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Book Review: Build Yourself A Boat by Camonghne Felix

"I keep the world/big and my sanity small."

At the AWP conference, we had the immense pleasure of hosting a Portland edition of our Austin-based reading series, I Scream Social. We were completely transfixed by our readers, seven women and non-binary writers of color, whose writing was simply electric. We left the reading in the afterglow of having been in the presence of people who are out to change the world.

One of our dreamy readers was Camonghne Felix, a poet and political strategist whose charismatic reading made me feel a little star-struck.  Camoghne's debut collection of poems, Build Yourself A Boat, was published as part of the BreakBeat Poetry Series through Haymarket Books, a series committed to work that brings the aesthetic of hip-hop to the page. Camonghne’s presence is nothing short of enlightening. She read from Build Yourself A Boat in her Scream Social-AWP performance, and I was struck by the way she allowed her molten brilliance to radiate at its highest temperature, without cooling it off for the palate of the listener. Though her work deals with searingly difficult content, I didn't get the sense that the heat of it is there to intentionally burn us. Camonghne invited us in, to absorb the glow of her singular intellect. I  pre-ordered Build Yourself A Boat, as soon as I got home. I'm honored to write this as the first book review for the Host blog!  

Camonghne's poetic aesthetic samples language in both its analog and digital forms, layering voices from the most intimate lyrical "I" to the quivering, disembodied keywords from a Google search engine. And in between we find human voices attached to human bodies doing human things: skipping class, smoking spliffs, testifying in court, punching a sister in the face. Not only do these poems feel like they come directly from the body, they meditate on the body, they savor it. Camonghne writes:

"The body is not a site for revelatory shame." 

In her poem "Mirror Talk", the body is conflated with the form of the poem, the form of an accusation. The speaker states that she's allowed to disrespect form, just as her physical form has been so egregiously disrespected by the violations of history, and rape.

At the same time, her form transcends through poetic language, her body is also "a fruit or something else taking in from a sun and expanding." There is massive expansion in these poems. They expand our idea of body by exploring the idea of body as a mediator between the turbulent traumas and desires of the internal Self; the body as interpreter of the mind and spirit. In these poems, the body translates the Self, and its experiences into a language that we can understand.

For all their vibrancy, the poems in Build Yourself A Boat are always on the brink of death:

"The poem could just die right here."

As if to say, these are the stakes. This poetry is walking the line between life and death. The speaker is too, as in the first poem,

"The psych on duty in triage/Asks me if I want to die, and I say/Not at the moment, no, but stay/Tuned."

Camonghne handles topics of death, mental illness, raw experiences of racism, of growing up poor, the trial of George Zimmerman, without breaking eye contact. This closeness to death, this glaring into the face of fear is also what makes these poems always on the brink of ecstasy, or in the throes of it, experiencing the ragged pleasure of being a living body in motion:

"I was given life and led/it off and astray toward the glitter of/direction."

Experiences of ecstasy feel just as pertinent as death to the context of these poems, the predicament of being a black body in America, of living with childhood trauma, ongoing trauma, anticipating trauma, even as they revel in the what grows from the wreckage. In other words, these poems are utterly and wholly human.

"I get born every day"

Build Yourself A Boat is a testament to the rebirth and renewal that springs forth from this work like weeds with healing properties, and beautiful blooms. 

Camonghne references the Tarot in her poem "Statement On Being Lonely Vs. Alone". As a Tarot reader myself, I often encounter people in the world who feel like they embody certain cards from the deck. To me, Camonghne’s presence and her poetry feel like an embodiment of the Queen of Swords. 

Queen of Swords from the Dark Days Tarot deck

Camonghne presents herself to you with radiant wit and charm. She embodies intellect and spirit, and wields her creative power with an authority that comes from the grit of her own mettle. Build Yourself A Boat does not only voice the beauty and loss of survival, it voices tenderness, hunger, generosity and fury, it exists in the midst of the survival process without shame, despair, or censorship.  

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