Gnashing Teeth Publishing

| words that get in your teeth

BOOK REVIEW: gossypiin by Ra Malika Imhotep

Roots, ancestors, bending limbs and time. Ra Malika Imhotep’s gossypiin is a harvest of the experiences and discussions of black women. The meaning of the title, like many of her lines, is two-fold: the bark of the cotton tree and a vernacular term for gossip. Imhotep delves into both paths as her poems wind up the stalks of history.

The collection, published by Red Hen, travels the life cycle of the cotton tree from seed to reaping all the while connecting the process to the breadth of women’s lives. The lived experiences here range from pregnancy to death, fable to family memory. The poet writes, “the only thing belonged to / is tradition” and there are a multitude of traditions folded into the text, many of which are haunting. History is where the roots lie, which then travel to flowers and strange fruits singing for Nina Simone. Each turn brings the narratives of these pieces back to family and community in body and spirit.

The speaker of these poems seeks an understanding of her body and her place in the world with the breath of the past coloring her present. She writes of the south as a spirit that takes over the self during her return that is slowly shirked upon leaving for home in the north. As Imhotep reflects, “ain’t no spell / enough to conjure a me / into a now.”

The most resonating piece for me is “Grandma Sarah mourns her only son” in which thoughts are scattered across the page of what should have been. This poem sits with me still, especially that Roy Jr. was meant to become “a man I could love / the right way.”

Ra Malika Imhotep wields an array of fine-tuned tools which draw the reader into the experience of the poems. She shifts fluidly from academic to vernacular language well voiced for each subject, making us feel like a member of her circle. Her line breaks and turns of phrase are striking. In one moment, she identifies herself as “prayed into, / prayed over” and later notes “I prey to all / real things.”

For all the darkness the poet brings into these pieces, there remains the reassurance of continuation. Memory is carried alongside the present, a constant thread that pulls and pulls.

Get your copy of gossypiin at Red Hen.

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