Gospel, Samiya Bashir’s second book of poetry, begins “at the crossroads” where “[w]e argue as if Capulet or Montague./On neither red nor blue can we agree.” The opening lines reveal the tension and disagreement considered, literally and metaphorically, throughout the book. The reference to Shakespeare is the first in a long series of allusions that animate Bashir’s poems in this book. Bashir gathers stories and language from a range of cultural locations and weaves them into the imagistic and sonic qualities of the poems. The Norse gods make a dramatic and cacophonous appearance and, in one of her most effective rhetorical moves, Bashir utilizes a Ghanian call and response sequence that both effectively heightens the drama and energy in the poem and then brings it to rest at its conclusion. The poems of Gospel are rife with layered meanings while they immerse the reader in a landscape that is both familiar and reassuring as well as deeply unfamiliar and strange.
In “Topographic shifts,” for instance, Bashir deftly tells the story of a child born with “twelve fingers/twelve toes” which must be “corrected.” This deformity, described as “more common/than you’d think,” is one that seems to simultaneously exist in the present where it will be addressed with “precision” and “urgency” as well as in a world less known, where the body is remolded “into/image of body” with “a bit /of string” and “a tight bow/around each offending digit.//Pull.” In these lines, Bashir demonstrates her capacity to render the attention and focus of the reader to the painful and disturbing; this is one of Bashir’s gifts as a poet.
The elliptical and evocative poem, “Simmering amaranth,” is one of my favorites of the collection. It begins:
I sodden indigo
I lavender scented
The poem evokes an erotic rhythm as it leads to the conclusion:
Here the erotic energy emerges through the poems elisions and through a syntax that is as apparitional as it is discernible. In this poem, Bashir’s experimentations with language and syntax work powerfully to elicit the physical and sexual effects that poetry can have.
It is to Lisa Moore and Red Bone Press’s credit that Gospel as a physical object reflects the poems inside. While all of Red Bone Press’s books are beautiful, this one is different; it is a square of seven inches. In this case, size matters. From the opening series of eleven poems, each written in three tercets and stretching the full length of the page, to later experimentations with boxes as a formal vehicle and finally to the dialogic quality achieved in the last poem with dual columns, the size of this book seems to both determine and reflect the poems individually and as a whole. It is a convergence of form and function that serves the poems and the book well.
Reading Gospel I was inspired to return to Bashir’s first collection of poetry, Where the Apple Falls (2005.) The roots of Gospel are indeed in this earlier book and the images and central concerns of Bashir as a poet remain, but in Gospel I missed the energy and excitement of the poems in Where the Apple Falls. There is in Gospel an artfulness at the level of language and craft that demonstrates Bashir’s continuing development and maturity as a poet, but it elides the emotional complexity of Where the Apple Falls. I hope that Bashir’s next book takes the refinement of Gospel and infuses it with the passion and intensity that she demonstrated in her earlier collection.