Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Mahogany L. Browne: Redbone

Even for someone who's famously one of the hardest working women in poetry, 2015 has been an incredibly busy year for poet, musician, and organizer Mahogany L. Browne. In addition to her usual slate of New York City poetry readings (Ms. Browne is the longest running host of the world-famous Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets' Café, where she serves as Poetry Program Curator; she is also one of the co-organizers of the groundbreaking “Page Meets Stage,” reading series), she spearheaded #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, an ongoing, “poetic protest,” in response to the murders of black people at the hands of police, began her duties as Event Coordinator for the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Brooklyn, NY, featured prominently as one of the voices of the BreakBeat Poetry movement, became head editor of Micro over at The Offing, was interviewed by PBS and the Poetry Society of America, continued as the founding editor of Penmanship Books, continued to earn her MFA in Writing and Activism at Pratt University (as one of two inaugural Stacy Doris scholars), and, oh yeah, put together her first full-length poetry collection in over half a decade.

Redbone, (Aquarius Press/Willow Books) is Browne's second full-length collection (following 2009's Destroy Rebuild & Other Reconstructions of the Human Muscle, Penmanship Books) and it represents a major turning point for her as an author. Where previously, her poetry has been notable for the shrewd observations, sharp wit, and editorial musings of a genius reporter (did I mention Browne works as a journalist as well? You can check out her articles in XXL and The Source, among others), Redbone is tightly disciplined and achingly serious. Lean as bone themselves, the poems in Browne's new collection are often as short as one or two lines—take for example, the six-word poem, “Bam Behind Bars after Beating a Man with a Baseball Bat”: “I let him live,  didn't I?” Shard-like, these fractured moments remind the reader that sometimes, it only takes a few words to convey the real complexities of the human condition.

Indeed, though many long-time fans of Browne will be excited by the longer, more explosive poems such as, “This,” her artistry really shines in the short poem cycles that recur throughout the book, “Betty Sez,” “Bam be like…,” and especially, “Church Heat”: “The women in their choir robes, swaying with eyes closed / Was the reason Grandma Coco rose early on Sundays… Was the place she prayed for Redbone / Like she paid the light bill.”

Perhaps part of the reason why Redbone seems like such a departure for Browne is because it represents a not only a change of tone, but an exercise in persona; much of the book is written in the voice of the author's mother, the eponymous Redbone herself. While Browne hails from a tradition of poetry that often focuses on the present day, on the political, and on the, “I;” there are, in fact only three poems in the entire book written in the voice of the author herself. For much of the collection, she is established in relief. We learn more about the author's life via the lives of those close to her, her father, her mother, her grandparents. This allows Browne to focus on incredibly personal moments in her family history without alienating her audience.

Where a lesser poet might have chosen to pontificate about their own heritage, pointing out those events they considered most important, Browne establishes urgency in sotto voce, enjoining the reader to lean in and listen hard. Those who have the opportunity to do so will experience a cycle of poems at once vital as it is considered, as nostalgic as it is pragmatic, and as personal as it is universal. For those who have followed Browne over the course of her career, Redbone is a long time coming—and it has clearly been worth the wait.

Mahogany L. Browne
Aquarius Press/Willow Books, 2015