Contemporary Poetry Review: “play dead” by francine j. harris

NATALIE PATTERSON

“play dead”
francine j. harris
Published April 2016

francine j. harris, 2015 NEA fellow and PEN Open Book Award-winner, writes a poetry that is as difficult to describe as it is profound, subversive and challenging. “play dead” has been showered with accolades, including a 2017 Lambda Literary Award and is praised both by literary reviews and poets themselves. Contemporaries of harris see something in her work that is insightful in the least and revolutionary at most. harris, a queer woman of color, writes of sex, violence and suicide, but also of childhood, home, hope and the mother–breaking and transcending the boundaries of language to create an art that cannot be summarized, glossed over or passed by.  Her poetic voice lays everything bare; when she writes fear, she does so with utter fearlessness.

In a notable and interesting departure from traditional structure, harris includes a poem, “pink pigs,” that continues in fragmented sections throughout the collection, inserting its dual voices and border of “girl,” repeated with no spaces, into the body of the book. Each section is like an interlude that offers no peace, each a mystery to be contemplated as the reader shivers: “ – I can smell you turning the corner before I even see. / – Because everyone wants you for something, and I think that’s nice.”

This book is spine-chilling, and snatches words from the reader’s mouth, from every human being’s mouth, until a kind of contemplative, eerie silence fills the gulf between page and eye.  Her poem “in the distance” shows just how harris writes the unnameable, the ineffable, the sublime: “the forest / and the tree / and the piles of timber / and the cords twirled to choke….” The poem is a winter wood, but something is moving in the trees, like the fever of a quiet nightmare.  

harris writes rape. She writes suicide notes in the form of poetry. She writes loneliness, unbelonging, the gentle decay of death. She manipulates language to make this destruction beautiful and terrifying. She writes the poetry that other poets are too afraid to write–she writes like she’ll chew up everything that’s ever scared her, eat them, spill their blood. She also writes, as in “sister, foster,” of female solidarity, in memory and life, from the perspective of a younger self addressing another girl: “If I were older I would tell you to dream / of cooking him. I would tell you that helps. I would tell / you to start with the eyes, scoop out the furtive sockets / together, and twist in rhythm / the lemon, rub / deep heat peppers under rib, but I am / small. My words are not spoons.”

Needless to say, harris’ poetry is violent and disturbing in the most delicate and graceful of ways.  Her written violence commands attention, indignance and compassion. It is also tender and quiet, a lament. “suicide note #10: wet condoms” stood out as the most complex, emotional poem in the book, about love and coupling and the possibility contained in the speaker’s unborn, dead fetus, illustrated by the presence or absence of the condom. She finishes, resonantly, with this: “and if I end this by saying I looked for it. everywhere. / then it is more about what I wouldn’t do to stay alive / less about wanting to remember someone was inside me.”

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