I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood
by TIANA CLARK
reviewed by ELVIS ALVES
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018
I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood is a gripping collection of poetry. Clark is adroit at bringing the reader into the scenes she paints with words. Not all writers are capable of this, and the fact that Clark employs it in a seamless way gives credence to the reasons why her work is worth reading.
In “Soil Horizon,” Clark is called by her white mother-in-law to a Tennessee plantation for a family portrait. The mother-in-law sees the taking of the portrait on the plantation as an act of redeeming the past. Clark writes that the history of the plantation is covered up by its present usage, “...now it is sold out for summer weddings with sweating mint juleps in silver cups, cannons burst with weekend reenactments, and photo shoots for graduation, pregnant couples, and my new family.” For Clark, history cannot be wiped clean. She writes, “How do we stand on the dead and smile? I carry so many black souls in my skin, sometimes I swear it vibrates, like a tuning fork when struck.” Clark does not appear interested in redemption but in remembering black lives affected by the weight of slavery.
In the collection, Clark writes about Phillis Wheatley, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Kalief Browder with the same clarity and urgency that she writes about her life. This continuum conflates personal history with broader social history, reminding us that the two are not mutually exclusive.
When I think of Trayvon Martin, I think of Emmett Till, when I think of Emmett Till, I
think of young, black men in the South, then I think of young, white men in the South, I
think of my husband, who is white, born and raised in Franklin, TN. I think of how when
he tries to hold my hand, sometimes I pull away and not because I don’t love him, but
because I’m alert… So when I think about a post-racial America, I don’t—because the
trees in the South have strange fruit histories.
(“The Ayes Have It”)
Clark stays with the pain that comes with living in a black body in America. This is vividly depicted in “The Rime of Nina Simone,” a persona poem that is the centerpiece of the collection. In the poem, Clark brings back Simone from the dead. They meet on the campus where Clark is working toward her MFA. In the conversation, Simone asks, “Do they want you...or your black pain?” And, “Why do you keep panting & hunting black hurt, black scars like a slave-breaker? Why scratch the white page, a master, for old blood?” Clark answers,
Because I listen to the trees humming through the poplar leaves and Southern magnolias.
Bloated faces, these beauteous forms, still swinging, limp pendulum, waxy bleach-white
blooms, egg whites inside hardboiled eyes sway and rock, roll forward, fragrant. I’m
ready to find the ruined churches.
She is describing lynching here, terror against the black body that involved trees and blood. The interrogation is not to dissuade Clark from writing about her pain or black pain (Clark tells Simone that she needs to confront her white classmates “...when they try to conjure the other, a fantastic field of fictitious black and brown bodies”) but to empower her. Simone encourages her on this path,
It’s not enough for you to be young, gifted, black and angry or write about the body, The
body, The body. The body… she says, mocking me with her hands, then points her
diaphanous finger in my face—You have to stay mad your whole damn life. You have to
make love to the damage in your mind—return to the throbbing meadow you know will
pang when you enter the middle of its wild scrape.
Clark enters the classroom “bewitched—ready to flame…” after the talk with Simone. The pain does not swallow her because she writes and talks about it in rooted ways.
The theme of blood and trees shows up in several of the poems, including “First Blood.” The poem is a recollection about climbing a tree with childhood white male friends and attempting to pee like a boy but peeing on the self. Clark moves past the shame of this moment, “After then, I didn’t play with the white boys anymore. It did not matter. I would soon be all woman. I would soon know about the blood.” This poem and others of the kind remind one of the poems of Lucille Clifton that talk about womanhood. In this way, Clark is carrying the mantle of Clifton and other great black female poets that preceded her.
Some of the poems talk about the absence of a father, “My daddy is what is always at stake in my work. I want to know if he is still alive—if he thinks of me as often as I think of him” (“In the Middle of Things”). Some of the weight of the absence is lifted by the presence of a mother. In “Mother Driving Away After Christmas,” Clark imagines that her mother is not alone because “Other cars swim around her silence like plump, metal fish…” and ends the poem by referencing when she was pregnant with her, “her one good thing inside this hurt, traveling home.” In a similar fashion, Clark’s poems give birth to feelings tied to the pain of history, while making something of it. Nina Simone would agree with this and more.
The collection is heartfelt and serious primarily in how it uses history, the personal and social, in poetic form infused with emotions and intelligence. The poems speak to the past—to what is worth remembering because it makes us who we are. This brave endeavor not only requires an adequate command of history but the wit to bear the soul at each teachable moment. After all, seeking and telling the truth is an arduous but necessary task, and those who do it in a way that says all of us can and should do it, deserve recognition. For this, we are grateful to Tiana Clark and must read her work.
ELVIS ALVES is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013) and the chapbook Ota Benga (Mahaicony Books, 2013). His latest poetry collection is I Am No Battlefield But A Forest Of Trees Growing (Franciscan University Press, 2018), winner of the Jacopone da Todi book prize. Elvis lives in New York City with his family.