Poetry News

A Necessary Level of Challenge: francine j. harris's play dead

By Harriet Staff


"[I]t’s a really hard book," says Stevie Edwards about francine j. harris's play dead, released last year by Alice James Books and "seemingly under-reviewed." "And strange. I don’t intend either of these labels as criticisms." More from this review at Medium:

Much to the contrary, the poems are hard and strange because the subject matter is hard and strange: loss of childhood, predatory masculinities, suicidality, a mother with mental health struggles who is at times absent, fat shaming, exploring sexuality amid threats of sexual violence and misinformation about sexual health, institutionalized racism, and the ways poverty can disrupt people from caring for their bodies.

As the title play dead suggests, the poems in this collection provide scrappy, cunning, and inventive methods of survival (much like an animal playing dead to avoid danger). The book is divided into three sections: “part one: startle,” “part two: blink,” and “part three: freeze,” titles which point both to the speaker’s responses to perceived threats and to the affective experience of the reader. francine j. harris’s poems often feel like an onslaught of disturbing images (i.e. a man whose wife bludgeons his head with a machete in “startle;” the speaker suggesting a former foster sister fantasize about scooping their foster father’s eyes out as a way of coping in “sister, foster;” lynched boys hanging from trees in “the cafeteria is also assembly;” and intergenerational genitals stacked on top of each other in “lights in the room”). This layering of imagery reflects the sensory overload of trauma, of trying to make sense of the ways in which people harm one another. Perhaps one of the most pervasive questions this collection asks is: what are the aesthetics of having been violated? And furthermore, who decides them?

In his advanced praise blurb on the book’s back cover, poet Ross Gay motions toward this necessary and provocative level of challenge and impenetrability in play dead: “What francine j. harris does with language — diction, syntax, the line, the image — is unlike anything I know. I’m saying, they re-imagine and re-deploy language in an almost unspeakable way.”

Read on here.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2017