By Charles Rammelkamp
Think of Cynthia Manick as an impresario, the mistress of ceremonies organizing the entertainment at this gorgeous revue, which is complete with an intermission halfway through – “When Soul and Poetry Meet, a Revue Takes Place” – in which Manick explains her inspiration behind the project, back in 2013. Soul Sister Revue is a live show that takes place four times a year. This book represents the print analogy of the performance, with two poets from each of the twenty shows spanning the past five years represented. While not all the poets in Soul Sister Revue are female, they are all of color and all exhibit soul.
Which of course provokes the question, What is Soul? Glad you asked. Each of the forty-one poets with work in this anthology (the forty selected plus Cynthia) has an answer. The format for each performer-on-the-page on the Revue stage is: 1) the poem; 2) an explication or elucidation of the poem in the poet’s own words; 3) a response to the question, “What Is Soul?”; 4) a response to the prompt, “Favorite soul performer or song?” and 5) a brief bio of the poet.
“Soul is what’s left after the world has worn you down,” Jeremy Michael Clark (“Dear Darkness”) writes. “Soul is duende,” Roberto Garcia (“Elegy in the Key of Life”) writes, “that inexplicable thing that connects human beings, that makes art true.” “Soul is memory, even when you don’t realize you are remembering,” Rio Cortez (“Writing Lately”) opines. Yasmin Blkhyr (“& I Mourned What I Could Not Name”) believes “Soul is the heart, the meaty heart & also the whistle of air in the lungs.” And my favorite is from Mia Kang (“Civitas”): “Soul is the thing under the thing.”
Not surprisingly, many of the poems – like Garcia’s mentioned above – address music. Freida Jones contemplates jazz in “No Maps in This Music”:
Marion Brown rises
slender & ebony
lips wrapped around reeds
joined by Trane, Ayler and Ornette
fueled by Elvin drums
Patricia Smith writes in “Why a Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong about Motown,” “We learned
what we needed, not from our parents and their rumored
south, but from the gospel seeping through the sad gap
in Mary Well’s grin. Smokey slow-sketched pictures
of our husbands, their future skins flooded with white light,
their voices all remorse and atmospheric coo. Lil’ Stevie
squeezed his eyes shut on the soul notes, replacing his
dark with ours. Diana was the bone our mamas coveted,
the flow of slip silver they knew was buried deep beneath
their rollicking heft. Every lyric, growled or sweet from
perfect brown throats, was instruction: Sit pert, pout, and
seamed silk. Then watch him beg….
Joshua Bennett’s “Barber Song,” David Tomas Martinez’ “The/A Train” and others allude to or are inspired by song. Similarly, a number of poems are inspired by or in homage to other works of art. Notably, two poems take their inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s musical, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. These include Peggy Robles-Alvarado’s “Praise Poem for Bronx Girls Who Make Shopping at Rainbow More than Enough” and Pamela Sneed’s “When the Rainbow is Enuf / for Ntozake Shange,” which begins:
The internet has transformed our grieving patterns
Everything comes and goes so quickly
After death there’s a tremendous outpouring and then a few
weeks later months years later nothing
I have come now to watch all who shaped me die
Never got to write about or even register Prince
People without whom I couldn’t have formed my voice
Grief is a potent theme throughout this collection. So many of these poems address mourning and loss, in an elegiac tone, from R. Erica Doyle’s “Winter Solstice” and Amber Atiya’s “The Skin South of My Collar Bone Burns” (“This poem is a kind of griefwork,” she comments in her “About” section) to Chris Slaughter’s “The Father,” Keisha-Gaye Anderson’s “To My Sisters” (“…a wave of motion / when grief slowly siphons breath”) and Lynne Procope’s stunning “Thirteen Assumptions and Seven Questions.” In her response to “What Is Soul?” Procope writes, “How do black folks persist? Our bodies distort to contain so many hurts. On a cellular level, we must have evolved to hold grief.”
The “Favorite Soul performer or song?” section of each poet’s entry is incredibly charming. Aretha Franklin is cited over and over again (Manick, Evie Shockley, Jeremy Michael Clark, Lynne Procope, Maria Fernanda Chamorro, and Mia Kang all mention her, one song or another), but Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Otis Redding, among others, are also mentioned more than once. Beyoncé and Prince, Billie Holliday and Al Green also have their advocates, as well as others. In her opening poem, “I Wish the Trees Could Sway to Marvin and Aretha,” Cynthia Manick partakes of the melancholy tone that’s a direct manifestation of “soul”:
because sometimes I forget/ soil/ can do more than hold/
wooden or metal boxes….
You get a sense of what real fun a performance of Soul Sister Revue must be. Poetry and soul lovers can vicariously experience the Soul Sister Revue from reading this impressive collection.
You can find the book here: Anthologies — Jamii Publishing
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.