‘Spirit Boxing’ by Afaa Michael Weaver

On March 1, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times


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Poet Afaa Weaver was a long-time resident of Somerville, MA. until he defected to the hinterlands of Connecticut. I hear he is very happy in the said environs. He has a new collection of poetry out– and the noted critic Dennis Daly was on it like the proverbial hornet:

Spirit Boxing
By Afaa Michael Weaver
University of Pittsburgh Press
Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6458-2
112 Pages
$15.95

Review by Dennis Daly

How does a man endure a lifetime of mind-numbing physical work, then go on to write a body of profound, ethereal poetry unlike anything else being written today? Ask poet Afaa Weaver. He’s not the first poet/writer that has broken out of a hard knocks life. But his measured, sometimes soaring verse, distilled from years of drudgery, offers up an unusual intoxication worthy of the most engaging, indeed the best, of modern writing.

Using Chinese mystical metaphors Afaa Weaver, in his new book Spirit Boxing, revisits his coming-of-age experiences and blue collar workplaces he and others labored in with keen insight and a racial sensitivity both adamant and gentle.

Appropriately enough the collection opens with a poem, John Henry Sleeping in the Grass, that summons a vision of the African American folk hero, John Henry. Charged with hammering holes into rock for explosives, Henry met his end in a mythic contest against a steam-powered hammer drill. Henry, according to the story, won the contest before his heart gave out. Weaver’s piece highlights a dream-like potential and determination in the sleeping figure of the symbolic Henry. Consider these telling lines,

 

… black steel

his destiny, John is motion at rest,

tides of moon and waves in still waters,

suns igniting hearts of molten iron,

a hardened conviction, rose petals in rain.

 

Sleep is a dream, the real world a poundage,

work a sentence for being his mama’s son,

the hammer in his crib…

 

Working in an ice house not only negated seasons and froze passions, but it molded the human will with its metaphoric inclinations. Weaver in a poem entitled Houses of Ice, 1969 meditates on operation, on how harsh manufacturing abnormalities devolve into their natural elements and even human sentiment. Notice the bit of generational rivalry and the pride toughness dispenses to the protagonist son. The poet says,

 

… In the freezer

it was a winter I had to bundle up to fight,

in an insulated coat my father used to wear

working in the steel mill where I thought

things must have been kinder because

this frozen hell was against all nature,

each block the same except for the chips

the ice hook made when I grabbed them

to feed the scoring machine. Things need

a process, a method for becoming real,

even ice, which is wise enough to return

to water, to unmask itself from the stamp

of human hands, to become mist, steam,

dried spots where it spreads itself as light

as air or nothing, not enough of it for miles

to become three hundred pounds again,

each pound the weight it takes to kiss,

or to fall in love, hoping love will last.

 

Not for nothing is Spirit Boxing, the title poem of this collection, reprinted on the back cover of this book. The lines rivet one’s attention with a vengeance. Set in a soap factory, the protagonist seeks his internal spirit and intellectual life while fending off the backbreaking labor of his allotted duties. The irony of providing the soap for America is not without wit. Weaver even invokes John Henry for a second, and very effective, appearance. Here’s the heart of the piece,

 

… the shift is young, my body

a heavy meat on bones, conveyors not wired

for compassion, trucks on deadlines, uncaring

 

pressure of a nation waiting to be washed, made

clean, me looking into the eye of something like

death, and I look up, throwing fifty-pound boxes,

 

Jesus now John Henry pounding visions of what

work is, the wish for black life to crumble, snap

under all it is given…

 

Throwing bales of hay with one arm leads into a poem entitled When the Farms Give Out. Weaver describes a promised land that has betrayed its owners and which ultimately evicts them into an amoral urban world where humans are commodities. The piece concludes contemplating a dismal future,

 

… the farms worn down to rusted weeders,

 

manure spreaders, mules too high on themselves

to keep a simple humility, and what do we know

when we have to take to reaching for electric fans

 

as clerks in stores that go way out to sell paper

shacks, lard, and salt to folks living in the hills

chewing on piles of dry corn. Call me Isaac,

 

trying to ward off what’s coming to all of us,

the day the end comes to these, the hot mills,

cement plants, grain silos, docks, the places

 

we left the land for when the land could not give

back what we planted. We moved to cities,

the broad hand of justice turning dirt into dust.

 

Weaver’s poem Grabbing Lunch in the Morgue surprises in this collection with its rude audacity and existential bent. A female morgue assistant plays the protagonist perfectly, observing the peculiarities of the morticians and each dead person’s kin. The poet sets up the piece with earthy humor and indelicate description. Then the tone turns to a philosophical lamentation against death and finally rage. Weaver begins the tone transition this way,

 

The families come just after the Coca-Cola made her burp,

opening the door to the cabinet so they can see how naked

death is, none of the things we accumulate beside us,

 

none of the failures, the prizes, the big houses, no thing

in itself, while whatever memories they had are somewhere

where dreams go and die. When peering eyes of parents wet,

 

then burst into the floods of sorrow, she stares at nothing,

the bright glow of sunlight under the morning clouds, and

when they are gone she presses the door closed, her hands

 

holding each other, her arms in a bow like a hammer …

 

Yet another sublime poetic collection from Afaa Weaver.

 

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