Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest

Karen Biscopink

It is Monday night in Glen Park and the neighborhood calms as its residents assume posts in bars and warmly lit restaurants along Diamond Street. I have found my way to Bird and Beckett Books, where I know poet Arisa White, author of the recently published Hurrah's Nest, will be reading.

The group of people that has already assembled greets me warmly, and I assume (correctly) that I am surrounded by a number of fellow poets. I recognize and appreciate their affinity for this place, a small storefront piled high with myriad books. Each overflowing shelf leads to another, and despite the smallness of the venue I find myself momentarily overwhelmed by its contents. A makeshift stage bears a beautiful upright piano, and I learn that Bird and Beckett, in addition to monthly readings, hosts celebrated jazz events. I make a mental note to return here often.

As the reading begins, few chairs remain empty; the turn-out is impressive for a Monday night, the atmosphere low-key and yet thrumming with artistic support. Q.R. Hand takes the stage, and though I am unfamiliar with his work, the gravity with which he selects pieces from his portfolio assures me that something impressive is about to unfold. Q.R. performs his fast-paced, sonically explosive poetry and the audience collectively leans forward, interjects with yes or wow and even this is it, this is it!

He concludes and is ushered from the stage with friendly slaps on the back and congratulations. The host assures us there is "plenty more where that came from," and encourages us to seek out more of the poet's work.

And now we are introduced to Arisa White, who smilingly admits that it is her first time to Bird and Beckett. A comment is made about her impressive number of publications and awards, particularly for such a young poet. Modestly, White acknowledges that yes, she has been fortunate in this regard. I cannot help but feel a pang or two of good-natured envy.

Like Hand, White takes the stage quietly, her copy of Hurrah's Nest in hand. The book’s title, she explains, is antiquated slang for a state of disarray, a nautical term for "chaos." This immediately lends certain ideas about her project, which takes the poet's large family (White is one of seven children) as its focus.

As a lover of formal poetry, I am glad when she begins with a piece entitled, "To you, named the messenger of god," which borrows prosody from the sestina. The names of White's six siblings churn and cycle within the framework of six-line stanzas; seven stanzas, in total, hearken to the poet as part of this family unit. Clever? Absolutely. It takes a careful writer to navigate a sestina's scaffolding in this fashion, without the choice smacking of gimmick. "To you..." is an immensely successful poem, both utilizing and breaking formal constraints to fuel the collection’s musicality.

Musicality is what energizes the entirety of White's reading. Hearing the work in the poet's voice was a delight, but the symphonic flux of the words is evident even on the page. My mind, my ear go again and again to a stanza that opens "The small places I go," which recalls a traumatic incident in which the poet was struck by a vehicle:

        I hide from the light

        beneath the cover of lids,

        and where I go is tinted

        with the color in which

        we mark our errors.

        This sadness makes me

        stamp size. (48)

It is this constant, shifting assonance that makes White's work so melodically memorable for me. While the content is often of tragedy, the tone is of song, of celebration. A lineage of trouble becomes lauded for where it has led; the journey is inviting in such a warm light.

I notice as she reads that White frequently employs a unique syntax, in which agency is often assigned to unexpected objects. This is strongly present, for example, in "P.S. 21's assembly for the blackface documentary," in which White's phrases include "My favorite t-shirt spoils beneath my chin," and "He fumbles the dark, the lamp to shatter" (23). In one of her most powerful pieces, "Tenderized," these shifts are vivid:

        The herd of myself wrangled to a waterhole, stationed on hooves

        with god-given stripes to come close to the embarrassing curtsey of words.

        I offer myself like one of the carved tchotchkes on the mantel.

        For the ways I imagined myself vicious,

        they're as inanimate as carnival prizes. I barter

        my sentinels, concede myself as my mother does to his aggression. (51)

The rawness of these syntactical shifts grinds, in all the right places, against the natural music of White's voice. So suited is this choice to a subject matter that includes, among other things, hunger, abuse, neglect. There is a prosodic arsenal within the pages of Hurrah's Nest and it has clearly been constructed with care.

When Arisa White has finished reading, a brief moment of silence is punctuated with applause and generous vocalizations of appreciation. Her first visit to Bird and Beckett has been a great success, and I feel certain her first book will enjoy a similar response. I leave, bolstered by the energy only such a reading can manifest.

Hurrah's Nest
By Arisa White
Virtual Artist's Collective, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9440480-1-6



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