They say writing about the almost dead only gets harder.
My grandma sigh “pray for them baby.”
I think “my god! Is this the fight?
to be black and beautiful and breathing.”
From “Homer, Louisiana”
Mahogany L. Browne is one of the most prolific and recognizable writers in contemporary American poetry. As both an editor and author, Browne has published more than a dozen titles in both the poetry and young adult genres. Her authorial skills are matched closely by her ongoing dedication to furthering access to the arts for young people of color and improving disenfranchised communities. Twice nominated for an NAACP Image Award, Browne was awarded the SWACC! Focus Fellowship to honor her collaborative efforts in the community. Her most recent collection, Chrome Valley, is the latest in a remarkable career. Fans of Browne’s work and those new to her poems will be equally enamored with this intensely personal and technically sound collection.
Chrome Valley opens with “Homer, Louisiana,” a litany that establishes Browne’s attention to generational trauma and the history of resistance in Black communities. The first two lines of the entire collection confront the omnipresent threat of death for Black Americans as Browne admits, “When you are a black writer in America:/it gets harder to ignore the bodies.” As the poem progresses, the speaker juxtaposes allusions to activists like Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer with personal recollections of resistance. The poem rejects suppression directly and repeatedly, coming full circle as the speaker turns the lens inward to remind herself, “Your people come from Homer, Louisiana” before recalling “a tale of the night” when her grandfather stole away from a sharecropper with her great grandma and grandpa.
The final image in “Homer, Louisiana” is of the speaker’s grandfather, fist raised to his eyes “every morning like prayer” as he watches the sunrise. This sets the tone for the collection, which acknowledges a long history of grief and struggle while centering survival as its own act of defiance, ensuring that the poems read not as a collective mourning but as a celebration of life and resilience and simple joys. This resonates most strongly in “Kerosene Litany,” one of the last poems in the collection. The speaker declares, “today/i am a woman, a brown and black &/brew woman dreaming of a freedom” before admitting, “i’m too in awe of how ravishing i look/ablaze” to remember how to flee her burning country. This image simultaneously encapsulates the burning of defiant women under the auspice of witchcraft and the mythological phoenix, for whom burning is the penultimate moment before renewed life.
Browne includes a number of poems featuring Redbone, whom fans may recognize from the author’s previous work. Within the collection, readers encounter Redbone and her fraught relationship with a man named Bam. These poems, when read in order, offer a cohesive narrative that begins with attraction and culminates in the author identifying Redbone as her own mother. The effect of this revelation near the end of the book is remarkable, as the reader has encountered the author and her mother in some of their most traumatic moments without fully realizing the context of the individual experiences. I found myself compelled to return to all of the Redbone poems in order with the new understanding of who the daughter is and how the series works to further characterize the theme of generational resistance across the collection.
For many, it will come as no surprise that Chrome Valley is a success. Browne has repeatedly asserted herself as one of the most preeminent voices in America, and her work has always been unflinching and vulnerable. Perhaps the greatest and most remarkable thing about Browne and her new collection is that, despite her notoriety, she still manages to surprise, to render readers speechless.