Poet Aracelis Girmay on grief, Black motherhood and marrow language

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“Because in the rectangle of a page I am nourished and I dream and I plunge and I die. Because there, too, I am reborn. We are reborn.”

Award-winning poet and professor Aracelis Girmay opened her reading and Q&A on Thursday, April 22 with this passage from “Keep Writing” by Cristina Rivera Garza. Throughout her reading, Girmay interspersed her own poetry with words from many other poets — Sonia Sanchez, Jean Valentine, Lucille Clifton, Bhanu Kapil — the brilliant “elders” and “ancestors” who inspire her. 

Girmay has written three collections of poetry and is the author and illustrator of one collage-based picture book. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work. Most recently, she was the editor of the 2020 collection “How To Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton.” 

As a writer with family ties to Eritrea, Puerto Rico and Chicago, Girmay is interested in how she can “think about [her] body as a collapse of distance” and come to understand how she has arrived here — in the place she finds herself, as the person she is.

Girmay let us know that she was reading to us from her own home, that we might occasionally hear her children in the background of the Zoom and that this fact felt “good and important.” Indeed, this intimate setting felt like the appropriate space for Girmay to share her stunning verses exploring grief, to which no one is a stranger in 2021, and motherhood as a Black woman in the U.S. today. Her poetic insights have an undying pertinence and power — particularly at this moment in history, when activists have been fighting tirelessly for racial justice, all while police have continued to murder Black and brown children across our country.

“I’ve been thinking about George Floyd and Daunte Wright calling for their mothers,” said Girmay, to preface an excerpt she shared from her 2016 collection “the black maria” about the birth of her children and the fragile, miraculous nature of life. “The fight, first to open, then to breathe, / & then to close. Each of entering the world / & entering the world like this. / Soft. Unlikely… Profound, unspeakable cruelty who counters this, who does not see.” 

Among the many poems that Girmay shared was also one which she termed a “found poem.” Titled “on poetry & history – after joy harjo,” this piece captures a moment when Girmay herself was listening to poets speak at a panel. There was such a stark contrast between the men on the panel, “who were saying strong, good things but in authoritative voices,” and the words of Joy Harjo, that Girmay felt “this nervousness and this worry.” As Girmay writes in the poem:

“… she said she was at home one day & looking out of the window & she noticed a black thread or string there, floating in the frame, & she observed it for a while, floating there, until she realized that that black string was grief… she knew that it was her job to take that thread & put it somewhere, weave it into the larger tapestry (she made a gesture, then, as if that tapestry were just above her head.)…”

Harjo was speaking here in her “marrow language,” as Girmay put it — the language of her true self, down to her bones, without worrying about how it fit with what others were saying. Girmay said that ever since this event, “I think about how thankful I am for people who speak in their way, with their particular voices.”

In the Q&A that followed, Girmay opened up about how the grief she has experienced has led her to feel “far from her voice this past year” and the simultaneous joys and challenges she’d faced working at home while raising children. She remarked that the lessons poetry teaches her — “Everything is connected, it’s important to be awake to accidents, slowness is important” — have been a challenge to remember while parenting young children at home in the Zoom era.

At the end of this event, I felt not only more fascinated by Girmay and her work, but with the entire project of poetry and everyone involved in it. I immediately Googled the names of a dozen different poets in whose works Girmay had piqued my interest. “We’re all made up of each other,” Girmay said to us, and I think she meant it both physically and artistically. The way in which her work gracefully honors and explores her familial and her poetic ancestors mark her as a truly brilliant and honest artist. 

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Carly Taylor '22 is a Managing Editor of Arts & Life. She studies comparative literature and creative writing. On campus, you can find her organizing concerts and practicing martial arts. Contact her at ctaylor ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.