when everyone I knew was watching
I turned a child’s tears into a worthwhile adult.
– From “Started from the Bottom Now I’m Sula”
Urbanshee is a richly layered debut that trades on the Irish bean sí, a mythological creature defined by the way she voices grief, to mourn a father and trace the lineage of grief that haunts urban Black girls. Siaara Freeman shrieks and wails, but she also knows when to pull back, when to whisper and when to let the blank space reverberate like the ghost of a storm. She centers the collection on the murder of her father, which marks a distinct shift in her understanding of herself, her city and the inescapable correlation between Blackness and death. Through explorations of form, infusions of pop culture and a keen understanding of how to advance narrative, Freeman quickly establishes herself as one of the foremost poets of her generation.
The first chapter of the collection works like an exposition, introducing readers to the core conflict that will echo throughout each section. In “X Things They Never Tell You About the Drug Dealer’s Daughter,” Freeman admits, “By the time she learns to love someone more than/herself, he’s already dead.” These lines open the poem, which works to reconcile her love for her father and the realization that he is dealing crack cocaine. The second entry in the litany presents the reader with a young girl who is markedly naive, telling her friends, “My daddy can cook, y’all…The cakes they sell so fast I never see them–just the customers at the door lookin’ some kind of hungry…”
The naivete of the young Black girl is juxtaposed with poems that demonstrate maturity and thoughtfulness, playing on various forms and engaging with the way pop culture works to create the “urbanshee.” The four-part series, “Urban Girl in Four Non-Oscar-Nominated Parts” offers everything from free verse to the complex play on the pantoum in “Part 2: Taking One Thing to Explain Another // Cleo,” where Freeman interrogates how Cleo fits into a larger narrative of queer Black women that sacrifice themselves. She concludes the poem with the understanding that “Everything is/a sacrifice on loop.”
Freeman begins the second chapter of the collection “Unfortunate,” a brilliant turn on the adage, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Within the poem, readers can infer that the tree is the father and the apple is the daughter, with Freeman wondering about the underlying dangers of an apple lying too close to a tree that is already dead. The poem builds toward a powerful conclusion:
She is rotting from the inside
Out. Did anyone know this
was going to happen?
Why wait so fucking long
to say something?
This illustrates the shift from naive young girl to the angry, festering teenager unable to move beyond the death of her father. Her grief becomes all consuming, but Freeman imbues the speaker with enough strength and frustration to suggest that she will not allow herself to rot any longer.
One of my favorite things about the collection is the way Freeman continually leans on pop culture references and common phrases, using the familiar to complicate and analyze the ways in which representations of Black girls simultaneously echo and create a pervasive mythos embodied by her term, “urbanshee.” The poem “A Lineage of Language” is a fascinating inversion of Genesis that looks at how popular phrases in Black English hold individual experiences and beget new phrases, such as how “tha blacker tha berry/ tha sweeter da juice begat beauty is only skin deep//but ugly is to the bone.”
Importantly, Urbanshee is not a collection that situates trauma and mourning as static or character-defining, nor does it linger so heavily in the father-daughter relationship that readers lose sight of the speaker as a whole, layered person in her right. She looks backwards and forwards, working to find her place among generations of Black women and anticipate how her role as mother will fit into the larger mythos of urbanshees.
“It Is Hard To Tell Someone On Fire That You Are Drowning,” one of the most gentle and vulnerable poems in the collection, comes in the final chapter and captures the heaviness of a mother and daughter each navigating struggle in their own ways. The speaker finally understands, “Sacrifice is/not the shattering of glass, it is blood on your hands for getting/someone out alive.” In this instance, both mother and daughter end up with blood on their hands as they work to hold each other, both neglecting their own pain for the sake of the other.
Urbanshee is a collection that never reads like a debut, demonstrating Freeman’s dedication to craft and her willingness to be patient, with the poems and with herself. This is a book that never forces healing, but moves ever toward it all the same.