A Flair for Language: Julie Marie Wade on Omotara James’s Song of My Softening

My poetry students have just submitted their final portfolios for the semester, each of which includes a series of revised poems and a review of a contemporary poetry collection of their choice. And because I would never ask my students to do any work that I am not committed to doing alongside them, I too am revising poems for a new manuscript and writing a review of a book of my choice—this one, Song of My Softening, Omotara James’s full-length debut with Alice James Books.

Since I don’t assign specific collections for my students review, one question often arises: How should I go about finding a collection that speaks to me? We talk in class about how reviews are meant to be more than summaries of a book’s contents, presented in an objective, impartial-sounding way; they’re meant to be a reflection of the reader’s interaction with a particular book, their journey into and through the poet-speaker’s world.

So, where and how might that journey begin?

For me, as is often the case, I was reading the daily poem delivered to my inbox from the Academy of American Poets on August 10, 2022 and discovered a poet whose words beckoned me to follow her beyond the screen. The poem is titled “A Flair for Language”, and it portrays the poet-speaker’s grandmother through words that were used to describe her (She wasn’t easy, she could cut you from the far side/ of a room) and through words the grandmother used to describe the speaker (lovely little darkie). James, with her tender diction, sneaks up on her readers, then boom! In a second, we’re heart-struck, at once wounded alongside the speaker and enamored by the ways she conveys her truth. Of the grandmother’s words directed toward her, the speaker muses, “Her smile hanging/ off the long vowel, like a cat’s tail upturned/ to the moon.” How often is language heard as well as seen? How often is sound made visible in song? (Not often at all.) It was James’s flair for language, her synesthetic sensibilities, that sent me searching for more of her poems.

Once my students have chosen their collection for review, I encourage them to consider the book as a self-contained entity, even as an art object. Reading a collection is different from reading individual poems by the same poet. So many careful choices have been made regarding presentation, style, and sequence. I ask my students: How do the title and cover establish expectations, even before you turn the first page? How enigmatic and/or explicit are the descriptors and blurbs that accompany them?

In the case of Song of My Softening, I was instantly soothed by the sibilant title, the promise of lyric poems with a distinctive speaker (singer) and the promise of a process chronicled through those poems (softening as a kind of becoming). The cover background is green, which evokes spring, growth, change that inspires hope. In the foreground, a young, full-bodied Black woman holds her hands out to the side, her face hidden from view. This gesture seems to suggest refusal, open palms pushing back against some larger, unseen force. I remember reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in high school and wonder if this title is a conscious allusion to his—those big-tent poems of bold lyricism and wide, emotional sweep. I assume that reading this book’s journey, its promised arc toward softening, will bring me face-to-face with the speaker at last—a gradual revelation of the “myself” at the heart of her song. (It does!) The description on the back cover states, “Song of My Softening is a queer, fat, love song of the interior.” (It is!) The back-cover blurb serves as a meta-epigraph. I begin to read under its influence, like slipping a pair of glasses over my eyes. These lenses help me know what to look for, but I am also free to remove them at any time.

When reading poetry collections for class as well as reviewing them, my students and I spend a fair amount of time pouring over the Table of Contents. I tell them the inclusion of a TOC is more than a literary convention. It is meant to serve as a map, leading readers to the locations of particular poems, of course, but also tracing a route the poet has prepared for us to travel: where we begin and end this journey, the patterns that guide us like road signs, and the anomalies that promise detours from a predictable path. What can we learn about a collection simply from studying the Table of Contents? I ask my students.

Once, a student suggested, Maybe it’s not even a map. Maybe it’s more of a blueprint. You have to walk through the whole house, aka read the whole collection, to know what it really feels like inside. But a blueprint helps you picture that space, the transitions between rooms, the room within the rooms, all of it, before you even enter the physical building of the book. As is often the case, my students’ metaphors come to surpass my own.

James’s Table of Contents reveals that 61 poetic rooms comprise this capacious, multi-storied house. The first poem is titled “Prologue to a Name,” the last “Self-Portrait as a Queer Block Party.” I love imagining the series of personal and aesthetic voltas that will lead us from prologue to self-portrait. Think about the worlds those titles contain. Naming is traditionally an act of bestowing, parents or elders giving (also: assigning, attaching, affixing) a name to an infant who will grow into that name—or not. We rarely choose our names, at least our first names. They come from elsewhere, from others. They initiate us to a family, a culture, a community, perhaps even to a religious tradition where we may—or may not—find ourselves at home.

In James’s first poem of this collection, she begins, “THE BODY is an unmarked grave before it is given a name.” How will anyone find us until/unless we are marked? Yet this metaphor reveals the name as more than marker in life but also marker in death—names as our bodies’ epitaphs. She goes on to describe a Nigerian naming ceremony, which takes place on the seventh day of a newborn’s life. The poem ends, mid-page, “Now, the child is ready:” with a colon instead of a final punctuation mark. There is another half-page of white space to follow, invoking a long pause, inviting the reader to fill in that space with their own ruminations. When we turn the page, we will find no longer a newborn, though still the hovering presence of death, with a second poem titled “Half Girl, Then Elegy.”

Even without leaving James’s Table of Contents, readers can see the way a progression through time, a poetic bildungsroman, or coming of age, is invoked and marked through the titles of individual poems. When I encourage students to consider the final poem of a collection, I am not concerned about “spoiler alerts” or “ruining the ending.” Poetry collections are inherently recursive and meant to be read many times. We back-track, we re-route, we keep turning around. I often read the first and last poems together, as bookends to the project, and then read the poems that come between these origin and destination points. So, let’s consider a moment the implications of ending a collection with a self-portrait. Unlike a portrait, which may be painted by anyone of anything, a self-portrait promises a self representing the self on their own terms, an act of self-knowledge, or even self-making, rendered in an artistic way. To create a self-portrait might be seen as a ritual akin to naming, but in this case, to naming—even claiming—ourselves as we are.

In James’s final poem of this long, layered, exquisite sequence, she uses second person instead of third person to draw the reader closer to what they are meant to see. In the naming ceremony, a still-anonymous child is being marked, is being made ready for her life by others. In the self-portrait, speaker and reader alike are simultaneously implicated in the naming and claiming of that life: “Your fat spills soft across the moonlit crown of grass./ Your soulmates are a gaggle of fish, shoaling thick,/ until you are schooled enough in this love.” Here, the titular “softening” is implied to have happened. The speaker’s body is “soft” now, and the speaker has claimed that body as her own. There are “soulmates,” plural, who may not be members of the original family, those who participated in the first naming ceremony. This is a block party after all, which implies a community gathering with neighbors and friends. “You take the first hand, then hip, with you through the dance,/ glide, until you find the body you abandoned//measurements ago// You travel it with your partner.” Is it possible the cover image, the cover gesture of this book, wasn’t only one of refusal (no, to size constraints already set for the body; no, to social constraints already set for whom the body could love) but also a depiction of dance? Surely, the speaker is dancing now, and we are inhabiting the speaker’s body through the invitation of the pronoun you. We arrive at mid-page again—“An inch of belly/ leaps beyond your shirt, like a flying fish in silver light”—and though the words end here, the dance continues. We are still listening to the music from this block party as “speakers blast the humid sky like firecrackers.” The reverberations continue into the white space that leads us out of the book and back to our own lives. My foot was still tapping when I closed the final cover like a door.

What else does this Table of Contents tell us?

We find the pattern of reckoning with embodiment emerges as this collection’s leitmotif, with titles like “Body Image,” “Allahu Akbar: / for my body/ under the rule/ of white supremacy,” “Bodies Like Oceans,” “And I with my small flesh,” “After the Last Calorie of the Apocalypse,” “Prayer for the Clinically Obese,” and “Poem to the Body.” The speaker considers bodies, her own and the bodies of others, in relation to expected/mandated color, in relation to expected/mandated size, and these bodies, too, in relation to desire. “Exhibition of the Queered Woman” is a title that leaps forth from the list just as the poem itself leaps from the page in tight, fast-turning lines and stanzas interpuncted with triangles, the delta symbol marking “change” or “the change” in math.

Along with slashes and ampersands, the delta symbol is another way that James innovates within the visual field of her poems. She is adept at making space sing (I would never call hers “empty space”) and at making the marks that are not words sing also, as though they were lyrics. This is a poet who uses every resource at her disposal to create resonance, those lasting reverberations that exceed each individual poem and the collection as a whole. She enjambs and doesn’t enjamb. She writes long lines that reach and linger, short lines that spiral at breakneck pace. She uses intricate sentence structures as well as litanies of fragments. Every verb tense, every point of view, every punctuation mark is represented here, and between the lineated and prose-block free-verse poems, readers also find James turning to traditional forms with “Sonnet of the Bull” (the conventional 14 lines reimagined as seven couplets instead of three quatrains and a couplet) and “Triolet,” a challenging and lesser-known form comprised of a single octet with strict recursions and rhyme scheme.

Just as I encourage my students to look for anomalies within collections, starting with the Table of Contents, I also urge them to look for “heart poems”—those poems that carry unique and particular resonance for them as the idiosyncratic readers they are. A “heart poem” embodies (an especially significant word in light of James’s subject matter) the reader’s understanding of what’s at stake for the writer, their special crossroads of connection with that writer’s themes and style. For me, “Triolet” is both an anomalous poem within Song of My Softening—the only use of this form in the book, the only title that marks its form with no reference to its content—and also an undeniable “heart poem.” I’ll place it here for you to read along with me:

/Love/ is more thicker/ than forget/
/No one asks/ yet/ always arrives/ here/
/you leave me/ to walk through walls/ but bet
/love is/ more thicker than/ Forget
/this fur/ these ears/ wag/ my nose so wet/
/with want/ waiting/ bent knife through pear/
/Love is/ more thicker/ than/ forget/
/No one asks/ yet always/ arrives here/

I ask my students, and I ask myself, as we regard any poem closely, but especially a “heart poem”: What do we hear here? I hear the repetition of two lines, the first three times (“love is more thicker than forget”) and the second twice (“no one asks yet always arrives here”). In an eight-line poem, these formally-specific repetitions already comprise more than half the poetic lines, so the weight they bear is proportionally exceptional within the body of the poem. Given the extended meditations throughout this book on weight, on bodies—the speaker’s weight and physical embodiment—it does not escape me that the weighty form of the triolet was chosen to echo and magnify an essential aspect of the collection’s content.

Embedding slashes within the triolet is unconventional, and it allows James a particular kind of non-linguistic agency therein. She can change how identical lines are read by where she breaks them within an unbroken line. Notice how the first iteration of “Love” is cordoned off by slashes on either side. We can only focus on the single word, which asserts itself as the force of primary importance in this poem and perhaps also in this collection. What does love mean...in the absence of acceptance, in the absence of understanding? Is the speaker the only one asking this question? “No one” else seems to ask, yet the “here” where we arrive in the poem—and the book—seems to be a site of love: who can and will love the speaker as she truly is? Naming is not the same as loving. Naming is not even the same as belonging. What is?

This poem comes twenty-third in the sequence, placed between “Said Sorrow to Joy” and “Exhibition of the Queered Woman.” Within the larger arc of the bildungsroman, it serves as a bridge between the speaker’s childhood and adulthood. Sorrow and Joy are givens of every human life. Queer womanhood is a given of this human’s life. But love is what sustains us, and love is what will ultimately sustain our speaker. Love is “more thicker” (a trace of the child’s voice perhaps) than “forget,” a rhetorical parallel to the familiar adage, “Blood is thicker than water.” The speaker implicitly carries the weightiness of that message with her into adulthood. Are the ties to family of origin “more thicker” than ties to new loves, to self-love? Must they be? And in order to love the past and those who shaped it, must the speaker “forget” the traumas that transpired? Perhaps forgetting is the only way to carry that love forward, which, because of the word “thicker,” I picture as a dense fog rolling in, shrouding the past in necessary cover.

I revel in the way this speaker invokes her own animal nature in “Triolet,” describing her “nose so wet /with want/ waiting.” No one can miss the quadruple alliteration there—how indisputably emphatic the line becomes as a result. And of course, the astute reader of this book will know or soon discover an upcoming poem called “Want.” Even in its brief, dense form, this poem stretches out to touch others in the book, to foreshadow their arrival or remind us of their enduring presence.

The fourth poem in the collection is called “Wall.” It has tight, short lines arranged in a dialogic structure, some stanzas on the left side of the page, others on the right. There, the speaker describes her kitten pawing at doors, walls, those structures “she can’t claw through.” The poem’s epiphany: “in every house/ a room/ for the unknown.” Here, in “Triolet,” the speaker stands in that unknown, a future room of her life. She describes a feat only possible for ghosts: “you leave me/ to walk through walls.” That “w” alliteration again, a pattern within this poem and a sound we associate with exertion. “W” is not a soft and easy letter to express like “S.” And the slashes in the poem mirror this wall, these constructed boundaries of our world, the abutments we bump up against in reading and in living. By creating walls within the poem that mirror those in the world, James asks us to dwell with our reckoning a little longer, to join her speaker as she waits.

Song of My Softening is ultimately a journey toward love and an inspection of the burdens we bear in order to arrive there, in that unknown room we can only name for ourselves. This prosodic and nuanced formation-story-in-poems leaves me both speared and softened, like the “bent knife through pear.” Which is to say: James’s poems are as sharp as the knife, as soft as the pear. I leave this book like the speaker, in paradox: punctured, wounded, but ultimately more whole.

Julie Marie Wade is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, her collections of poetry and prose include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, and Skirted. Her collaborative titles include The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, written with Denise Duhamel, and Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, written with Brenda Miller. Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats. Her newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History, out now from New Michigan Press, and Otherwise: Essays, selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Book Prize.