Poetry book, 92 pages, $14 cover price
Poetry book, 92 pages, $14 cover price
Niki Herd grew up in Cleveland and received degrees from the University of Arizona and Antioch in Los Angeles. A Cave Canem Fellow, her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies, and has been supported by organizations including the Astraea Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.
The Language of Shedding Skin is a resolute wind song of chimes strung with steely nerves, a song winding its way through and around America, what we have been, what we are, what we can be. The poet challenges the stasis of contentment with a spellbinding beauty crafted from her will to justice. These poems will stand as they come out of the compassionate quietude of a mind that will let not let go the dream of a better state of the heart we all can have if we accept the courage she offers us. Niki Herd has taken up the charge of those before her, poets with names like Lourde and Hughes, spirits that looked into the deep well of what we can be to see the face of love.
–Afaa Michael Weaver
This is a debut that marks the first words of a powerful voice.
Say the name Gwendolyn Brooks. Say Audre Lorde. Say Lucille Clifton. Niki Herd is basking in their echo. Her debut collection The Language of Shedding Skin instigates a much needed shudder in the present literary landscape. She is the black/woman/human we have been waiting for to unapologetically sing a socio-political poetics in which craft and attention to language is paramount within the message. To read the first poem is to not put this book down until the final poem. Only then will you understand why “the fist holds/history…the history of somebody’s mama/the history of their mama’s mama.” Please, open this book and and get to your history lesson.
The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
Mahalia’s song plays every Sunday morning, her
voice reaching out from the wooden stereo credenza
as you prepare supper and ready yourself towards tomorrow,
the business of cleaning toilets for Eisenberg
in the better part of town…he’s got the whole world
in his hands…your own hands brown with deep
trenches around the knuckles as if each finger has endured
its own separate life, muscular, not manly, use to
dirt digging and planting mums the color of tangerines.
He’s got the whole world…hands no stranger to cast iron
skillets, the combing of defiant hair, or a strong
drink or two to numb pain that takes root underground
like the eldest tree…in his hands…pain that rests beneath
skin like meaning lies underneath a word that then becomes
gospel sung this morning as you sit wedged between
your husband and the child you didn’t want, my mother.
He’s got the whole world…you call yourself
Gladys Love Lewis, as if everything is worthy of
your middle name. One day I will be warned against
your kind, told there is no room for your poetry, every
story a sorry victim riddled with alcohol and illness.
But this poem is not about the gin and pills, the cancer
or stroke, or the strange sexual appetite of your man
and girl child to come. This is about a song etched
in memory, and two women…in his hands, Gladys
Love and Mahalia, vinyl spinning to the needle’s edge.
I wrote to her once, said
I’d slept with more dick than
stars on the flag. How patriotic
was her response, then I got
called a slut. She had wanted
an in on my life story, to
conjugate blue veins and blood
movements of a daughter never
good at being good enough.
Never good at being good enough
passed down like silver table settings
and fine family china, a fragile
inheritance. Your 1954 black and white
baby picture card says
to wish you every joy Christmas
and the New Year may bring. If only
you had known that a mother
can only give what her own hands
have held, if only you had been dressed
and prepared for the winter season.
It wasn’t the belt, the belt was black
her skin was black, and she’d come
to understand the mythology of its place.
It was instead the demand to be naked
fruit skin peeled way back
that brought her to an edge. Why
would a mother fashion this punishment
for sharing a bike with a friend?
The measure recalled the notion of property
what she had been or would become:
navy-skinned female on an auction block
or somebody’s trick on the street.
His grammar is fly:
full length leather coat
hair to shoulder, center parted and
fried-it’s 1975 and the man is super fly.
When the bell rings he poses
in front of his electric blue TR7
school kids herding home
talking about that your daddy?
You left him after six years
bravest act you’ve ever done
and inside that nucleus of bravery
you hold the anger of life
you are the harvester of thorns, an
iron pendant worn around your
neck. Listen up girl, none of us
are getting any younger, and
metal gets heavier with age.
Purple pants, tight top exposing
midriff, hair in curls, size 8
dressed like the prettiest video
girls, your favorite song
George Benson’s Give Me the Night
and the nights, filled with line dance
and drink, are good. The camera
now catching a rare piece of light–
you smile, and I see why he loved you.
When We Are On the For Real
the juices of our mother tongue
turn to memory of good times playing
in the street like lightning bugs
out of glass jars, lemonade cracked
on ice, and new shoes leaving church early
on Sunday mornings, a first kiss
sweet as red candied apples and cotton candy
a movement of lips one never forgets.
And this is the language of plain brown wrappers
a shedding of skin, a come to a place
that feels like home. Mamas still say
don’t talk that way, and we need to pay rent
buy a little grocery, so from nine to five
these lips speak other ways, but
when we write, words live among friends
those unborn, those born, and the dead
and voices carry villages
with never a need to debate the poetic
between collard greens and brie
whatever our language be
we open our mouths to the rising sun
ink bleeding from our mouths and speak.