Review by Rogan Kelly
Poet Daring: Arisa White’s Who’s Your Daddy
Arisa White’s hybrid masterpiece, Who’s Your Daddy, opens with a prologue poem “This is a grandfather feeling:[.]” Most of the poem titles in the book begin in the body of the work, as the first line of the opening stanza, in bold. Even in the few cases where the title stands on top of lyric, it still acts as walk-in between title and body, often without space between.
These are titles that do heavy lifting, always acting as on-ramp to the narrative. Consequently, there is no breath or beat or break. But the style choices do act as signifier. This is not essay work or traditional memoir. There is narrative here but you are in the river of poem. The first stanza in the prologue is shaped like a prose poem. The second part uses repetition and white space and three stanzas each with a single line of verse. The final part is a life-force five-line lyric in staccato sprint even as it speaks to marathon and running to death:
at the durational speed
of this grief-water
a rhythm that suits
The Running Man
There is also the exploration of memory, a witness to acute absence. White shines in spaces of doubt and unknowing; her lyric at ease in having to fill in the blanks. Her imagination written out is electric.
In “My mother is Nineteen,” White pivots to a kind of list poem inside the prose poem form. Here the poet imagines her father driving with her mother. Rooted concrete, she gives the reader a deep sense of place, as the speaker tries to draw a kind of roadmap:
All the places she goes. In his Cadillac down Fulton Street, down
Norstrand Ave, without question up and down Atlantic and Pacific,
DeKalb, on Eastern Parkway, through Gates and Myrle, Bushwick
and Halsey, sunsets on Jay.
It is the “without question” that acts as both turn and hammer here as the speaker feels for what’s true, sure. Another turn late in the poem is the introduction of the speaker: “I am her second child.” The speaker continues: “An easy birth” And this close connects and heightens the earlier list telling:
And what she negotiated with Gerald, a married man, about his
role in my care—definitely included a one-way street.
White paints Brooklyn with such detail. Her mother is fully drawn in these poems. And even as she seeks to learn what has been missing so she can grasp what she’s lost, there’s a sense she knows herself. Or is sure in the places where she remains defiant, undamaged, even as she is ever-seeking.
White’s work is equal parts risk and craft-precision, and the journey of discovery is that the speaker was always looking for her father, always carrying him or his absence. White retells all of this with humor and heartbreak, as in the poem “I believe in God, I talk to myself.” Here, the young 5th grade speaker in the poem sings from her 4th floor Brooklyn apartment:
I’m wishing on a star
to follow where you are
I’m wishing; on a dream
to follow what it means…
And my neighbors holler back, “Shut the fuck up!”
They weren’t ready for this songbird.
White’s poems are romantic, reaching for a nostalgia, or origin, she fully understands has been denied from her. The work is never sentimental, but heart-full and bared. In “I’m not invited” White tries to learn about her father by connecting with his family but they’re concerned she’ll write about them.
They keep the black-boy magic from me. It’s an unexplored
complement that is active and I do not know its properties.
Throws me off-kilter, like one leg is shorter than the other
and caught in a whirlpool. I have a gangster swagger. My
stressed foot, dipping dipping dipping and turning
She is told by her mother she resembles him in both being and allure.
“You have Gerald’s hands.
Your feet are his, too.”
I pull my hands and feet closer to where we belong.
“And that way you draw people to
you,” she says, “that’s his charm.”
Then through the gaze and condemnation of a lover, she views the absence of him in a new light–perhaps haunted that she might be too much like her father, but also struggling to know him. Who hasn’t come from broken that doesn’t fear that they, too, are broken at love? Who hasn’t lost love that doesn’t doubt they will ever keep or find again? In White’s hands, she makes the familiar pulse with new urgency, just as she takes universal issues of love and abandonment and drives them to the deepest edges of personal. White lays these issues both bare and in startling elegance on the page. What is ignited is a process of finding her father, of possible connection or rejection, a greater understanding of him which carries the weight of what is possible, but what is also potentially damning of him, of her. What’s at stake in the book never feels small or incidental. Because it isn’t, but also because White commands the page and conveys the risk acutely.
Carl Phillips writes in The Art of Daring: “I believe reality can become distorted past recognition, and it’s in these moments that only something like daring, a willingness to risk going forward when we hardly know where we are, can provide us the chance both for self knowledge and for making art. Restlessness caries us to penetration—we pierce the world as we knew it, the world as we’ve never known it pierces us, in turn, daring pushes us…”
Daring has always been present in White’s poems. I believe it’s the strongest of her innumerable gifts as a poet. And Who’s Your Daddy stands as her finest work to date. Toward the close of the second part of the book, White has two poems next to each other, one titled “Dear Gerald,” and the other I can’t tell you without giving away the first. But I return to Carl Phillips’ words about risk. White brings together what she knows with what she can only imagine–what she hopes for—and fears she’s can’t have or get back. She risks herself entirely in poems deeply personal and life-giving to the reader.
Do you remember I bear the name you conjured, its attention
turned to your shorelines, to the father missing in us both? I was
born on the cusp of fish and fire, five months after Jonestown in
a country of Kings. I now live with my girlfriend in California, and
the state is experiencing a drought. The more I notice, each season
brings an extreme. Why weren’t you summer?
Listen to Arisa read “Smoke is caught between bars of light.”
Rogan Kelly is the founding editor of The Night Heron Barks.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College. She is the co-editor of the anthology Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart and co-author of the middle-grade biography Biddy Mason Speaks Up, winner of the 2020 Maine Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. Published by Augury Books, Who’s Your Daddy is Arisa’s recently released poetic memoir, which Patricia Smith says “unreels like heart-wrenching fragments of film.” She serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press. Instagram: arisaawhite and Twitter: arisaw
Who’s Your Daddy at augurybooks.com