Ashanti Anderson’s three poems presented here—”Self-Portrait as Overseer,” “Self Portrait in Blackface, and “Resignation” are from her forthcoming manuscript Black Under from Black Lawrence Press in 2021. These are pieces that document atrocities while singing. The poems are powerful as single entities, but they accrue additional potency when presented together, with each piece carrying the viscerality of a punch. The title Black Under serves as the rhetorical spine of these poems and is echoed in the opening of “Self-Portrait in Blackface” that declaratively announces its complex duplex of “I am black and black underneath.” Patterns of doubling and duality helix their way through the work; for example, the doubling that arises from homophonic punning like “two-weak” and “resignation,” as well as the dual relationship between “over” and “under.” With reverberations of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” Anderson’s “Self-Portrait in Blackface” also navigates issues of marginalization and invisibility, noting that “I look nice / but these folk who pay me pay / no mind.” A few lines later, the poem echoes “pay/pay” with another twinning, “to paint my face the color /of my face.” The resonant repetition of “face” as well as the slippage between the face and the mask—what is under and what is over—portrays a complicated constellation of identity—how can you tell the mask from the mask wearer, hinting at the speaker’s refusal to be othered except on their own terms.
Another significant motif that loops through each piece is the mouth and its related parts: “I also lost teeth, myself a little snaggletoothed falsetto-swearer”; “his mouth, silent and open for aeons / before throat unbuttons its sound”; “I left the smile in another poem”; “busted my mouth on the sidewalk”; and, “teeth /crowded and white as my audience.” The loaded focus on the mouth becomes a display of resistance in Anderson’s work. By highlighting the structure that allows for auditory speech, she insists on unsilencing those who have been muzzled and marginalized. We see this most clearly in “Resignation” where she reframes the meaning of “resignation” from that of passive “acquiescence” to that of agency: not to be resigned, but to resign. In the poem’s final image, the speaker asserts that though she may be bloodied, she is “done writing about the black girl emptied,” done being bled by others; instead, we get the vivid redivivus of “a red wet grin” and a final cry of reclamation.
Winner of the Spring 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition, Ashanti Anderson’s debut poetry chapbook, Black Under, is forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press in Fall 2021! Do check it out!