Oratory to the pageJillian Christmas' the gospel of breaking reviewed
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
Jillian Christmas, known widely as an exceptional performance poet, has published her first full length poetry book - the gospel of breaking. She has brought the oratory to the page and yet the words fly off the page and into the readers' mind.
My introduction to Christmas was watching and listening to her perform her poem black feminist at the Women of the World Poetry Slam Finals for 2015. A powerful searing commentary of white feminist privilege and the vast divide between the lived experienced of a black female body compared to a white female body.
This poem is part of this evocative collection of poems that explores love, memory, themes of home, family relationships, and the social and political experiences of a queer, afro-Caribbean writer. Christmas embeds compelling themes and images within what at first seem like love poems but carry a denser literary experience. In the first poem, a home I can only leave, the author reflects on the displaced body who explores the memory of home and the arrival into another space:
if I open/the skin of myself
an invitation/you may wonder
if this water/ ever be made land
you may desire/ to question
if there is a container enough
for both of us
There is no locater of what land the author speaks of thus creating a universal message about migration and the lengths to which people will leave and arrive.
Later, in the poem titled casting, Christmas uses the reverse device bringing one poem on one side of the page, with another of the same poem inverted on the other side of the page. The innovation here are the words chosen to create two distinct meaningful experiences, and yet have fluidity across the two halves creating an entirely new poem and meaning.
Christmas' words linger with you like a friend whispering truths about what it means to live as a black person and specifically as a black woman in the current climate. She is a sojourner "trying to finish poems about black-joy" and as in the poem Do Not Feed the relationship between her body and the white gaze begins with "this world wants me angry all the time…" and yet the poem itself is full of rich lyrical imagery of love not returned or accepted.
Another important part of Christmas' collection are the family relations she keeps, and specifically, introspective remembrances about what her "Mommy" thinks of the way she lives and what her path has become. There are many emotional registers in this collection, and one of the more tender moments is in the poem things I can do which is dedicated to Sylvia, we never really know if this is her homage to her mother, or a friend. The poem is a litany of things that the author can do to make Sylvia more comfortable in her final days in hospice care and the tender and tragic images of Jillian playing "all the sad songs I know on Ukulele."
Christmas' turn of phrase and wry humour draws the reader in; in reflecting on her own body in the poem and still you cannot touch it she asks the reader "what is it you will find in my hair? Some secret weapon…" and so the poem asks the reader to consider one's own assumptions and prejudices, always playing "in the cold and glaring white of this security line." This poem riffs off the white gaze that sees the black body and hair as a place for colonization, ownership and to be handled at any time. Throughout the book there are poems that provoke the reader to consider their place in the colonial system, and through the images a call to action to decolonize one's mind.
Later on in the book, in the poem northern light Christmas calls out to all of humanity in building a better world:
who will bring this light
work build nurture and fight
for a place we can call home
regardless of difference…
Christmas opens up a sense of hope and connection with the world; and world where love seeps through the darkness and light returns to humanity.
the gospel of breaking is a deft well-crafted collection of poems that are inventive, imagist based, humorous and full of love. The book always speaks with a yearning to reach a better world, a world that is not founded on racism, hate and the colonial system of segregation and misunderstanding, but one of love and respect.
Phinder Dulai is a writer and poet living in Surrey, B.C. His poetry is published in Canadian Literature Offerings Cue Books Anthology, and other publications. He is a co-founder of The South Of Fraser Inter Arts Collective, and is the author of two poetry books. View bio.