Mouth & Mutt in Aziza Barnes's i be, but i ain't: Diagram + Review by Rochelle Hurt
Aziza Barnes's i be, but i ain't invests in a range of themes: family, illness, sexuality, violence, self-preservation, race and otherness. Ultimately the collection is about identity in the context of these issues, all of which are linked via the body. In this book, the body is both a source of anxiety and a means of survival—the question and the answer at the heart of the speaker's struggle to be.
I'm particularly interested in Barnes's mouth imagery. Through the mouth and related activities, the speaker establishes conceptual associations that form a web of themes and motifs. For example, family is often seen alongside food and booze; food is also often used in comparisons to the speaker's body, including polycystic ovaries, while booze frequently appears in descriptions of sex, desire, and dating. Meanwhile, family and love are both linked to the speaker's defensiveness ("my mother. She taught me first to screw up & steady mean // mug on the pavement at folks not my kin"), which is linked back to eating ("your mama remodeled my mama kitchen, which is insulting & I think of you when I eat"), which is a means of self-preservation—as is the speaker's teeth-baring alter-ego, "the mutt," who appears in several poems throughout the book. In turn, teeth represent both destruction and desire ("Told them to chew you up until you couldn't breathe just to be in their warm mouth"). In the diagram above, I've used examples from the book in order to represent just some of the ways in which these ideas and images begin to bleed into one another through their overlapping and cyclical associations. Use the outer ring of the diagram as a key for themes and motifs in the quoted lines. The relationship between and among quotes and themes is represented by color and spatial alignment.
Barnes's figure of the mutt is a beastly projection of the disdain piled on the speaker's body by a social system that devalues Black bodies, women's bodies, queer bodies, ambiguous bodies. The speaker defines the mutt in terms of this degradation in an early poem: "a mixed person. You can mixed, just don't be mixed up! half & / half. bi-____ multi- ____ & other words for emptiness. cavity. not of / teeth." So the mutt may be the speaker's internalization of this disdain, but manifest as a full embrace of those qualities that seem to garner disdain in the first place. She wears her body without shame and becomes the mutt on her own terms. In the final and most stunning mutt poem of the book, we see the speaker "sitting still with my blood running but not out."
From one angle, a mutt is all mouth—a being that snarls, growls, licks, drools, chews, bites. For women, and perhaps especially women of color, to be an open mouth without shame is a monstrous transgression. Women are expected be seen but not heard, consumed but not consumers, their legs and lips closed. Women of color are often assumed already guilty of and doubly despised for crossing these lines. Thus Barnes's repeated mouth imagery is not only a refusal of meekness, but also a reclamation of the loud mouth—and the language reflects this. Barnes's syntax and music is brash, unapologetic, and quick to make leaps, commanding a reader's full attention.
Yet agency in this book isn't simple. Through its associations with consumption, the mouth also becomes a mechanism of internalized otherness and self-destruction. Near the beginning of the collection, Barnes writes: "In my own home I attempt nightly / to eat my body alive," and while the book doesn't offer false hope or tidy resolutions by the end, it does offer a deeper and more contextualized view of self-de- and reconstruction. In the final poem, Barnes compares the constructed self to a house using formations that test syntactical structures. The fragmented lines push and pull each other into hard-won cohesion until they finally conclude:
you know this part that you won't last that you will be torn back down
to your simple self you may in the process forget what you were
until you are again what you were a slab of wood
a nail & no intention only you are different now you are
touched you have been moved made & unmade swiftly you have been lived in
There is a friction between resistance and desire—for love, for sex, for understanding, for a coming to terms—in these poems, which offer bared teeth alongside open mouths. This is the central line of tension running through i be, but i ain't, pulled taut by Barnes's sharp and compelling tongue.
Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014), a novella in prose poems. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.