Shannon Nakai on Stronger Than Fear, edited by Carol Alexander & Stephen Massimilla

Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice (2022)is not so much a poetry compilation as it is a much-needed staggering intake of fresh air after the world held its breath in isolation, sickness, and uncertainty during a global pandemic; after our nation emptied its lungs in violent dissent during a calamitious presidential administration and its chaotic aftermath. In the discord of civil war Walt Whitman looked to poetry as a collective anthem to unify the nation’s many voices. Now, in the latest anthology by Cave Moon Press Carol Alexander and Stephen Massimilla have gathered protests for and celebrations of survival amidst growing pains, domestic violence, death, warfare, disease, racism, slavery, migration, fearless love, education (or lack thereof), family, and resistance. Including the works of celebrated poets like Rita Dove, Ada Limón, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ross Gay, Kim Addonizio, Juan Felipe Herrera, Natasha Tretheway, Solmaz Sharif, and Jane Hirshfield–among many others–each poem offers a place of refuge or a necessary propellation out of the current holding cell of fear, anger, and powerlessness, as indicated by the opening epigraph by Malala Yousafzai, a living emblem of and testament to courage and survival. This solid curation of poets relocates lost agencies; restores stripped narratives; and engages with Neruda, Norman Rockwell, Cary Grant, August Wilson, Phillis Wheatley, Yellowstone geysers, immigration questionnaires, rape survivors, classrooms of color, music from the eighties, post-election disillusion, mothers who came to our defense. Together they offer us stories, both theirs and ultimately ours, of hope and endurance.

The first section, “Wound Care,” features an attendance, both intimate and peripheral, to the wounded. Desirée Alvarez’s guilty survivor in the opening poem, “Flor de Corazón,” yearns for a return to origin, to unblemished creation, or the most approximate possibility: another planet “where no one ever dies, and grief is a plant / as yet undiscovered or banished to the jungle” (3). Carol Alexander joins her in the natural world, seeing the unclaimed loss and “various dead” and suggesting,

Maybe this anger runs too deep: 
what will we do for each other in this century, this land,
a scant supper apart, flag at half-mast flapping ...”
(“Blue Calling”)

It’s a compassionate alternative to Kate Gale’s grim eschewing in the titular “Wound Care”: “Crossed to the other side of the street to avoid the wounded. / Gone to sleep to forget the wounded” (10) – witnessing or partaking in an enclosure and dismissal of the human theater of suffering. Gale’s speaker considers the signposts of wounds among friends, lovers, pacemaker operations that keep the wounded heart beating, and thus considers the bravery of attending to the beauty of blossoms and the coming morning. The poem here handles the rawness of pain with gentle but deliberate hope, a quiet assurance.

The longest section, “Not a Small Voice,” both tells powerful stories and also attests to the power itself of storytelling. Each poet renegotiates the identity of the self and society as we continue to understand who we are in the context of this country, this world, this progeny of (un)forgotten or (un)sung ancestors. Elizabeth Alexander searches through a scrupulous litany of “Afters” for an absolution in “Amistad”; Ellen Bass offers praise for her mother who reclaimed her daughter’s story and voice from a sexual assailant, pronouncing “the name she crowned me” (both an act of primal love in childbearing and a regal anointing of the beloved daughter). Hala Alyan searches in dreams and fortunes for lost stories with which to praise her ancestors in Aleppo, as well as for an unlit window through which to see a post-Trump-election America.

The search for one’s stories equates to a search for one’s home: a country, like a womb, “another home I can’t return to” (Jaswinder Bolina, “Homeland”); or “lands / where women are jailed or stoned / if they attempt to heed the lyrics / of their dreams” (Rosalind Brenner, “Women’s Music”). A student takes up a pen and writes to James Baldwin “The most courageous thing / a person can be is a black woman” (Tina Cane, “Rage and Ibuprofen”) while another “digs me up with this pen / and turns my sad black face to the light” (Toi Derricote, “On the Turning Up of Black Unidentified Female Corpses”). Dead children of school shootings, unclaimed bodies of color, murdered journalists in “unbeatable” fascist regimes, sweatshop laborers sewing labels for Target and Calvin Klein, forgotten slaves: their readers attend to these resurfacing histories. Natasha Tretheway’s speaker consumes books until she “nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field, / I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart” (“Letter Home”), the weight of implicative history paralleled in a similar image by Mervyn Taylor:

            ...the ridge
            of a spine that will answer the lash
            with its own grimace its own inimitable
            dance in returning to the tree
            where its buried navel string
            climbs like a vine you can see now
            if you go there, these many years after. 
(“That One”)

The collection’s third section, “i’d tell you,” offers a conditional exploration of the body as a site for illness, a confessional for laziness and imperfection, an opportunity for death and malice, and an invisibility that serves as a refuge for those who wish to pass undisturbed in and by life. In Toi Derricotte’s poems, beauty is a thing to be protected and silence is “a balm” (“I give in to an old desire”). However, other poets unapologetically celebrate and sing themselves. Tina Cane’s “Treatise on My Mouth” declares “I am chargé d’affaires / of my own mouth      of my real speech,” Jasminder Bolina’s speaker tells Hillary Clinton “I’d rather be / the 23rd turbaned astronaut than the first / setting out to be the 239th man on the moon” (“Waiting My Turn”); Lesley Wheeler outlines two lists of ambitions; and Jenny Mohlberg’s assaulted speaker fights for an audience in phone calls with the police, in domestic abuse centers, and in courtrooms. “My voice is animal in the courtroom microphone” she declares, because to resist means “she was fighting / not a man but an idea, not one thing but many,” (“May the Stars Guide You Safely Home”).

The remaining sections challenge the ideologies of othering. How are we separated, by sheltering in, by classroom roll calls, by poverty, by definitions of normalcy? The penultimate section “Lessons in Remembering” implicates where these divisions are first inculcated. Yehuda Amichai’s speaker in “The School Where I Studied” muses: “here I learned certain things/ and didn’t learn others.” Lauren Camp’s “Talking Twice” features a teacher, “the one unpigmented” in the classroom, whose tongue swallows and rakes the sounds of her students’ names, while Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance” responds with the student’s brave face as her well-meaning teacher whose “bloody sausage casing” tongue ruptures her name. The self-calming student considers the baby-pink sweetness of her classmates as they were once patted dry from bathtime, now holding pink erasers and pencil sharpeners with tiny blades, a departure from innocence to malice. Naomi Shihab Nye would rather protect such babies from future failures (“Separation Wall”) and Tony Reevy’s junior high daydreamer escapes the classroom altogether, a wandering eye set on the beauty of ebony trains and green swamps (“View from the Disputanta School”).

These poems gather past and present eras of fear in which the language of one’s homeland was (and is) censored, one’s cultural identity is compromised if it is not wholly one or the other, one’s allegiance to the country is demanded even if one’s claim to the country is constantly challenged. Each claim, each experience, each poem, varies widely while belonging together, making space for each other. In a sense, Stronger Than Fear is one communal poem, its shared heartbeat a chorus echoing the words of Kwame Dawes’ “Talk”:

learn to sing the songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.

Shannon Nakai is a poet, reviewer, and contributing editor for The Cortland Review. Her work also appears in The CIncinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee and former Fulbright Scholar, she works with and for migrants and refugees as a legal assistant for the International Rescue Committee.