The Poetry Project

Doing the Most with the Least by Momtaza Mehri (Goldsmith University Press, 2019)

Review by Zoé Samudzi

I always know what to expect of Momtaza Mehri. I don’t know what she’ll say, but I always expect to read her words and find myself holding my breath; I expect to have to force myself to exhale and inhale again because my autonomic system can’t keep pace with the part of my brain frantically trying to decipher the rhythms of her verse. I expect to find myself on a journey into myself and into the possibilities of what poetry can be.

There can be a formal clunkiness to the kind of poetry that self-consciously attempts to conform to genre. There’s a self-consciousness to Momtaza’s work, though of a different kind. Her writing is a relentless excavation of herself and everything around her — autopsychic is the word, I think, a labyrinthine stream that expands outward and beyond.

She rightfully spends a lot of her time thinking about the role of the poet: “Poets really think they’re doing the most with the least,” her newest and appropriately titled and eponymous chapbook begins. Her recitation of what the black poet is — an “isotope of both hope and despair” and “both reluctant and enthusiastic interlocutor of what is known as the black condition” — seems to be as much a social landscaping of black poetics as a statement of her own job description, as well as a preface to, in her own words, the interdisciplinary universe of black poetry and poets to whom she ultimately pledges her allegiance.

“Uber drivers, dishwashing divas, overworked single mothers, bored cashiers, crack fiends, snot-nosed toddlers with sticky fingers reaching for the games on your phone, sharp-tongued grandmamas, sore-footed granddaddies, detainee dreamers, fraud boy schemers, barbershop theorists, corner-shop vagrants, red-bottomed babes, white-thobed akhis, evil-eyed aunties, persistent mixtape peddlers, nurses who eulogise the dying twilight from the backs of night buses.” Such is the poetic tapestry of black existence, one that she generously shares with but does not seek to translate for her audiences. Opacity, a speaking in code legible to those who know and those who will care enough to investigate, is always a blessing.

In the way John Berger describes how Euro-modern cultural hegemony mystifies visual art, Momtaza refuses to perpetuate a canonical mystification of what is allowed to be poetry, in commodified form and function alike. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop was scaffolded by the CIA’s desire to produce the literary canon whose notion of craft and political sensibilities suited its intellectual-aesthetic needs. But the quoted section is a foreshadowing of the rest of her book, a verbalization of the formlessness of relationality: a poetics that, to quote Édouard Glissant, is “directly in contact with everything possible.” The world she weaves is not bounded by the constraints of a trajectory, which the lineage of poetry-poetics she invokes and is animated by no longer respects.

We [Afro-]diasporans joke often about the genre of poetry and prose born out of a longing for a motherland animated only by hungry verses. There’s a cowardice to this: nostalgic memory, a narrativized nostalgia for memories and experiences and beauty that never belonged to you, is easy. But situating oneself in the wake and afterlife of those traumas and beautiful/beautified struggles is far harder still. She deftly skips between reflections of familiarity and intergenerational memory and hardships, her own childhood and teenagedom, horror scenes like the 2016 attack at Lido Beach in Mogadishu, refugee departure and arrival, and the evocation of the kind of mundane sights and sounds and interactions that go unnoticed in the landscapes of our lives but are presented here are valuable-to-recall ephemera. The mastery of her writing, besides the tapestry that it weaves, is the marked absence of order: the entire book is a celebration of, an ode to ungovernability. “Civility is the most dishonorable of scams,” she accuses.

The book’s last lines are: “I believe in a place where we can be ugly & poor & needy & still wear crowns. Take me there.” There is something refreshing about how she does not feel compelled to lay bare a sordid autobiographical account of her own or secondhand accounts of suffering to provide legitimacy to her accounts (though those are not absent). The Kaaba and iqama make as much claim to space as her littering of pop cultural references, continental politics, and the sensations residing in her memory. It would be too easy to state the obvious: that Muslimahs, Somali women, contain multitudes. Of course they do, but this is not a book about exceptionalism. It’s a book about self-making, about the aspirations “to be as sure of freedom as Kuwasi Balagoon was:” for movement unregulated by borders, black life unburdened by the violent expectations of respectability (including/especially what it means to be a good refugee or good immigrant), for children to be children “while they’re still allowed to be,” for us to love and learn and really see the world for what it is on our own terms. All of it is a dream.

#261 — Summer 2020