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Sons of Achilles

Sons of Achilles
By Nabila Lovelace
YesYes books, 2018
Paperback: $18.00
Genre: Poetry
Review by Jace Rose Malmquist

Nabila Lovelace’s poems are smooth and sharp, harrowing and illuminating, switching and shifting slow like seasons, then hard as gears. She leaves blooms in the wake of her carnage, a warpath necessary to reclaim the body and the mind and the old ground itself, the one she grew up on. In her poem “On Knowing,” she considers the worst: “What else / is my greatest fear, but that I too / am capable of this carnage,” reckons with the hard thing: “What it means to be a fighter, / who did not fight / for her own body,” and enjoys one of the smallest things: “Maybe / one will handcraft my favorite Chai today.” Everything is here, the good and bad wound and bound up together, and there is a heady, up-down-sideways, spatial-temporal movement within her pieces where the reader sees this, then goes to that, and later returns to the first thing, and as we cycle through, we begin to piece these things together, to understand the story. From poem to poem, there are flickering movements of the eye and mind that give quick jabs to the gut followed by warm relief as we see what she’s doing: delivering retribution fully within her reflections; self-healing by destroying – now – what she could not stand up to back then.

Lovelace is a first-generation poet from Queens, and her work has a queenly bearing: she breathes in air and breathes out elegance. Her debut collection Sons of Achilles explores violence and intimacy and the shared space between them, showing that there isn’t a clean line or a clear divide among them. Things are blurred, messy. She shows us wounds that can and cannot be seen: how she is “singed to the bone” with her left foot scarred “in new heels” (“Ugly”), and as she walks you through images of herself in old rooms, she makes you think of your own places, the ones you liked to be in and the ones that hurt so bad to revisit that you go out of your way to avoid them. In many of her poems, she gives interesting attention to hands; the comfort of a drink held between them, for instance, or of “hands in lovers hands walking” (“For the Days That Are Today”). She describes a grandfather’s hand as “sand returning to sand” (“Hourglass”) and displays the nourishment and violation of hands. Traveling along with her, we come to grips with how we have or haven’t made peace with our own pasts yet – how we have, or haven’t, gotten to this same point of reckoning with the things that tried to break us.

Her poems are driven by narrative, but they’re lyrical too, and when read aloud, there are pauses that come where you expected and others that hit sooner or later, that change the rhythm completely, surprising and delighting you. Lovelace’s voice is musical, and her metaphors are layered, speaking of a last name as “the first / of many branches on burned / bark” (“Hourglass”) and of being “buried / mouth open / gold fronts gaping / as to not mistake / the gates of heaven / the only way in / through me” (“I Turned Myself Into Myself & Was Jesus”). She plays with the physicality of poems, some tightly-fitted like blocks on one part of the page and the stanzas of others sprawling with so much space that you wonder just how much was left unsaid. The reader can see images in the shapes of some poems. “Exorcism” looks like an upside-down staircase or paint dripping down the page; “Citizenship” looks like a sky of birds – and sometimes, the reader has to turn the book to read, has to adjust themselves physically to meet the poem’s physicality, and it’s a beautiful kind of engagement: the author’s asking, the reader’s saying yes.

In the collection, you will meet “an attendant in Atlanta” (“Still, I Don't Love My Father”), “a man who fought a river” (“For Songs & Contests”), and a man whose hands are sized liked hers. Readers will experience the affliction and solace of certain people, and the “weeping” that follows good experiences with good people (“Still, I Don’t Love My Father”). Here, we begin to remember good crying, how there are also tears that can heal, and as scenes change from cake and contests to vices and hourglasses, the beauty-dripping violence pulsing with her beats is a stunning reminder that reckoning with the worst and sticking up for yourself feels messy, and raw, and makes your heart beat too loud; that the fighting in your mind can help you “shed the house” (“For Songs and Contents”) of all the “men you want to excise” (“Untitled”) so you can rise up out of it. She makes you feel brave enough to try, and that bravery comes from the eyes-open, foot-forward exploring we decide we will do with Lovelace on the very first page, walking just behind as she shows us the outlets and inlets; how you fall back into old rooms and then how you get out of them with streetlights bending and a foot dipping itself in city water and her own beautiful self turning to smoke.

As Lovelace unpacks her memory for readers – “a long Uhaul down Memorial Drive” (“Veterans Memorial Drive”) – it is in full light; there is nothing there that you cannot see. Her sensory detail is sharp, her vulnerability feels relatable, and when the arm that punches with no regret pulls back slowly, it seems to release the reader too, helping them reclaim their own old ground.

Jace Rose Malmquist is a writer in Birmingham, Alabama who is currently working on a collection featuring short stories, poems, and her first novella.

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