Review of Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016)

Equilibrium: Review Ending in a Found Q & A by Marlin M. Jenkins

Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium is a collection invested in balance as an active process of pulling together ideas, both within and between poems. One of the first things I noticed about the book was its attention to language as an act, one that often brings things into proximity through conversation. Even from the first poem we are rooted not only in a thought but in the articulation thereof: “Took me thirty years to say / I’m glad I don’t pass for white. / Pressed those words into the dark / creases in my palm like a fortune: / a life line of futures I wanted to begin” (emphasis added).

"Equilibrium is a book of questions"

From here, we see a weaving of questions (which we’ll get to later), as well as quoted text. Some of these quotations come in the form of epigraphs (ranging from Gwendolyn Brooks to Leviticus to Mahalia Jackson), which in themselves create a map of historic voices influencing the work. But the collection is also thoroughly and richly populated with things that have been said: by the speaker’s mother, a girl at a salon, a frat guy in Louisiana, a flower salesman, women at church.

With an attentive ear, Clark listens to these voices and finds ways to bring them into conversation, weighs them with and against each other, brings them together into something cohesive though still wonderfully complicated. All these parts and voices, then, are in conversation with the voice of the poet, a voice that is looking outward and inward, that is reflective yet active, critical yet affirming, questioning yet sure—so sure that when the speaker beseeches us in “Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott” with the words “let us chant,” I want to chant with her.

Clark’s attention in these poems to voices, to listening and responding through both reflection and action, reminds us that the word equilibrium’s multi-faceted associations include the inner ear. This concept is central not only as the collection’s title but as the title of the first poem, a poem whose form contains two halves balanced across a shifting rift at its center. But the conversation on equilibrium in these poems isn’t one of simple oppositional binaries; rather, we see many forms of co-existing ideas just as we see co-existing voices. For example, the speaker is both similar and dissimilar to her mother; faith is not only an issue of religion, but one of spirituality, culture, and community; or in the final poem, “Prometheia Remixed,” we find a conversation bringing together Robert Lowell, Paul Robeson, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Nella Larson, Nikky Finney, and a handful others.

All of these interconnected ideas and voices and moments and experiences work toward a carefully crafted equilibrium together. Each piece helps to contextualize others: “Like the way the haze of summer heat / makes a drive home different.” Or, as we are aptly told, “the smallest part / of ourselves cannot be divided.” These connected parts are built like muscles attached to an articulated joint, and “every muscle knows how to get home.”

"Q   Could it be magic?
 A    How we fake to feel the magic inside us."

A central mode through which this creation of conversation occurs is through questions. Part of the collection’s epigraph reads: “Always a question / Bigger than itself” (Tracy K. Smith). Equilibrium is a book of questions that is definitely something big, weighty, full—a force of beauty and pain and heritage that carefully examines histories of personal and cultural struggle and makes them all alive and present and useful for understanding and moving forward. I think from here it’s best to turn directly to the text and its questions in order to understand how the poems reach across and between each other, speaking in whispers and echoes toward answers, toward equilibrium in its many forms.

To highlight questioning and weaving as central modes of conversation in Equilibrium, the following Q & A was created entirely from poems in the collection, though the quoted fragments of text have been taken from different moments in the book.

Q & A across/between poems from Equilibrium:

Q         What is left whispering in us once we have stopped trying to become the other?

A         I hope you know that I can love the absence of a thing even more than the thing itself.

Q         Maybe for other children the purr of the air conditioner, the sound of a ceiling fan whisking the darkness, or the steady neon glow of a nightlight set their dreams ablaze?

A         [W]e were inside the same heat as each of our hands stretched forward, flexed as church fans we stroked the flames of spirit higher and higher.

Q         We didn’t know, how could we?

A         But I knew this girl that twitched on the floor.

Q         Oh, where does this go? Is this trash? Is this trash?

A         Give me a plane ride to question myself.

Q         What did she find in my body to claim first: my nose, my mouth?

A         All the wavy hair I broke like the back of a slave into submission[.]

Q         Aren’t we always flying, into each other into the mouth of the universe?

A         This is how I tucked her in. This is how we said goodnight.

Q         Could it be magic?

A         How we fake to feel the magic inside us. It took me a while to understand that I didn’t have to beg for it.

Q         Didn’t every moment seem sticky & weren’t we always eating?

A         O taste & see David’s lips, his mouth: a crucifix for my wet begging.

Q         What wanted to be born out of nothing?

A         Please know—I’ve made good with my life.

Q         I want to believe her but how did she die & when did the murdering start?

A         I want to write a happy word, but every line jazzes elegy.

Q         How did I know I was different?

A         I was smashed, a stranger—sizzling in lavish multitudes, my lips gnashed,  tore through day & night.

Q         But what about the little girl rolling away, struck with the red hot g sounds ringing fire songs in her ears?

A         So many questions she cannot answer & They will not answer but she testifies in Death.

Q         What are you trying to tell me here?

A         [S]o much blood in me like a dirty, new sin. [W]hat a river of blood I am. [E]very inky pen I pick up bleeds. Let freedom bleed.

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry at University of Michigan's MFA program. His writings have been given homes by The Collagist, Four Way Review, The Journal, and Bennington Review, among others. A former teaching artist with Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project and current editor at HEArt Online, you can find him on Twitter @Marlin_Poet.