Among “hide and / seek faces peeling / with Freudian dreams,” poet Sonia Sanchez manages to rise above that facade and claim her own distinct voice in her new anthology, “Sonia Sanchez: Collected Poems.” In this accumulation of what seems to be a lifetime of picturesque and powerful anecdotes, Sanchez, a Hunter College alumna, travels through the incredibly dense landscape of her life.
During her time at Hunter in the fifties, Sanchez was able to manage the stutter that she had grown up with. And although she studied political science, her writing voice and poetic style started developing during this period. In order to combat her stutter, Sanchez read her poetry out loud when she wrote it. As a result, her dramatic poetry recitations became a facet of her poetry that helped lead to widespread fame. She became a torchbearer for the Black Arts movement, in which Black artists, writers, musicians and performers sought to redefine art so that it depicted Black people with realistic imagery and depth.
It should come at no surprise that a collection of poems spanning more than half a century and over a dozen acclaimed poetry collections is as cohesive and bildungsroman-like as “Collected Poems” — but the immediate power and movement the poems evoke from the very start of the anthology are perhaps stronger than any of her other works individually because of the way they are arranged in this anthology.
Throughout the anthology, Sanchez espouses experimental form with poignant life experiences. Sometimes, these life experiences are unmanageably traumatic — presented in the only way their pain can be correctly measured: poetry. An example of one of the many poems that explores that trauma is the long-form poem, “For Tupac Amaru Shakur.” The poem traces Sanchez’s visceral reaction to the death of the rapper Tupac, all while using highly experimental forms that give the poem more disorientation but also weight.
At times, the voice of the poet in “For Tupac Amaru Shakur” seems to break into mournful recounting, urging readers to “listen to them chasing life falling / down getting up in this / house of blue mourning birds,” and at other times, it purposefully meanders through various conversational sub-voices, such as “& he says: dear mama, i love you / & we say: dear all the mamas, i love you too.”
In other poems, Sanchez creates moments that are dazzling and ethereal — recreated perfectly with Sanchez’s masterful articulation. These poems, including, “Fall” usually have a lingering melancholia. Sanchez packs quite a lot of poignant images into “Fall,” reminiscing when “you would / come to sift the waves / until they flaked like / diamonds over our flanks.” Allowing these images to simmer gives rise to a sinking feeling of nostalgia and reminiscing the past.
Other works are inspirational and motivational, such as “Catch the Fire.” Here, Sanchez explores the nuances of how people in her community should reclaim the “beautiful fire that gave light to the world” by sending love out to the universe instead of killing each other or participating in violence. The poem ends on a note of brotherly and sisterly love and the repeated word “live.” Written in 1995, the poem served as a cry for unity and compassion within her own community in New York City and across the country rallying for an end to gang violence.
In these moments in particular, Sanchez’s poetry transcends her body of work and rises into something greater. Her work uses experimental forms to call for change within the community and raise awareness of how they must work together to improve things one step at a time. At its core, “Sonia Sanchez: Collected Poems” is a dazzling collection of poetry. But it accomplishes so much more than just being well-written. Sanchez also examines her traumatic experience related to sex, race and family, all the while framing it with such artful language. The meshing of these complex themes with her experimental forms and vivid language makes her work feel almost like a chorus of the voices of her varied narrators, emotions and perspectives.
And although “Sonia Sanchez: Collected Poems” spans many individual poetry books, it not only remains cohesive, but the voice of the poet goes through a growth arc over the course of the book. As a result, the collection reads as brilliantly polished and meticulously crafted with a sharp poetic eye.