Reviewed by Anna Scotti
francine j. harris’s third collection, here is the sweet hand, is a messy compilation, a demonstration of the poet’s exhaustive cultural knowledge and boundless creativity as she leaps from references as disparate as Dutch ovens to Oulale Kossola, tardigrades to Betsy DeVos. The poems are demanding, dense with allusion, and often elliptical, touching the point, then moving away. harris won’t talk down to the reader no matter how esoteric her references become. If you know that papillon is French for “butterfly,” perhaps you won’t mind looking up muer when harris jokes, “He says you thought it meant woman,” playing on the Spanish mujer. Reading “Single Lines Looking Forward,” or “One Monostich Past 45,” I found myself wanting to explain to someone, anyone, who Bob Kaufman was, and how harris is both paying homage to, and playing a sly prank on, this poet who is remembered for wanting to be forgotten.
These are political poems, with accusation inflaming nearly every page—yet they are deeply personal, too, and often lonely. The harrowing “It Is a Choice (because Kanye),” draws infuriated parallels between the Middle Passage and the Trump era. But it is not more rageful than the clever, bitter, “Limulus Polyphemus.” No, that’s not a Classical philosopher or a medical condition. It’s a horseshoe crab, and harris notes, “Whatever we bled out was given to white men for research before they kicked us back to sea.” A metaphorical indictment? A cry of protest on behalf of the mistreated arthropod whose blood is vital to biomedical research? Well, perhaps both. Along with interwoven themes of gender, race, sexuality, and politics, harris has a deep concern for the natural world. In “Versal,” she writes, “The wood/Is an eager, a Negus among us, a runner like eagle/a brown sighting, root system gathered in growl of curl, of amassed vein feed.”
harris’s bending of poetic forms and conventions—unusual capitalization and indentation, prose poems juxtaposed with monostich and stanza’d work—might be seen as unfettered creativity, or as merely tedious, requiring one to fetch reading glasses to discern the minuscule font that appears, inexplicably, mid-collection. Is it a reference I didn’t get, or simply a way to fit the whole of the poem on a two-page spread? Ultimately, there is so much cultural meat here, so many tangents to explore—water bears and barycenters and Dr. Who Dat—that the eccentricities of form seem largely unimportant. What’s more exciting is the sensory imaging, the sound that meanders through the pages. Why does a poem about Nature being beaten down, about silence broken at night by drunken bellowing, share a title with Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315? I don’t know. But reading the poem aloud with Vivaldi in the background is an undeniable pleasure, and gives context to “Underneath generators, if you tune it out, it becomes its own vow of subaural buzz. Something is generating.” And this harkens back to Kaufman, whose poems are best read against a backdrop of jazz.
harris brings us low with poems like “Abortion,” then makes us laugh out loud with lines like “Obama wants to be a palindrome.” Likening a neighbor’s cough to the caw of a crow alludes both to the collective name for a flock of crows and to the actual act of self-murder that is smoking. When a poet can play with words in this way, we pay attention, despite the occasional poem or line that may be too abstruse to be divined.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 23, Issue 3.