by Eric Stiefel
Taylor Byas’s debut chapbook, Bloodwarm (Variant Lit, 2021), does the work that a good chapbook should: It’s bold, concise, and daring, and it hones in on what it wants to say, collecting its poems as variations on a theme without spending too much time retreading worn territory. Bloodwarm dances between the formal and the formally engaging, from sonnets to pantoums to erasures, to poems written from the past, to poems written as voicemails, as highway exit signs.
The collection starts in media res with “My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much” (p. 1), opening with a pair of violent images from 2020’s George Floyd protests against police brutality (and the further police brutality inspired by the protests). “I come across pictures of two rubber bullets / nestled in a palm,” the poem begins, later telling us “The caption reads These maim, break skin, / cause blindness.” These lines are contrasted with the next image: “Another photo—a hollow / caved into a woman’s scalp, floating hands // in blue gloves dabbing at the spill.”
The poem continues, noting each time the speaker’s Twitter feed refreshes, confronting both speaker and reader with visceral image after visceral image. “A black / man melts into a street curb from exhaustion, his skin / blotched with sweat and red,” the poem shows us. “Undercover / cops wearing matching armbands like a gang. A black / army tank crawling through city streets the way a hand / may tip-toe up a thigh,” another stanza continues, conflating the turmoil that’s overrun the poem’s city streets with a foreign hand on a body, an alien presence on the skin.
The poem continues its pattern, raising its stakes line by line, stanza by stanza, until we reach a crescendo: “a woman’s forehead skin / split—page refreshes—a bloody hollow—refresh—take cover,” ending the poem, motioning back to the “too much” from the title, suggesting the speaker has had to turn away from the violence on their screen, that the reality of the present is, as the title suggests, too much to bear.
Subsequent poems turn inward to the speaker, to the lived experiences of a black woman in America, from the societal rejection and isolation explored in “You’re It” (p. 4) to the jarring narrative experience of having a racial slur hurled at the speaker in “Gas Station” (p. 5). The speaker responds “I pull the trigger— / a puddle of gas at my feet, / under my fingernails,” the lines of the poem sporadic and sprawled, full of white space that leaves room for the emotional weight of the poem to sink in. A few lines later, the poem ends “My hands clean / easily, but everything else / sticks—” leaving us hanging on its em dash, motioning out into an open emotional resonance.
The poems to the center of the chapbook continue moving inward, fleshing out the speaker’s interiority toward moving back out again to the world at large at the end of the collection. Even the moments of silence in Bloodwarm are fraught, with lines like “I check for bruises like these shoppers check / for me—the blackened pit of a golden peach” in “A Grocery Store in Alabama” (p. 9) and poems like “How I Take My Morning Tea” (p. 10), in which the speaker’s morning ritual of making tea is interrupted, once more, by the news of another police killing, the speaker telling us they’ve already memorized the words, the story, the cycle of violence.
“On Being a Black Instructor” (p. 11) is a sonnet that acts as a meditation on teaching but mostly as presenting oneself as a black woman in a mostly white world, rhyming seamlessly while being unafraid to slip in a slant rhyme when it fits. I’m most struck by lines from the third stanza, how they play with language while speaking to the seriousness of erasing the self: “I’ll write my name to muss it up with my hands, / redact myself—Miss Byas down to Miss B—” cleverly erasing the poet’s own name in the first instance. The poem then moves back into play with the couplet, ending on the lines “Then I’ll be mirror, I’ll be mime, the fox / they lost the trail on, with the
perfect hiding spot.”
The chapbook continues its lines of heartbreak and racial injustice, from a Titanic Museum to Madam C. J. Walker to all-too-familiar police encounters. Toward the end, I’m struck by an ekphrastic sonnet, “How Young Boys Survive the Ghetto: 101” (p. 19), a response to Gordon Parks’s Ghetto Boy, Chicago, Illinois, a portrait of a young black boy smiling in front of a building’s dilapidated steps with a sheet tied like a cape around his shoulders.
The poem opens in the imperative:
Play house. Climb on a chair of shit-stained paisley
in an alley, avoid the broken bottle. Cut
your momma’s housedress, make a cape that’s maybe
a size too big. Pose for this camera…
The poem stays in this mode of encouraging boyhood, staying young as a way to survive the effects of the subject’s environment, to hold onto “the power of a stuck-out / hip, its demand for respect.” This imperative mode grows stronger near the volta with the lines “Don’t turn around. / Don’t look behind and see the world’s kept going…” the emphasis in the poem changing from staying young to not letting the world rip the subject from his innocence.
The couplet at the end of this poem speaks to one of the chapbook’s major desires as a whole, for the speaker, and for other Black Americans like the speaker, to live lives free of fear and judgment, free of racial injustice and the systems that perpetuate it. The poem ends pleading, almost optimistically, “boy look into this lens, let me remember you / like this, carefree, acting a fool like you always do.”
Eric Stiefel is a poet living in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet. He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, Prism Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.