You Better Strut: Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie Walks In Her Truth in Her Latest Collection
Welcome to Spoken Black Girl's Poetry Section! My name is Sherese Francis. As the editor, I thank you for joining me on this new journey!
Since the theme for the next couple of months is Transformation, I thought it would be fitting to open this section with my review of one of my mentors, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie's recently released book of poetry, Strut. Reading Strut was a balm to my spirit as it helped me during a difficult time this past summer when I had to do some self-care and reflection to find my balance and joy again. Strut is about learning to flow with all the changes life brings and to rejoice in all the ways you have survived and transformed as a person. Please enjoy the review below and keep an eye out for part 2, my interview with Tallie.
A strut is a walk of strength, grace, and self-affirmation. A walk of holding oneself up with confidence and balance, even as the world is constantly trying to push you back down and tell you that you shouldn’t. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s latest soul-stirring collection of poetry, Strut, is just that — a praise song for black women to walk in their power, beauty and fullness, to walk in all of their glory.
Opening with James Baldwin’s quote, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it,” Tallie sets the tone for the book as she leads with the first poem, Madness. Leading with this poem almost comes across as an unexpected turn, but that is what Tallie is conveying in this collection — to accept the fullness of life, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, and to still hold your head high and walk the walk. In the poem, Tallie begins,
runs in my family.
Dish hurling, knife wielding,
hard drinking, blind loving…
my foundation cracked
with the whip’s first snap,
but then she turns it around when she commits to the fight for her healing:
I’m just trying to get my name back.
It’s why my hips move the way the do,
why I’m second-line New Orleans boisterous,
why I listen to the dark,
and ends with an affirmative declaration of “I write my own damn prescriptions.” For Tallie, we see writing is a form of medicine, much in the way dancing and music are and have been for her and other black people. She struts across the page and claims her healing.
Even in the face of death and destruction, Tallie’s Strut is about speaking truth to power, like in the poems, "Global Warming Blues and New York Talk." It’s “Big Men’s livin” that causes the water to rise, and causes black people to struggle to survive in the projects, on land they built and land that was stolen. And this truth-telling continues in “Who Decides?” and “Garment Working Women,” poems about the terrifying violence of the world, and the economic exploitation of garment workers who make our clothes. Speaking back to the powers that be is a form of strutting in the midst of utter despair.
One of my favorite poems, “Learning to Swim,”details how her mother’s natural movements, the rhythms in her body responding to the rhythms of African-diasporic music like rumba, tango and jazz, were suppressed by church dogma. The last verse,
When I met her
she was still drowning
but somehow she took me
to the water
She taught me to swim,
is powerful in that, although those rhythms were suppressed, she still had them in her and was able to pass on that power to her daughter; that something innate in you can never be fully taken away is a moving statement. And this tribute to the healing power of water, rhythm and music is a thread that flows throughout the book, in poems like "Blue Libation," "Unhyphenated Souls," "Mami Wata," "The Bembe" and "Rain." In “We Still Don’t Know,” and “3 Snapshots,“ Tallie pays tribute to Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye and their ability to move others even as they “slow dance[d]” with death (from "3 Snapshots"). And like the other poem tributes to Amiri Baraka and Gil-Scott Heron, we see the power of the voice and sound to move people as a force that goes beyond the life of the person.
But Tallie includes the joy and beauty of life in her poems as well. It’s easy for us and others to focus on the trouble we have and not also see the joy we have too — the joy in loving our bodies, the joy in loving another person or persons, the joy of dancing to music, the joy of writing, the joy of remembering. And Tallie orients us to that healing power of joy and beauty not only through words, but also the placement of the poems on the page. Three poems, “My Love for Him Ends the Occupation,” “Gap-Toothed Woman,” and “Possible,” are oriented sideways, forcing us to move the book to read them, again emphasizing the power of movement throughout the book. Each poem speaks to the power in black people living full lives —
Black people know how to do more than die
our kisses steeped long & patient
we conjured each other up unsettling that we love like this
Tallie writes in “My Love for Him Ends the Occupation.” “Gap-Toothed Woman” talks about the gap in her smile as a reminder of the presence of her ancestors in her body. “Possible,” a tribute to Baraka and black men, is reminiscent of the Audre Lorde line from “Litany of Survival,” “we were never meant to survive,” telling black men they can find joy and love in the fact that they are still here moving in a world that tells them they are “impossible.”
Tallie finds empowerment in the ability to adapt to and love the changes of the body, life and even love. “Homage to My Breasts,” which was inspired by Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips" (one of my favorite poems) and “Why You’ve Loved Me Ever Since You Started Speaking in English,” about how her husband knew he loved her because he started thinking and speaking in English, both highlight those themes. Because those changes allow you to experience and have insight into something else, as she writes in the latter poem, “My English/gives you what your/language does not.”
The title poem, "Strut," which you can read below, encompasses the meaning of the book: learning to strut again after life changes who you are and finding that balance to stand and walk with confidence in who you are now even as the world tosses you around.
After birthing twins
my friend whittled
herself back to hourglass.
She describes the black sand,
her turquoise bikini, pride,
seeing herself strut again.
I will never wear one again
I say. The show.
The pot, the loose skin,
the lightning bolts, the rain
streaks across my belly.
I wear the turbulent body
of a stranger. Sharp,
soft until the hill
of broken muscle
beyond my life.
I thank my bones,
my broken muscles.
I thank the woman I was,
and the woman I am.
Slowly I learn
to strut again.
The Bembe (This is an earlier version of the poem in the book)
Sherese Francis is a southeast Queens-based poet, workshop facilitator, blogger and literary curator. She has published work in journals and anthologies including The Pierian Literary Review, Bone Bouquet, African Voices, Newtown Literary, Blackberry Magazine, Kalyani Magazine, and Near Kin: A Collection of Words and Arts Inspired by Octavia Butler. Additionally, she has published two chapbooks, Lucy’s Bone Scrolls and Variations on Sett/ling Seed/ling. Her current projects include her Afrofuturism-inspired blog, Futuristically Ancient; and her southeast Queens based pop up bookshop/mobile library project, J. Expressions. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @afutureancient.