Here we are again, and now the flowers have bloomed. Trees are shaking their flashy green leaves and the weather is stumbling towards warmth. The world has thawed and possibilities seem palpable. And yet, as this month’s poem reminds us from its opening line: not much has changed. We still carry the grief, the loss, the uncertainty of each breath, and so we return again to the page, and this time to a poem in Khalisa Rae’s debut collection, Ghost in a Black Gir’s Throat.
“Home-Going Celebration” is a sly poem that bubbles with contradictions. An elegy rooted in mourning, the language pops with the dizzy rush of one sip too many. As I continue to search for a viable way to present annotations, we’ll have to make do with a line by line study, and this poem in particular benefits from this approach, because in “Home-Going Celebration,” Rae has woven together parallel storylines of grief and time that nearly snap with tension, but—like a well-mixed drink—go down so smoothly it would be easy to lose track of how much you’ve consumed.
Not much has changed. We are still gin-
soaked and head-stoned, teetering
on ledges to test our mortality
like pills weren’t enough to prove it.
mortality, prove it.
gin-teetering, mortality: prove it.
carry currency, drowning back
nights end. young, quick.
champagne effervescent, offspring swift cemetery.
don’t chase scratched heartbreak.
here, know: fast, young.
It isn’t just the last word, either—though they set the tone for the entire piece. If Majuscalation is meant to provide poems with a spine, what would we call the curated line stops Rae gives us in this piece? Perhaps they’re perfectly polished nails, held at lines-length, for reflection. Fingernails or coffin nails? Either is equally likely in this piece which pulls removes a veil—not from grief—but from pretense.
No need for gold. Our pockets carry
lust and adrenaline like currency,
so many of us addicted to drowning
the screaming pain. We knock back
In this quatrain let’s pay attention to the musicality of the words. Above I’ve done some color-coding to highlight how Rea leverages assonance and alliteration. This quatrain especially illustrated how adept the author is at balancing sound and maintaining rhythm. The one-one-two format found in we / knock / back is particularly effective as it mirrors the image being portrayed, an overly fluid motion with a hard stop, like setting down a coup a little too hard.
enough to never need another flight. Our nights
are never over. We never want the hangover to end.
We say: You always live once, but being young
and black with an expiration date sobers you quick.
The effect is intensified in this verse. Note how there are no hard sounds in this quatrain until we get to the word expiration. After that turn, we hit a series of hard sounds: DaTe, soBers QuiCK. Prior to the sobering thought: mortality, the words just slide off the tongue, which is brilliant because it mirrors exactly the function of alcohol in grief: blurring the hard sounds (the g in hangover and young, the b in black), making difficult things slip by in a numb blur—what’s behind those softs sounds? Read the lines again. Why wouldn’t one want a hangover to end—because what’s on the other side is worse. It is not the nights that never end, it is “our nights,” the speaker and the speaker’s people. And who is the speaker? If the reader has any doubt, the answer comes in the last line of the verse: young, Black, and with an expiration date.
Here’s where I tell you to go buy a copy of Ghost in a Black Girls’ Throat or request it at your local library because this poem is a great example of what Rea accomplishes in this collection. In this poem, we have an honest discussion of grief and the ways in which we cope. Specifically, we have a portrait of how Black women cope with the way grief reaches back in time and stretches forward, how it sits next to us when working and how it taps us on the shoulder when we’re heading home from the club.
What Rae unveils in “Home-Going” isn’t grief, it’s the ways in which we cope with grief. In preparation for this column, I did a lot of reading about alcoholism, PTSD, Black grief—and all of that information is available in the Bibliography, which I will link to at the end of this article. I encourage you to engage with those materials, but in this space, I’d like to spend more time on the choices Rae makes in this poem and how they speak to the concepts explored.
Our future is a sad summer. Sin and champagne
flutes to make the blood bubbly and effervescent,
inhaling so much liquor even our offspring
are tipsy, turning our veins into a swift cemetery
Notice the tensions built into this verse. Future implies an intangible end, but here Rae pairs it with summer—a season. In a poem about death and written as an elegy, there’s an inherent contradiction in choosing summer, rather than autumn as a rhetorical shorthand for mortality. In the second line flutes (having been severed by an ingenious linebreak from the word champagne) brings to mind sound, but the line ends on effervescence—a tactile sensation. “In”haling and “off”spring bookend the third line and the final line ends with swift cemetery. These concepts aren’t exactly oppositional, they’re more like contradiction equivalents of near-rhymes. But it works: as we read this work the mounting contradictions are building tension.
We gamble with our obituaries like we don’t
have a thousand other ways to die. Chase
a good time like a needle on scratched
vinyl, so we never have to feel the heartbreak
Consider the image presented here: a needle on scratched vinyl. Consider the physical action of a needle on scratched vinyl, the looping, the physical jump, the static frustration of we’ve heard this before, it’s a broken record. To chase good time in this manner would mean understanding that the endeavor is, from the outset, doomed to leave you where you started. A record skips, and what that means, in reality, is that it cannot move forward, it is stuck. The name skips is a cruel joke because there’s no forward momentum. How brilliant an analogy to explain the siren call of a never-ending good time, here again, Rae unveils the image for us in a way that invites honest reflection instead of judgment, because we know what really happens when the music stops—and we don’t want to feel the heartbreak.
of morning. There is no mourning here,
just darkness and pool of people we don’t know,
a song prophesying that we will die fast,
Death is present in every stanza of “Home-Going,” but it isn’t until the last two that we actually see the word die: we have a thousand ways to die, fast and young. It’s in the music, it’s in the drinking, it’s in the living. Living, as we do now, is coping. And drinking, partying, chasing a good time, is sometimes the coping that comes easiest, for better or worse.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, please click here for resources.
This collection is rooted in place. Can you share a bit about your personal map of the south?
My personal experience in the South as an adult has been confined to the North Carolina region, however, my ancestors and immediate grandparents on both sides were originally from Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. As an adult, I have spent the last 16.5 years in North Carolina. My poems are rooted in the Carolinas, the Coast, and my husband and I spent summers in Savannah and Charleston, as I am drawn to places near water. As I speak to the South, I use water/ coastal Southern towns in my poetic images because they were often the birthplace of racial violence, but also during Reconstruction, were the places where Black people held most political power and financial autonomy due to the fish market and coastal shops. They also are an example of true contradiction. Beauty and pain. Water and Wailing.
In this collection, grief is explored from multiple angles, as in pain. In this poem, you speak to a side of grief and pain that is often swept under the rug; why was it important for you to include this piece, to write this poem?
To follow up on my last comment, the South is a walking contradiction. It is passive-aggressive and often a trickster. It doesn’t say what it means outright. The trees are beautiful, yet the place of hangings and murder. Southern more often than not wrap insults in compliments, beautiful buildings are built on graveyards, and secrets are buried and never talked about. So in “Home-Going Celebration,” I speak about coping mechanisms, and all the ways Black folks cope with pain, grief, and mortality, but also the ways we are made to smile through death and pain. It’s important because I think Black pain and grief are often exploited, misunderstood, and silenced.
In this piece, you chose quatrains to develop vignettes that unveil subtext. What made this form appealing for the narrative? How did it serve your speaker’s voice?
Quatrains traditionally are often used for “In Memorium” or Elegy poems- and since this piece deals with coping with death, mortality, and survival techniques this form seemed most fitting and is used for a metaphor/symbol. Ironically this poem was inspired by a song, and movie with musical influences, and quatrains are also often are used for rhyming, songs, or ballads. The syllables go from 4 to 6 in the piece and mirror the jazz form, which is connected to 20’s jazz inspiration for the piece.
As you were drafting, were there any lines or ideas you loved that did not make it into the final version of the poem? What happened to those lines/ideas?
The original version was dedicated and addressed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer of Great Gatsby, and was meant as a plea and letter to him, but also a warning to hip hop. The essence of the original lines is still there. They were morphed and altered slightly. My favorite line is “our pockets carry lust and adrenaline like currency”. That line spoke to me because it fully expressed the fact that Black people often get through this life is to self-medicate, so we find our joy in the bottom of bottles, and that line really drove home that idea/image.
Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Save Hip-hop then Hollywood
Dear Mr. Fitzgerald,
Not much has changed. We are still drunk
with greed. We are still obsessed with things
that make us feel invincible like drugs and ledges.
No need for gold in our pockets when our purses
carry lust and adrenaline like it was currency, moving our bodies
to sounds that hypnotize our senses and drown out the screaming pain.
Our future is a sad summer, romantic and floral with sin,
filling our bellies with diamonds, turning our bodies into champagne
flutes- our blood bubbly and effervescent. Our body has sucked down
so much poison both our lips and liver are corroding.
We chase a good time like a needle on scratched vinyl,
mixing cocktails of vodka, molly, and oxycodone so we never have
to feel the heartbreak of morning. There is no morning here,
just darkness and pools of people we don’t know.
What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited it?
The original version of the poem was inspired by watching/reading the Great Gatsby and studying the history of the movie. I learned that the book was written during the 20’s, the Jazz Era, and the Great Depression – the idea behind luxury and luxe during a time of depletion and loss. I was also listening to Kanye’s “Live Fast and Die Young” and Drake’s ” The Motto”. “Still getting brain from a thang, ain’t shit changed,” which inspired the first line.
“You only live once, that’s the motto, YOLO”. When I edited, I was thinking about the lyrics of the Kanye and Drake songs and juxtaposing them with the songs in the movie Great Gatsby, and thinking about the killing of Black people. How we live life so fast as if we know time is short. Every line was distilled down to emphasize just those points and imagery.
Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (ie.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me who is in the conversation?
“Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes
“Jumping Off” by Frank Morrison
“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie and Qtip, Mami Smith
“Crazy Blues”, and the songs of Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey did a great job of expressing the plight of Black people, their sorrows, their pain, grief, and how we often turn to destructive ways they cope. These pieces show the joy and jubilation of Black people in a time of suffering.
If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?
“We Real Cool” – Gwendolyn Brooks
“Weary Blues”– Langston Hughes
“For My People” by Margaret Walker
“Heartbeats” by Melvin Dixon
Bonus: Auntie –“Some years there exists a wanting to escape…” – Claudia Rankine