In “A Golden Shovel,” the speaker laments, “Despite a continent of memories, islanding/ those misspent years proves brutal to recover from,/ winnowing wisdom from stubborn grains of grief.” Here are so many poems about the pain created by love that love – romantic or otherwise -- seems like another malady from which to recover.
Except sometimes in the case of love, the limb grows back; if there were any antidote offered to us, it’s the opportunity to overcome the pain, to survive, to do it again. In “Love,” the speaker tells us that love, if we allow it, “…rolls/ all of the little stones away from the tomb/ that still is your heart & roars/ without words, rise.” Because love is sacred and miraculous and indestructible. Like nature, it is always regenerating. “Catskills Retreat,” the last poem, offers this benediction: “…Bless the beaver beginning/again and again, the monarch’s/ meandering flight. Bless these mosquitoes/ & their insatiable thirst, the bluejays/ at dawn trilling you are not through”. At the end, “there’s solace, as always,/ by looking up” (“Spring”). At the end, loving the world and staying with it despite its many tribulations mean dedicating oneself, perhaps, to the pattern of the stars.
Starshine & Clay By Kamilah Aisha Moon.
Four Way Books, 128 pp. $15.95