We practice a kind of rebellion in strange lands.
Her hands marry, birth, and bury,
slicked in pedigree—
spinning psalms, spells, and peoples,
From “Burning Box Braids on East & 94th, Tulsa, Oklahoma”
Saltwater Demands a Psalm, by Kweku Abimbola, is a powerful and stirring debut from one of the most unique voices in American poetry. Winner of the Academy of American Poets First Book Award, Abimbola’s collection traverses continents and decades, offering readers a remarkably nuanced exploration of what it means to live in diaspora as an African immigrant. The author is adept at infusing poems with cultural beliefs, offering readers ample context to understand unfamiliar traditions without compromising the structure or content of individual poems. This is a technically skilled, deeply thoughtful collection that will resonate especially well for fans of Claudia Rankine and Danez Smith.
The most pervasive cultural tradition present in Saltwater Demands a Psalm is the act of naming and what is carried inside a name. Abimbola introduces the tradition in one of the first poems, “A History of My Day,” where the speaker explains, “I am without a name the day/I am born.” As the poem progresses, the speaker explains that his mother “speaks [his] soul name first//Kweku!/Kweku!” He then attaches his soul name to the day of the week on which he is born, Wednesday. This ritual of naming that connects to days of the week sets up a series of poems in which Abimbola addresses Black individuals killed by police in America.
These poems invoke Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice, among others; each poem follows a familiar structure, opening with a brief stanza that defines a single word in the context of water. “Kwasiada,” dedicated to Trayvon Benjamin Akwasi Martin, begins:
Universe: everything under
the sun, but not over.
Icy red-water, horizon-water
Esi / Akwasi.
The final line bridges the image with the naming tradition, thus connecting Martin to all others who were born on Sunday and killed by police. What follows is a traditional poem which celebrates Martin and imagines him as “Black boy pilot,/keeping black boy skies.” Following each of these invocations, Abimbola constructs a typographical representation of the Bono Adinkra symbol Sankofa, where the text is made up of Black individuals born on the same day of the week and ultimately murdered by police. The effect is overwhelming, as Abimbola creates a visual representation of state violence against Black individuals while also alluding to activist calls to name murdered individuals lest their respective lives get reduced to statistics.
Abimbola also peppers the collection with poems that highlight tender, personal moments. “Four-in-Hand” captures the experience of a ten-year-old boy learning to tie a necktie with his father. The speaker recalls, “Standing behind me,/you drape it around my neck,” before voicing that “this is the closest/we ever stood.//The last and longest we ever stood/with your hands over mine—” Another poem, “Burning Box Braids on East & 94th, Tulsa, Oklahoma,” depicts an intimate scene in which “Auntie recites Yazzie’s favorite/Kweku Anansi story yet again,” while she braids Yazzie’s hair, “revealing the tale’s climax/just as she tightens the final braid.” Interspersing the collection with scenes at once familiar and deeply personal, Abimbola carefully balances the collection, centering Black communal experiences rather than the traumas predicated on these communities by the state.
Saltwater Demands a Psalm is a collection that far exceeds what readers might expect from a debut, quickly situating Abimbola as a preeminent and philosophical voice in American poetry.