Cheryl Clarke: By My Precise Haircut (The Word Works, 2016)

On the back-cover of Cheryl Clarke’s new volume of poetry – the first poetry only volume in almost a quarter of a century – younger  fellow poet Nikky Finney (Head Off and Split, 2011) calls Clarke a ‘firebrand poet’ who ‘has stayed the firebrand course’.

Among the several subjects touched upon in Cheryl Clarke’s slim volume (about 60 pages of poetry) are: poets, jazz-musicians, athletes and other public figures (like Allen Ginsburg, Nelson Mandela, baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Marvin Gaye, jazz singer Ruth Brown (“Inventress of the hoochie coochie … Making white mothers wanna keep their sons at home, white fathers wanna treat their daughters mean.”), singer Marian Anderson, the Amiri/Amina Baraka family, Billie Holiday); same-sex love, HIV/AIDS, slavery, race riots (Detroit 1943), McCarthy-era politics, JFK’s assassination, police brutality/violence, the CIA 1971 coup d’etat in Chile, Hurricane Katrina 2005 and Haiti 2010, Sandy Hook, Iraq/Afghanistan, and family and personal poems.

Major works by Cheryl Clarke are: After Mecca: Women Poets and The Black Arts Movement (Rutgers, 2005), a history of the Black Arts Movement in the 60’s and beyond, and: The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980-2005 (Carroll and Graf, 2006), including essays from three decades, and poems from her first four books of poetry (Narratives: Poems in the tradition of Black Women, 1983 – a good place to start for readers, too; Living As a Lesbian, 1986; Humid Pitch, 1989; Experimental Love, 1993), as well as some new poems.

By My Precise Haircut is not necessarily an easy read. You may have to look up abbreviations/ acronyms like D.A.R., HUAC, COINTELPRO, BLA, words like “browner” (see the online Urban Dictionary), and to get (re)acquainted with a lot of US/African American history.

The book takes its title, By My Precise Haircut, from the poem in this hostile corridor:

A quickening/ nostalgia suffuses/ me this late evening

Fin de siècle/ between/ two endangered sites.

The marvelous/ have been blighted/ by a blood-borne

scourge. Flamboyantly frail/ pretty   still marvelous   you/ nourish our failing geographies.

Am dazzled as I face your solicitousness/ over the counter of this nasty/ KFC:

your articulated brows/ mascara the discrete texture/ of your facial skin and buffed cultivated nails.

You recognize/ me too – / by my precise haircut.