Ra Malika Imhotep
Red Hen Press

Reviewer: Erica Goss

In her new collection gossypiin, Ra Malika Imhotep filters her quest for truth through multiple entities. Ancestors float in and out of these poems, offering stories, guidance, and corrections to commonly held misconceptions regarding the lives and experiences of African-American women. Taking its title partially from Gossypium herbeceum, the botanical name of the cotton plant, the book is arranged in the order of the plant’s life, from seed to growth to harvest, connecting bloodlines with the secret wisdom passed between women.

In the introduction, “What We Gathered Here to Do,” Imhotep writes, “I have made the choice to put my tongue in your mouth…in an effort to say something to somebody about this peculiar inheritance of violation and survival and magic.” These poems, she tells us, “are all an interruption of narrative silence around sexual trauma and the mark it makes on black femme subjectivity.” An example of this is Imhotep’s assertion that any relationship between slave masters and enslaved women, regardless of whether it was “romantic” or simply “brutal,” is rape. Telling these stories “is a decision to look power squarely in the face…to offer to my own body a tender space of understanding.”

In this context, it becomes clear that an understanding of the effects of Gossypium herbeceum and other secret knowledge dismissed as gossip and “idle women’s talk” confers a degree of power, albeit one that stays firmly under the radar. Imhotep explains: “Gossip and Gossypiin are connected at the root…Gossypiin is what we are. It is a Black feminist hypertext.”

In the character of Lil Cotton Flower, Imhotep creates “a funky Black feminist fantasy…a sticky trickster…a playful presence with no investment in being respectable nor human.” Tasked with truth-telling, Lil Cotton Flower is not afraid to “dance out of my skin / in front of strangers. Fall down // and find my self / crying” (“Lil Cotton Flower births themself out of the forced togetherness of a quiet wound.”) Non-binary, nimble, and brash, Lil Cotton Flower is gossypiin’s jester, appearing throughout the book to test boundaries and admonish when needed: “How much you think blk wimmin worth / when they lay down and get stuck here?” (“Lil Cotton Flower’s First Will and Testament.”)

The book begins with a definition of Gossypium herbeceum and its use: “the root bark of cotton was widely used by Negro slaves in America to induce abortion.” In poems such as “amenorrhea,” “anovulatory or fugitivity at the meeting place of my thighs,” and “Second Trimester,” Imhotep examines the impacts of fertility on women’s bodies, literally and figuratively. “The moon rises full and new / and draws no blood // i scroll myself into / a ledger of panic,” from “anovulatory,” describes the seesaw of emotions that characterize an irregular menstrual cycle:

bad womb
is wound
is handed to me by mother
is the miracle I birthed myself out of
is my body’s refusal

“My daddy says I’ve misremembered” enumerates a list of female ancestors going back to slavery: “Ann Valentine is somewhere else. Her master lay _____struck under a shared patch of ground way up the road…There was a Mother somewhere in Georgia who lost one child to slavery.” The legacy of trauma these women share assails the speaker: “I find myself between the fragments. My mind refuse to hold it like it’s regular. Seem like I need to mash it up to get the sense out.”

In “Notes toward the integration of a traumatic event or the scene of my subjection,” Imhotep shares an incident of sexual assault where the speaker internalizes her own shame: “I even thanked him / for making me // the impossible— / a woman.” An accusatory, resigned, and unsympathetic chorus rises: “Silly girl-born child, / the only thing belonged to // is tradition.” At the end of the poem, the speaker, exhausted, defends herself against the voices: “Fix my lips / round words like harm and survivor // but still keep breathing / deep deeper.”

“Notes” appears in the section “Flower.” As a verb, “flower” means “develop” and “mature.” Unfortunately, the experience of puberty, for many if not most girls, includes becoming the targets of male sexual aggression. Too soon, they learn the truth of this lopsided, often perilous situation; as Imhotep puts it in the poem, “Body a would-be ledger / of control and discipline.”

“Flower” ends with “mammy-made potion,” a poem that mourns pregnancy loss and infertility, no matter the reasons:

violet spreads herself crimson
between the legs of a young promise

no babies

Menopause is yet another chapter in a woman’s life: “the Change ain’t no more / choice.” A “would-be baby,” “mother’s body cramped / in the damp narrow of a well,” and the possibility of bleeding form an uneasy triad from which no woman is immune.

Potential suicide looms in “all the blk things cry sometimes,” but not as a final goal: “see, I ain’t never really wanted       to die       just disappear / for a little while.” Freedom from the never-ending pain of reality temps the speaker: “how might I break       open the mourning / in my chest,” but even as she dances around the possibility of departing this life, she hangs on to the emotional threads that ground her: “let me feel       for once       free // will you miss me?”

The death of a loved one informs “This ain’t quite memorial:” “A girl is gone and I see myself / in the shine on her lips.” Despite the poem’s weary tone, the speaker is not resigned to this loss. “I feel the absence / of her smile in the way / my bed refuses to let go // each mourning.” Yet she realizes that emotional strength is needed, even if it’s a pose; in “rememory,” the speaker reflects,

If I cried every time
I stood where some
body colored like
mine lost life
don’t think I’d be soft

no more.

As the losses mount, the speaker keeps her pain in check, even as the world intrudes, “Stumbling into / the spots / blood spilled into my / internet.”

gossypiin looks squarely at the impacts of racism and sexual trauma on African-American women. Hiding from the truth of these terrible things only deepens their effect, Ra Malika Imhotep reminds us. By connecting the wisdom of her ancestors, the trickster character Lil Cotton Flower, and the life cycle of cotton plant, Imhotep offers a way to both awareness and healing.

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