Review: 'Brass Neck' by Victoria Naa Takia Nunoo
Publisher: RLFPA Editions
An Exercise in Rejecting Permission by Giving Permission
In Victoria Naa Takia Nunoo’s debut Brass Neck, the body is at the center of a turf war between acceptance through exploration and repulsion through boundaries. Ilya Kaminsky who chose the collection as winner of the 2018 RL Poetry prize writes:
Reading this Brass Neck, one thinks of Whitman’s passion for the body and insistence that one’s on the connection of all our bodies, our voices, our pain and pleasure…Then there is a harsher humor, and yet it still possesses a kind of innocence of learning the other’s body…the poet still possesses tenderness for the body…
Indeed, the body is unmissable in these verses. Out of the 50 poems in the collection, the body is either directly mentioned or indirectly referenced (through specific body parts) at least 31 times. In “Tower of Women,” we see “…women tower / on each other’s bodies.” In “Boarding School,” “teenage bodies stretch out before you” and in “Burnt Hope” where “mouths are aiming guns…they do not understand / the language of our bodies.” The poem immediately following it, called “Body Parts,” and others like it such as “Teenage Bodies” and “Angry Body” all make direct mention of body or bodies in their title. There is a pugilistic insistence to this kind of repetition. The very first poem of the collection—”Touching Skin”—typifies the poet’s use of repetition:
a little girl touches skin under a wooden desk
two little girls touch skin under a wooden desk
three little girls touch skin under a wooden table
a class of little girls touch skin under
To be clear, there is more at stake here than the body. It is but a fulcrum and not necessarily the whole. The body in these poems is a beginning and a reaffirmation (as opposed to a mere license); it is the sounding fury escaping from a smoking barrel to say to the athlete, run! The poems in Brass Neck therefore embody the pursuit of liberty as a ward of autonomy. This deep search for an ownership of freedom—while chiefly centered around the body but not exclusively—becomes the metronome by which most if not all the poems are paced. The poet’s voice vociferates across the pages declaring the good news of ownership of self, of consequent liberation, and for the sense of control such autonomy promises. Through the insistence that carries this message, as seen in the poem “Touching Skin,” its urgency and blessedness is conveyed. The poem “An Act of Love” as its title implies, emphasizes this faith in autonomy and its liberty as demonstration of love, particularly self-love:
Sometimes I kiss myself. I put my arm forward, plant my big
Bold lips on my skin and suck it in. Even after the sound gets
Sucked into my stomach. I’m curious about how my skin feels;
How this body tastes.
By the poet’s design the pursuit of autonomy is thus tied to self-love. She again demonstrates this in the poem “Loving God”: “the closest i’ve come to loving God / is loving myself.” There is a sense of poised unguardedness to the language here and throughout the collection. This is especially clear in how she again relies on insistence to speak to sensuality.
There is an intentional and insistent welcome of the conservatively errant especially regarding sex and sensuality. An argument could be made that the collection perhaps opens with a poem like “Touching Skin” for this exact reason. There is a tired boldness undergirding poems of this kind in the collection. But what is more intriguing is the two-pronged approach with which sensuality is addressed in these verses. On the one hand, subliminal language reigns but on the other, forwardness thrives. For instance in poems like “Temple” where “temples are built for worship, rukie / show me a temple that never held worshippers // …open your temple for worship” or “Of All Things Fruity” where we see “women smell like flowers…// women taste like fruits…//…i want her juice on my tongue”, the sensual is ushered in by subliminal language. Yet, a poem like “The Escape” typifies the staggering forwardness of others: “if the world is ours / we should totally / fuck on it.” Ms. Nunoo demonstrates that she is practiced in the art of using metaphors to convert the banally familiar to the illustratively sensual as seen in “Cutting Carrots”:
[sees a teensy-weensy carrot]
Throwback to your first finger job
That orgasm came faster than you
Could hear yourself moan
This vacillation between forwardness and subliminal language creates a reverberant tension that elevates the complexity of the work.
At certain points complexity gives way to simplicity marked by brevity of length. The result is mixed at best. There are those poems with a condensed narrative style where profundity is packed into brevity. The rewards are beautiful and oft reaped as is the case in poems like “Dipo,” “First Love,” and “Quack Doctor.” But when such brevity and compactness fail, the dread and specter of incompletion haunt readers bleakly. Even when grounded in specific locations, some of these more brief and epigrammatic poems feel rather directionless. Poems like “Being Incapable of Love” and “Creepy Pleasures” for example, seem to leave more of a void than a stirring.
However, there is no shortage of stirring art in this collection. Far from it. As part of the grand machinery of insistence in these poems, Ms. Nunoo strikes with intentionality as often as she can. The way some of the poems in the collection are written as though a kind of ode to the same culture and environment that necessitates an insistence of voice is deeply enriching. For behind the exigency of a gospel of liberation and self-love is the pain and violation that has begotten it, as poems like “Rage Sex,” “Steamy Motion,” and “Behind Narrow Houses”prove. So even when writing with and from pain, diction delivers a completeness of emotion and expression wherein a poem is a love letter to a country; a people; a tribe; a culture. Certain words and phrases are unmistakably written “for the culture” (of Ghana and Ghanaians). For instance in “Teenage Bodies” the simile “he sounds like malt mixed with evaporated milk” is an acutely Ghanaian interpretation of a specific kind of deliciousness. So too the word “dipo” which is the title of one of the poems is a direct reference of a traditional rite of passage for the Krobo-speaking ethnic groups of Ghana. The reference to “salo mangoes” is another nod to certain aspects of Ghanaianness.
There is a definite triumph in the construction of these poems. The exploration of liberation and bodily autonomy as resistance to violation and a path to self-love rings with clarity and intention. This poet’s choices show a willingness to go “there” where we are not expected to venture, wherever “there” may be. It is a most necessary and thrilling enterprise.
N.K.A. Prempeh has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. He is an MA/PhD student in the English Department at UMass, Amherst. His work appears in Africa is a Country, Brittle Paper, Anastamos and elsewhere.