Poetry is not therapy, but a lot us need it.
from “Tantrums or How to Be a Poet in Six Steps”
Ebony Stewart has already established herself as an elite performer, brilliant lyricist and award-winning playwright. Fans understandably expect big things from Stewart when she releases new work. Her newest collection, Bloodfresh, delivers on those expectations and then some. Stewart is at her best, masterfully blending her understanding of craft with her keen ear for orality to offer a collection readers will be talking about for years.
I entered Bloodfresh with a strong background in Stewart’s work, having read all her published work and the script for each of her one-woman plays. It’s safe to say that I understood her talent when I began reading. Or at least I believed that I did. The truth is, I was unprepared for the sheer number of times Bloodfresh had me sigh out loud, holler and grab my phone to share a piece with friends. This collection embodies all the things I expected from Stewart (mental health, empowering women, celebrating Blackness, generational trauma), but she has also tightened her presentation of sound so well that each poem sings. Stewart’s verses move through you as if alive.
The first poem of the collection, “Transparent,” primes readers for what will be an exploration of the self: “I always have a hard time writing about myself./It’s easier to tell some else’s story./And I’m still trying to convince my shadow/that it chose me for a reason.” As the poem continues, Stewart juxtaposes moments of sexualization and objectification by men with powerful affirmations about her body. The final stanza crescendos, with Stewart proclaiming “I speak in thunder and lightning,/bring brass knuckles and fist fights.” Throughout this first section, the poems continually assert Stewart’s womanhood, Blackness and heritage. They confront stereotypes and misogyny, refusing to cow to myriad attempts to stifle the parts of herself that patriarchal white supremacist society deems too sharp, too urgent, too honest.
As a playwright, Stewart has extensive experience working with dialogue and how to infuse written language with orality. Bloodfresh offers many keen examples of this, capturing the cadence of spoken conversation without sacrificing the more traditional elements of poetry. “Gawd of Gaps” moves the reader across the page as fluidly as Francis E. W. Harper or Langston Hughes, language taking center stage as Stewart takes aim at beauty standards and once again offers readers permission to celebrate the unique edges of their bodies.
Throughout the collection, Stewart addresses a number of sociopolitical issues dominating Twitter feeds, academic panels and protests. “Burnt Sugar” engages with colorism inside the Black community, while “808 & Heartbreak” centers the double-edged trauma of being Black and woman in America. Stewart takes accountability seriously, and her poems do not flinch at calling us to the carpet. She also isn’t afraid to call herself to the carpet. The end result is a collection that is as relevant and impactful as it is poetic and sonorous.
For educators like me, who view the classroom as a space of radical activism, Bloodfresh is a gift. Stewart offers poems that do more than make our Black students feel visible. It empowers them with the language of resistance and allows space in the classroom to earnestly engage issues of race, sexuality, body autonomy, linguistic justice and gender roles. This is a collection that immediately made its way onto my syllabus, and one that we should be teaching for years to come.
Ronnie K. Stephens is a proud father of six and college English instructor. He is the author of two poetry collections and one young adult novel. His second collection, They Rewrote Themselves Legendary, won Best in Show at the New England Book Show. Stephens is also a contributing writer for Interrogating Justice, a social justice think tank. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in diversifying the literary canon for the 21st century classroom.