Poet Cicely Belle Blain’s debut collection, Burning Sugar, is a book that arrives ready and having already blazed a trail. Organized in three sections (“Place,” “Art,” and “Child”), this book is not merely an exploration of Black and queer and femme identity, or Black history, or even the lived experience of what it means to travel while Black. It is all of these things, but also a psychogeography, a portrait of being a child of diaspora. These poems perform difficult work, yet still make room for compassion and self-love. Each poem is a call for Black joy, despite the eternally harrowing nature of “the waters that brought us here” (“Northern California”).
In “London,” the reader is poised from the very beginning to consider the “beginnings of destruction” associated with empire, “the birthplace of endings.” In “North Carolina” somatic experience once again becomes a signal of speech and an obscure wonder. The poet notes their natural gravitation towards the magnolia tree, whose “Pale yellow flowers reach upwards, undoing gravity.” But the open road isn’t so free if you’re Black. In “Dear Philando Castile” we are asked to step into the fearful scenery of “red and blue lights” that cause the re-living and re-memory of anti-Black violence at the hands of police, the onslaught of which takes on the quality of an arrhythmia: “Red and blue lights in my rear-view mirror will always remind me of you. / Red and blue lights in my rear-view mirror will always make my heart shake.”
Epistolary poems (written to both the living and passed) continue in the second section (“Art”), in addition to various caustic takes on the coloniality of capital-A art itself and the irony of paying to see your ancestors’ own artifacts (stolen). In art galleries, like life, we are again in conversation with presences both bygone and here. Sarcastic takes on the ekphrastic poem (such as the aptly named “I hate white people in art galleries”) lead to introspective re-framings of what a mixed-race identity is, if not understood through the spectre of slavery/empire (“Dear Archibald Motley, Jr.”).
In approaching the last section, “Child,” the reader is brought back to a kind of beginning, in a kind of cyclical return, to the “father.” The father-child relationship is one that bears “the thickness of blood / the cellular memory of trauma” on the one hand and “ocean / friendship, gifted companionship, requited and deserved admiration / of freshwater stream, mountain creek, rapids” on the other. There is the inevitable burning sugar that is history, but there is also the “burning, bruising desire, of steaming, gushing, unfettered love.” There is, again, the opaque experience of knowing “your life’s work is searching for Black joy / and / drowning in Black pain” (“Dear Kahlil”). And even beyond the registers of joy and pain is the continued struggle, for greater equity and justice in our world. That Cicely Belle Blain has arrived on the literary scene having already fanned critical flames of thinking and reckoning is both refreshing and identity-affirming for the many of us who have historically arrived at a place only to have been relegated to the margins.
The world of Burning Sugar is one of the most moving collections I have had the (difficult) joy of reading in 2020. That this book is only the second title from the VS. Books imprint under Vivek Shraya (a series featuring work by new/emerging BIPOC writers) gives me a deeper, more sustainable hope for the future of Canadian publishing. In this way, Burning Sugar is a hopeful roadmap, too; a way of finding strength and a looking forward even through the very mode(s) of remembering. These are letters that rightfully burn and resist burial. They demand you remember them, or else. But in burning, they also light a way.
Adebe DeRango-Adem is a writer and former attendee of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (Naropa University), where she mentored with poets Anne Waldman and Amiri Baraka. She is the author of three full-length poetry books to date: Ex Nihilo (Frontenac House, 2010), Terra Incognita (Inanna Publications, 2015), and The Unmooring (Mansfield Press, 2018).
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.