look in the eyes of the dead — and see a still reflection of what the dead saw last — their death (get it) how seeing yourself in the dead makes you a witness — at your own wake – (get the wake) how death is to black how i am to black how i am to death (see) the irony — in how dark i am — how with only a whimper — a white man’s immaculacy yields my breath into dust
from “The Muse for this Black Dyke is a Dead White Man”
Many fans of performance poetry will recognize Porsha Olayiwola, an Individual World Poetry Slam champion, for her command of the stage. With her first full-length collection, I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, Olayiwola firmly establishes herself as an absolute force in every medium. If one were to conceive of a single collection that could effectively serve as a textbook for Introduction to Poetry, this would be it. These poems recognize literary tradition, master form, push boundaries; they hold vigil with what was and anticipate what will be, both in literature and in humanity. Thematically, Olayiwola covers everything from mental health to homophobia to racism, bridging the various elements of her experience into a wholly intersectional narrative.
Olayiwola opens the collection with “Had My Parents Not Been Separated After My Father’s Traffic Stop, Arrest, and Deportation from the United States of America,” immediately situating the poems that follow somewhere between reality and possibility. Family is ever-present in the book, and some of the most vulnerable moments are those between the speaker and her brother. “after my brother reads a poem through the phone | i know that we are both in limbo | teetering too close to lines | i don’t tell him i shimmer sometimes too,” the speaker confesses in “My Brother Ghost Writes This Poem,” inviting the reader into a part of herself to which even her closest family are not privy. The shared suffering between the speaker and her brother is clear, but the speaker is further weighted by her decision to remain silent about her own mental health.
Several poems in the collection consider the lasting impact of silencing parts of oneself, including “Memory / Loss,” where the speaker grapples with her self-isolation. “i can’t recall if they are the ones who did the leaving or if i was the one who forgot to show,” the speaker admits. The simplicity of language is a stark contrast to the poem’s form, which makes expert use of white space to further illustrate the disjointed, incomplete memories described within the poem. This proves to be one of Olayiwola’s strengths, creating a complex, layered reading experience that goes well beyond the words themselves. I was struck not just by how many ways the author used formatting to her advantage, but also by how natural and unobtrusive these choices were. The structure of each poem feels inevitable.
For me, the most enjoyable parts of I Shimmer Sometimes, Too are the poems in which Olayiwola looks into the past, tracking backwards to investigate the origins of stereotypes and sentiments that pervade today. “Water” begins with an inscription that notes that “seventy percent of black people do not know how to swim,” framing the historical moments involving black people and water that follow in an effort to understand the root of black people’s fear of water. “Un-Named” digs into the origin of surnames in the black community, while “Brunch with Twelve Black Phantoms” frames a would-be dramatic scene in which various black icons, including Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, come together in Malcolm X’ house in the afterlife. These poems consider ancestry and historical impact, contextualizing the poems set in today’s society and inviting dialogue about long-standing systems of oppression like racism and sexism.
I Shimmer Sometimes, Too is truly a collection with something for every reader, from technical expertise to narrative excellence to experimental forms, with topics that span the full, lived experience of a black queer woman in America. These poems make clear that Olayiwola, current poet laureate of Boston, is just beginning what is sure to be a long and much-lauded tenure in American poetics.
Purchase your copy of I Shimmer Sometimes, Too from Button Poetry.