Hands Are Necessary When You’re Trying To Reshape The World: Reflections On Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe
Review by Crystal Condakes Karlberg
Ama Codjoe is full of questions in, Bluest Nude, her second poetry collection, after Blood of the Air. And aren’t we all? The question many of us are asking and one that Codjoe tries to answer is: When the worst has already happened, what next? We look to poets for the answers, but where do poets look? In Codjoe’s case: nature, other forms of art, the past, the self, mythology, religion, ghosts. She asks questions of, and searches for answers in, all of these realms. She’s a woman who wants an explanation; she’s trying on answers to see how they fit and the byproduct of this process is a profound and breathtakingly beautiful collection of poems.
“Blueprint” opens the collection as perfectly as any first poem I’ve read. Because a blueprint is exactly what we need. Codjoe’s images are unique, without ever seeming forced: “I was a blueprint, blue on blue, mapless/but for those warm bones and my red heart barking.” She knows how to wring the power out of words using placement. A barking heart? Really? But it works. In the same poem, “the sky was full of shaking: wet,” meaning there was a storm, maybe, but, “it wasn’t rain that fell —.” Perhaps the answer is not going to be clear-cut. She goes on to tell the reader, “whatever it was/I collected in the cups of my hands.”
Bluest Nude shows us a poet who believes fiercely in the power of poetry as evidenced in “She Said,” a poem that borrows from rape trail testimony from 1612 as well as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony from 2018. In the sixth section Codjoe uses repetition and design to duplicate the disembodiment felt in the aftermath of rape using only a handful of words across an entire page. In the seventh section, Codjoe uses assonance and syntax to imbue the poem with even greater intensity than seems possible:
…the sh in shame the me the shh in me the ssshhhhh
the y in saying the why the say the said the sad the
sad i the scared i terrified she tried to say…
In the title poem we see a poet who knows the rules and how to break them; a poet who can reimagine the past to make it better by placing her mother, “[f]loating/naked, on her back, [in]turquoise waves.” In section two are the lines, “Let me refuse simile./I do not wish to write it.” Instead Codjoe uses poetry to shine a light on injustice by not describing it. This is not Poetic Rule Breaking 101; this is advanced stuff and it takes courage. Codjoe aims high and takes risks and the payoffs are huge. After reading the lines in section six, “I know the history/of my body is a pair of hacked off hands,” the reader is sent back to the cover image (“Martinique” by Simone Leigh) and from there to “Poem After Bette Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” whose speaker is definitely and defiantly in possession of her hands and making her own decisions about how best to use them: “I lay down the splintered broom…Gonna jab the face that hovered over mine.”
You should read this book if you are wondering what comes next; if you are fascinated by water and/or seeing your own reflection; if you are up nights with your mind dancing some type of tarantella; if you love/hate your own body; if answers to your questions give birth to more questions; if you trust your own memories more than photographs; if you have wondered what is gender, and further, what does it mean to be a woman; if ghosts help you see things more clearly; if you are a land person and at the same time a sea person; if you suspect you may be Eve in this new world, or maybe a snake, maybe the snake; if you have mothered yourself or your mother or a lover or a child (real or imagined); if you have wanted to leave past versions of yourself behind; if seven stages of grief are not enough for you; if you are scared in ways you don’t immediately recognize; if you see the potential for beauty in everyday things; if you have a glimmer of hope. You should read this book.
Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe
Milkweed Editions (2022) paperback $16
Crystal Condakes Karlberg is a Library Assistant at her local public library and a speaker for Greater Boston PFLAG.