Self-Portrait as Atola
The first estrangement, although well meaning. I’m sure all tumors are well meaning before rupture. Before diagnosis, you open your mouth & the light of my good name splinters out a false libretto. It isn’t your fault. I believe you believe you meant me no harm. But now look at me, my legs are where my arms should be. My neck is gone and my head is fused to my shoulders.
This is what an “Atola” looks like.
The dance your tongue knows is slim & self-serving. Perhaps it is all you know. Perhaps you have never tasted anything richer than my name. Not even a lover’s mouth. Or roasted chicken complimented with red wine. Save your apologies for someone who needs them. I know, my love. I know.
Self Portrait as Tiola
when the first wave of pills dissolve into the blood, it is nighttime & still
in your head when slivers of light pull themselves from the vain tooth of darkness
to splinter & rupture into a dense catastrophe of stars above you to devastate
your small frame as if to say
you are here
against your little knowing & will never be here like this again
when the night takes your voice just so it into deliberate moans
you think holding your moon-shaped heart in your hands
you couldn’t know the shape of loneliness as anything wider than this
as anyone who could break into your name
& leave you a gutted city to erase you
so what does it matter all bones break a little when you lift your head into prayer
& think how the night ate your little knowing how anyone
who can’t be bothered to sing the gold of your name
must be so small on the inside
Self-Portrait as Idola
not a suicide note, but
if i killed myself, i would finally get a full night’s rest &
this trying body opens
given a clean life
every time i am a new person in another mouth
i met someone four times & (was forgotten every time)
unspun from flesh back into gold
unspun from gold back into the light
my grandmothers’ mouths carved me from
if i killed myself then my name is
the silhouette my father left behind &
how I was accidentally beautiful
mourning is a selfish act of worship
anoint this body into fracture
for the dead have only the earth to love
into the shape of becoming
i want it to happen under a no-nothing night
i want to be completely alone
no stars to mourn me
i’m not selfish enough to borrow from dead light
i have my own
Self-Portrait as Etola
I want to be American-pretty.
Tall. Long undulating hair.
to make skinny jeans
look like long-tailored prayers.
Carry myself as if everything
around me was dirty.
To say things like “
I’m too expensive for you,
Emily is a common name:
I want to be an Emily.
Mary. Christina. Tiffany.
Elegant movie girls.
Everyone’s love interest
who’s full time job
is pouting & looking disinterested
I want to be movie-beautiful
when I cry.
For the American-pretty
boy to reach over &
tell me “You’re too beautiful to cry”.
Blk the skin, but white the sensibilities,
I want to be so American pretty
you get my name right.
I want to wear red lipstick.
I want all the boys tell me
I could wear red
& nothing else the rest of my life.
“You don’t know anger until you’ve seen an ocean wash up a body / spilled blood & all”
‘Tempest’, Crystal Valentine
Self Portrait as Ishola
after Lucille Clifton
I have been accused of tending to my rage
as if I made it myself.
As if the first seed of dark joy
wasn’t dropped into me.
As if my hands just became angels
flying backwards in deliverance.
Grandma bent light around my good name
put razor blades under my tongue
at night to keep me safe.
This rage rummaged the blood
Where is that name from?
looking for translation.
To undo your carelessness,
you ask to be lead through
The question slithers out of the mouth
in fine ribbons of smoke.
I pull it apart
until taut & frightened.
Oh, that’s such a pretty name
do you have a nickname of something?
It’s lovely but it’s just so hard
to pronounce or remember, you know…?
I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot.
Don’t take it so personally.
A few good words with I.S.
PDS: In this suite of poems, I was so struck by the powerful juxtaposition of emotional responses to your mis-naming/un-naming. As a woman whose name is also butchered on the regular, I identified the rage, longing, and pain, connected with your name and your not-names. How do you imagine names as builders of self? How does what we’re called by shape who we are?
ISJ: Thank you so much for the succinct wording of “mis-naming / un-naming”. ‘Un-naming’ strikes a chord as there definitely is a divorcing of the body and of the interior self by being named against ones’ will. For years, I went with my middle name ‘Stephanie’ because there was some distance I want from the outside world and the interior self. I didn’t want that name, a name I was still learning to wear, in the mouths of others. I was also still coming into who I wanted to be, what of me I wished to give the world.
To be a ‘Stephanie’, for me, is to be digestible and facile, which isn’t to say there is something wrong with that. It just wasn’t the truth: I am a Black, queer woman who is a child of Nigerian immigrants living in a country that has a history of making a spectacle out of my peoples’ death and suffering. There is nothing about me that is digestible. I tell this story all the time because it still startles yet excites me: my grandmothers (on my mother & father’s side) chose the same name for me and never met. And so, of course, I don’t believe in coincidences. My name means ‘the child who fell into wealth’ and what were called shapes who we are because we’re named for the rich, fulfilling life we wish to have.
Coming into ‘Itiola’ finally, I realized how frightened I was in living my truth. Even now, while the cycle is still being written, often I do get exhausted with people butchering my name & so I give them ‘Stephanie’. I lose every I give in that inaccurate version of me. ‘Stephanie’ is a me from an old life, and people who knew me as ‘Stephanie’ may still call me that which is fine; I feel I need to be clear on that. The names we are given shapes the way in which the world interacts with us. My mother often wanted me to use ‘Stephanie’ so it would be easier for me to get a job, but why position myself in spaces where I have to lie to be accepted…?
Thus the cycle of the poems is called ‘The Disjointed Cycle” because they are fragments of my name or false iteration of them and by proxy false iterations of the self. I began the series began after I finished Aracelis Girmay’s gorgeous book of poems “The Black Maria”. With the lines the poem “The Black Maria” from the last cycle of the book, I knew exactly what I wanted the cycle to convey: “Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement. (To put / into language that which can’t be / put.) & someone who does not love you cannot name you right”.
PDS: I was particularly effected by the line “as anyone who could break into your name / & leave you a gutted city to erase you,” from “Self Portrait as Tiola”—can you speak more to the idea of the self as a city? The ability for a name to be robbed and looted?
ISJ: The concept of the body being a city is something I am negotiating in my first full-length collection. When I talk about my mother’s body, I imagine her as this large holy city. The first country I ever called ‘home’. When I think of these ‘mis-namings’ or these ‘estrangements’, I imagine each name as a disjointed body that now lives inside me. The exchanges or conjugation delivers each of these false name into the body.
However well-meaning the attempt, is it an act of robbing and looting, as you so accurately worded, to mis-pronounce someone’s name. I am guilty of this as well when I attempt to pronounce names which exist beyond my linguistic register. Also, asking someone for a ‘nickname’ instead of even attempting to pronounce someone’s name is also an act of erasure and theft. Because of my generous teacher Dr. Venugopal during my undergraduate years, I took pride in my name in a way I never knew I could before. She was the first teacher I ever had who actively familiarized herself with my name and showed me how proud I should be of it.
PDS: What love poem would you read to your name, if you could? What words would you need her to hear if you could look her in the face?
ISJ: This question is so important! I was struggling with how I would conclude the cycle, so thank you for such clear insight. I often have conversations with myself at 3 am about these poems and what they are doing in the large scheme, perhaps, of my work. I walk around with these poems and these ‘un-names’ trying to understand what they are and what they are now that they live in me. I talk with close friends about how I work too hard and I never do enough for myself, so perhaps I would start there. While I imagine this poem as the poem which closes off the cycle, I want to put Aracelis once more into the space, “I do not know what happens to a body when it stops. / But tell me a story that did not begin with love”. For me, it only makes sense that the cycle closes with love.
I would say to my name: “It is okay, Itiola. You have always been the love story you needed to hear. Stop looking out the window of yourself hoping someone will pick you. Choose you. I know there is a darling joy in being chosen, that to be understood with such a country of a name means you are not difficult, but honestly, have you ever been built for an easy love? It is okay, Itiola. You are and are not your mother’s last chance at getting this life right. You were born the Prodigal Daughter. You know this before I use language to make it tangible: You cannot live for others, not even your mother who split the ocean in her body and split the ocean a country away to make you bring you here. How many times has this world opened its jaw to swallow her whole? How many times were you almost not possible? Not even your father, who was deported & burned & almost died in your arms. It is okay, Itiola. From birth, you carried every story that preceded you into this world and now you are writing your own. It is okay, Itiola. You grandmothers named you what you are because you made to shepherd in the light”.
I.S. Jones is a writer, educator, and hip-hop head hailing from Southern California. She is a second-year fellow with The Watering Hole, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, and Callaloo. I.S. is very Blk & loud about her joy. She received an honorable mention from the Academy of American Poets, her work has received two nominations for the Best of The Net Anthology and in 2016 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
As a historian and an architect with the written word, each of her poems are lyrical meditations on race, love, familial dynamics, poetics of witness, and the uses of rage while often employing mythos and engaging socio-political commentary. She has been praised by Rachel McKibbens as a “god-lit marvel”.
She is the Assistant Editor at Chaparral, a literary magazine based in Southern California. Her works have appeared in The Harpoon Review, Fat City Review, Qua Magazine,The Blueshift Journal, SunDog Lit, Matador Review, Wusgood.black, forthcoming in great weather for MEDIA, the Black Voices Series with Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Hofstra University. I.S. is running for Poet Laureate of the Moon.
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