It is difficult to write a review when words are failing you, when you feel like the only way to respond to a book is to write poems to it. Prose, with its obsession with logic feels lacking when it comes to discussing Kamilah Aisha Moon’s transcendent yet earth-bound collection Starshine & Clay. As the title suggests, these poems are trapped between the soil, clay, and dirt beneath us, and starlight; between the body that is laid to rest beneath us and the lost spirit that shines above. These are poems for the living that are haunted by the dead. These poems are for the wounded that long to heal.
In the opening section of Starshine & Clay each poem stands as a memorial, collective or individual, to the dead. Only unlike memorials which are often cast in hard metals and stones, these poems are alive, they gesture towards the flesh. In some cases, they inhabit the bodies left behind, the mothers of those lost to violence, racism, and the horrors lodged in the human body. In “Samaria Rice, Tamir’s Mother” Moon inhabits the mind of Samaria Rice, who is haunted by the absence of her child in her home, “Too quiet, nothing bangs the screen door / or needs new shoes, nothing eats my cooking / or does homework at the kitchen table.”
Moon has a true capacity for empathy, one someone might refer to as a gift, but I think empathy can and should be a practice. By crawling inside the patent leather shoes of a little girl laying beneath her grandmother who plays dead atop her, who shields her during the brutal shooting within their Charleston church, Moon for a moment becomes that five year old girl and in doing so Moon places her reader in that space. And though the feeling will always be mimetic, simulated to some extent, while reading these words we become this young girl, “Grandma was on top of me, warm. / Perfume, powder, sweat & smoke, / stung my nose. I felt her heart / beating fast, so fast like after I run / but there was no where to run.” Often when each headline is like a bullet people will say, we need more than poetry, and while this is true, we also need poetry that is as searingly honest, deeply empathetic, and wise as Moon’s poems in Starshine & Clay.
The title of the collection comes from the Lucille Clifton poem, “won't you celebrate with me” which is about the poet having to shape her own life as a Black woman in “babylon” with her own hands, Clifton writes, “my one hand holding tight / my other hand; come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” The second section of Starshine & Clay deals with illness: disease, surgery, and recovery, here the body is in another kind of peril. In illness the body becomes separated from the self, becomes suspect. Moon does a remarkable job of capturing this rupturing, in “Transfusion” she asks, “How does the blood forget itself?” How can something so essential, like the blood running through our veins and organs, fail us, and yet somehow we go on living. And yes, as hard as it may be to do, this is something to celebrate.
The final sections of Starshine & Clay propose a similar question: when love fails us, how do we go on living? How do we resuscitate ourselves when love is lost? In “To a Dear Friend Mothering Misery” Moon writes, “Every time your grief cries, / you pick it up, cradle it / like a newborn,” but she encourages her to “Please leave it be; no more milk. Let it cry / for nights on end unattended.” It’s a beautiful analogy, for too often we care for our wounds, we feed them and grow them until we can no longer “hold tight,” as Clifton said, our own hands.
Ultimately, the poems in Starshine & Clay are about survival, healing, and living amid the ghosts of the dead, within a body that fails you, near the bodies of others that fail them, but Moon reminds us that empathy, love, family, and poetry offer us fortitude. The good reader is expanded in the presence of a great work of art, and Starshine & Clay, is without a doubt a great work of art. Moon's poems are formally rigorous and deeply felt. Release this ghost in your home, let Kamilah Aisha Moon’s words haunt you, let them pry open your heart so you can know it better.
Starshine & Clay
Kamilah Aisha Moon
Four Way Books
One of my favorite and probably most decadent brunches is just a really good almond croissant and a proper coffee service. Coffee is hard on my stomach, so I only drink it once in a while--a Fork & Page proper Sunday brunch is the perfect excuse!