'Light Spun' a poetry collection by Kwame Sound Daniels

"for the ego appears fragmented at first glance … but then, it’s seen as unified when paired with ancestry and family heritage and collective memory. "

Written by Sophia-Maria Nicolopoulos*


Daniels’ poetry collection Light Spun, which comes out in late summer by Perennial Press, is one of the most honest, unnerving and lyrically written works I’ve read as a professional poetry reviewer so far. I’m honored that I got to read and share it with the rest of you the reasons why you should get your copy ASAP and the reasons why Daniels’ words are meant to be widely circulated among people around the world.


Xir first book is brimming with poetry that speaks to the heart. It’s gut-wrenching and a strong punch against white hegemony, the patriarchy and racism. Reading black literature, and especially black queer literature, has taught me that, as a white reader and writer, being an active listener of underrepresented stories means letting them talk, without interrupting, and consciously taking a step back so that they can teach me from scratch the values of respect and supporting someone that my own race has historically undermined (and still does) for so long. This is what I, and the rest of people out there like me, should strive to do.


And this is exactly what Daniels does exceptionally well.



Photo by Perennial Press


To start from the beginning, Light Spun consists of seven sections: "Conversations", "Cycle", "Sojourn", "Odes", "Ghost" and "Conjure". Each one seamlessly blends free verse poetry with lyrical repetition, strong imagery that focuses on self-discovery, the idea of finding your new identity as a black queer person, and the importance of family heritage in this journey. Lots of short and crisp sentences along with dialogue among different narrators, the use of questions and even second person, give birth to a collection that is fluid, hybrid, ever-changing and can easily be read over a cup of coffee in the morning.


What we really have here is a post-postmodernist pastiche of a fragmented ego trying to define itself by tugging at the past with the hopes of a better future. In the heartfelt poem “Lineage” we read:


“There is a pit in my chest. There is a mountain of bodies

buried in my soil. My dirt sings with the clatter of bones.


I was raised on the stories of my mother’s people celebrating

the dead with candy and lights, painted skin with bones.


My father’s people carry history in their skin, in their lungs –

you can hear our music in the echo of trauma in our bones.


My friend said, I am pulling bones from my graveyard.

And I asked, How did you come to carry these bones?


They said, I am finding new ways to be. I am

a million souls. I house spirits and visions in my bones.




This last line speaks volumes, not only of the central theme of the story, reimagining yourself in a way that satisfied you shunning all social restraints, but also about the importance of listening to the stories of black women of all sexualities and genders.


In one of the poems titled, “The Maker”, we read the following:


“We spoke about a black woman’s womanhood

being beside herself,

being alien and secret,

even to herself.

Leon said, Because black women have a different

gender than other women.

And I said, Yes.

Leon doesn’t understand why womanhood is

not my companion.

That I am alien to it as much as it is to

America.


Black women are the other from the other,

the forgotten seed in a feld of sugarcane,

growth self-determined,

taking what water we can,

taking the sunlight,

lifting our faces upward,

sweet and steadfast.

I am not a woman, but I understand them.

I am not a woman, but I love them.



I’m bereft of any words just by reading these lines again. The conversational tone between the persona and Leon is what makes this piece even stronger, even more powerful—first they agree and give a different gender to black women because of the way they reside in the margins of American society, because of the way they’ve taken a backseat not only due to their skin color but due to their sex too.


Next, the persona, while agreeing with Leon’s assumption and while identifying with black women to take whatever water they can, whatever sun is left to flourish, xe separates xirself from them by stating that xe’s not a woman but still loves them.


Being in the fringes is what urges the persona to go look for xir own identity, to search for a song that xe will be the one who’ll craft the lyrics and find the tune. In “Mil Almas” xe states:


I am working on becoming, on understanding

and creating something lasting: a song of myself.


It is harder, as I get older, to practice deprivation.

It takes a propensity for self-injury to withhold from myself.


I told my friend, ‘Non-binary’ isn’t enough to express my experience.

They responded, Me too. Mil almas is how I define myself.


My lover terms me generous. She says I am kind.

And I do practice compassion. But not with myself.


I am studying lemon: the taste of it, the zest,

the texture. I am making a plant known to myself.



Daniels is not afraid to allude to slavery, to the bloodletting of xir people, to the pain and suffering of black people in the hands of their white oppressors. In these lines, what we notice is the birth of an identity that is alive; a separate entity that’s personal, self-conscious of the persona’s localized experiences as a black queer person in the US and deeply connected to nature’s power to transform. This need to create a song that others will hear and understand who xe is creates a motif in Light Spun which ties in with the focus on black spiritualism and oral tradition.


The idea of spiritualism is further explored in the sections of “Yearning,” an intimate group of erotic and sensual poems, in “Cycle,” a reflection of the previous poems and the power of love to liberate and destruct at the same time, and “Sojourn” a sometimes cryptic but extremely original take in the persona meeting with a religious figure, Noah.


The persona feels rejuvenated and reborn in the name of love, and by claiming in “The Way” that:


I will engender your faith as/I hold hope in my breast, love beyond love/ This is the province of godliness, this/is the way


or in “Letter to Religiosity”:


I can’t help but think back to the last time I had communion, the last time I really appreciated and loved the ritual of the church […] I think about hunger […] How taking you is like sacrament - there is an/ exchange there, a feeling of a forging of something/ ineffable. But I want to indulge in you. I want you to/dissolve in my mouth, I want to swallow all that there/ is. And I am learning that it is important to the/religiosity of me. I think, maybe I can find god again/ on the tip of your tongue or the surface of your skin./ I want to revel in indulgence as much as I indulge in/ my heart while writing this. But I’d rather indulge in/ you.


These bold and daring poems of connecting communion to sexual intercourse and of pairing the idea of reaching theosis (the idea of having a union with God) to loving a human body, constitute another way of the persona to redefine xir world and xir song. Light Spun sheds light on the obscure and scary places of a black queer person peeling their skin like an onion to reveal what lies beneath the imposed social, political, and religious constraints. To make sense of their world by acknowledging the past, and setting out on a continuous and perhaps tiring but ultimately fulfilling journey of piecing together your own identity.


And that’s the reason why Daniels’ work belongs to 21-st century, post-postmodernist poetry; for the ego appears fragmented at first glance, belonging to pluralist realities, and in a quest of putting itself together but then, it’s seen as unified when paired with ancestry and family heritage and collective memory.


In my favorite poem, the persona expresses her outrage and anger towards those that suppressed and killed off xir ancestors. In “Dream” for example, we read:


Sun beating on a sore back. The fields are wide./ Black bodies black bodies./ Sweat gathering, dripping, dripping into my eyes./ Stinging./ There is a knot of rage in my chest and it pulls./ All of my body curls into it. […] I think of fire. I think of white skin. I think of destruction. […] Whiteness has a sensitivity inherent to it./ Drums kicking in my chest./ There is a thunder in my ears./ Retribution feels like fulfillment./ The screams/ make my heart sing. The master’s wife runs out,/ skin melting, sloughing, crackling, peeling./ Fire hungry for white bones in white houses./ We are running.


The persona’s song needs not to be harmonic or peaceful all the time—here it’s transformed to a war cry against those that suppressed, shackled and took advantage of xir own people. A whole race, the white race, is on fire.


Finally, what the poet suggests, after going through this tear-eyed, sometimes exhausting but needed journey to orient xirself in xir new reality, is a vision of acknowledging xir past, walk side by side to it, but letting it fall a bit in the background so that xe can seize the day. As a result, in “Ancestor” we read:


A voice that was not a voice told me to leave

her. She said she had lived long enough

already. She said it was her time. If the world

wouldn’t get her the slave catchers would. She

didn’t want to try anymore. She was tired. Her

mouth was closed. But I knew. This was my

mother and grandmother. This was a fountain

of stories and histories. High John and his

exploits fell from her lips. She taught me how

to trick the devil. You have to run, she

intoned in my mind. You go where I can’t

follow. You live.



Light Spun must be considered a 21st century experiment on coming-of-age poetry, a strong social commentary against the patriarchy and white hegemony, a praise of pluralism, queerness and black history. It’s a work that must be widely read by readers of all ages, ancestries and orientations as it goes beyond than just propounding a new way of viewing the world through a reformed subjectivity—it reminds us of the importance to be silent, listen but also take arms when needed. We’re better together but this is the solo journey of a queer persona among spirts of the past and fears of the future, and we’re here to learn by listening and listen by learning.


 

Kwame Sound Daniels is an artist based out of Parkville, MD. Xe are an Anaphora Arts Residency Fellow and are an MFA candidate for Vermont College of Fine Arts. Kwame learns plant medicine, paint, and pickles vegetables in xir spare time.










*Please note this review was written by a white cishet woman.