Teeth by Aracelis Girmay
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I’m kind of lying a little bit with that rating up there. Not that I don’t give everything Aracelis Girmay 5 out of 5 stars for everything she’s ever written, because I totally do. But I’m not technically reviewing Teeth as I have never read it, not completely anyway. But I’m certainly planning to.
Aracelis Girmay came to visit Rutgers recently, and I was forced to go to her poetry reading. I had never heard of her before. And despite a love of Shel Silverstein/having quite a prolific career as a poet myself in 3rd or 4th grade or so (I could churn out limericks like it was my job), I always think that I don’t really like poetry. As an English major I had to take a class called “Principles of Literature: Poetry” my sophomore year, and I hated it, so maybe that’s why I think I don’t like poetry. I don’t know. But for my creative writing class this semester we had to attend one “literary event,” and this one was my last chance, so I dragged myself there.
(Everyone please take a moment to overcome the shock that I’m writing about a school assignment.)
So, it turns out, I really really like poetry.
My first few impressions of Aracelis: beautiful, tall, skinny, and young-ish. She has crazy curly hair and wears glasses. She likes to laugh and has a very young, almost a little girl’s voice. I was taking notes, and I actually wrote down, “She’s adorable” and underlined it. I feel somehow that this is an important observation.
The first of her poems that she read to us was “Arroz Poetica,” and it was upon hearing just the first few lines that I remembered that I like poetry. But beyond that it was difficult to hear much else except her voice, which seems so young when she’s talking, but has amazing weight and depth to it when she is voicing her poetry.
“Arroz Poetica” is from Teeth, which was published in 2007. The poem is an expression of frustration and despair with our involvement with the Middle East. The most haunting image to me, which also lends the poem its title, is of the narrator staring at a clear jar of rice that she keeps in her kitchen, and seeing all the individual grains “while the radio calls out the local names of 2,000 US soldiers counted dead since March.”
She goes on to make her own list of names: Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire, who died for no reason. It was incredibly powerful. By the end of the poem I found that I had to try very hard to keep myself from crying.
I highly suggest you listen to her reading the poem here: http://www.fishousepoems.org/archives/aracelis_girmay/arroz_poetica.shtml. It’s not quite the same as hearing it in person, but still intense.
The person introducing Aracelis described her poetry a little and said that she “confronts the ugly and the painful, and finds celebration in the way joy and suffering coexist.” There is a lot of pain and anger in “Arroz Poetica,” which Girmay called a dedication, a memorial, and a manifesto.
The other poem she read that almost made me cry was called “Saint Elizabeth,” which was much more a celebration. I forget the particular details she told us, but I think there’s some kind of writers conference that she went to, or used to go to, where she would stay in Jamaica for a while. She used to go jogging in the morning on a beautiful path by the beach, and every day these little goats would come right up to her, completely unafraid, making “goat noises” as she said, and follow her.
She looked so happy, talking about those goats. She talked about how she was fascinated by their eyes, and how she felt a very real connection with them. I can’t find “Saint Elizabeth” anywhere online, but I wrote down the last lines at the reading:
“Were you my children once? Did I know your names? Oh, little magics. Little children.”
It’s hard to describe her voice at that moment. You could hear how much love was in it, how much love she had for those little goats. She mentioned that she once burst into tears upon finishing the poem at a reading, just from remembering how strong the connection was. Girmay has such a fascinating mind and heart. You get to experience that in her poetry.
There was a Q & A session at the end (she also read a poem called “Ode to an Ampersand”–Girmay always uses ampersands instead of spelling out “and.” That poem finished, “His life, like our life, depends on what is at his side.” Beautiful.) and someone asked her about how her writing is affected by different locations. Part of her response was that, she always wants another place and time to “seep through” the poem, perhaps as “evidence that someone lived here once.” I got the feeling that she is constantly aware of many times and places at once.
She said, “For example, that helicopter flying above us now. If I was writing, I would bring that into the poem somehow.” I was a little stunned when she said that. I live between two hospitals, so I don’t even notice helicopters anymore. But even while talking to us, Girmay’s mind was up in the air with that helicopter, thinking she could put it in a poem.
I’ll leave off with another poem that I really enjoyed. Girmay was a visiting artist at an elementary school, and all of the children in the class sent her thank you cards. One card inspired the following:
For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card
for Estefani Lora, PS 132, Washington Heights
Elephant on an orange line, underneath a yellow circle
6 green, vertical lines, with color all from the top
The first time I peel back the 5 squares of Scotch tape,
unfold the crooked-crease fold of art class paper,
I am in my living room.
It is June.
Inside of the card, there is one long word, & then
Loisfoeribari: The scientific, Latinate way of saying hibiscus.
Loisforeribari: A direction, as in: Are you going
North? South? East? West? Loisfoeribari?
I try, over & over, to read the word out loud.
What is this word?
I imagine using it in sentences like,
“Man, I have to go back to the house,
I forgot my Loisfoeribari.”
“There’s nothing better than rain, hot rain,
open windows with music, & a tall glass
“How are we getting to Pittsburgh?
Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?”
I have lived 4 minutes with this word not knowing
what it means.
It is the end of the year. I consider writing my student,
Estefani Lora, a letter that goes:
To The BRILLIANT Estefani Lora!
Hola, querida, I hope that you are well. I’ve just opened the card that you made me, and it is beautiful. I really love the way you filled the sky with birds. I believe that you are chula, chulita, and super fly! Yes, the card is beautiful. I only have one question for you. What does the word ‘Loisfoeribari’ mean?
I try the word again.
I try the word in Spanish.
& then, slowly,
Lo is fo e ri bari
Lo is fo eribari
love is for everybody
love is for every every body love
love love everybody love
everybody love love
is love everybody
everybody is love
love love for love
for love is everybody
love is forevery
love is forevery body
love love love for body
love body body is love
love is body every body is love
is every love
for every love is love
for love everybody love love
love love for everybody