Review: Afaa Michael Weaver. The Government of Nature. University of Pittsburgh Press.


At the end of his poem ‘‘The Impossible,’’ a poem that unflinchingly recounts a memory of sexual abuse, Bruce Weigl writes, ‘‘Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.’’ I’ve always had a contentious relationship with this line—feeling both its truth and its impossibility at the same time, and, of course, that’s part of the point. And this line was a kind of echo as I read Afaa Michael Weaver’s The Government of Nature, a book of narrative meditations that look bravely and, at times, with striking clarity, at the memory of childhood abuse— the poems falling down on the memory itself like so much rain. But these poems don’t point only to themselves—their reach extends out, developing a deep politics of suffering, survival, and family history. Weaver’s poems are crisp in their narrative telling, and also rich with the lyrical complexity that is the pillar of Weaver’s work. In ‘‘Washing the Car with My Father,’’ Weaver ends the poem:

He tells me not to miss a spot, to open

the hood when I’m done so he can check
the oil, the vital thing like blood, blood

of kinship, blood spilled in the streets

of Baltimore, blood oozing from the soul
of a son walking prodigal paths leading

to gutters. Years later I tell him the stories
of what his brother-in-law did to me, and

he wipes a tear from the corner of his eye,
wraps it in a white handkerchief for church,
walks up the stairs with the aluminum
crutch to scream at the feet of black Jesus
and in these brittle years of his old age we
grow deeper, talk way after midnight,
peeping over the rail of his hospital bed
as we wash the twilight blue Chevy.

One of Weaver’s remarkable strengths in this narrative is the seamlessness of the metaphor. The car, the oil becoming blood—these are beyond vivid details or powerful descriptions. They gather meaning as the poem moves, as Weaver re- names the blood over and over. The brilliance of the craft in a poem like this is that the poem doesn’t seem made at all, the metaphor not built, just there in the experience. Some poems say, look what I am making and some, the most powerful, just say look. And The Government of Nature requires that we look. However simple looking may seem, in Weaver’s collection looking is an act of survival, a deeply committed and complicated political act.

This poem’s closing marks the tenderness with which Weaver approaches the subject of family, as the conversation between father and son becomes the washing of the car, except in this future moment the two are able to recognize one another with more precision—the way we recognize one another when we are running out of moments to do so. Weaver’s poems mark the body, contending with its mortality, something he names ‘‘a throat jammed with a good-bye’’ in the poem ‘‘When My Heart Fails.’’ In this poem Weaver writes, ‘‘I have come to have a high noon with the past.’’ This moment reveals, for me, Weaver’s ability to take a familiar idiom, like ‘‘high noon,’’ and pull the phrase’s meaning into the realm of the unfamiliar. Several times in the collection, the abuser is imagined as ‘‘cow- boy,’’ so that when we come upon the phrase ‘‘high noon,’’ we hear the unsettling haunting of a childhood. But, as in much of Weaver’s prior work, a ‘‘high noon’’ with the past is not only a personal necessity but also a deeply historical one. In this sense, while Weaver’s book is profoundly personal in its subject matter, it is also a social and political critique that calls on us to look at our personal and collective histories as reflective and therefore inseparable.

In the notes section of this book (which guide the reader through a series of Buddhist and Daoist symbols and references from the poems), Weaver positions the book as the second of a trilogy that began with his collection The Plum Flower Dance. Weaver also explains the book’s title, The Government of Nature, as making reference ‘‘to the Daoist idea that the internal human body is a microcosm of our outer world.’’ Read through the lens of this idea (the idea that the inner movements and contents of our bodies are a reflection of what we see in the external world), Weaver’s poems gather further significance. The title poem closes:

Dear body of mine, I push off from a knowing

that tears my eyes into a steady stream, leaving

the medulla, a tuft of grass on a hill looking up and out
to the wise fool in the center of the mind, as wishes

fall back from the perimeters on the skin, beneath to
the bone, inside the marrow to pierce the centers

of selves until knowing leaves us, tender and mortal,
desire a river longing itself into being, lost in mirrors.

In this poem, the body becomes the external world. The eyes a stream, the brain a tuft of grass wiser than the selves we are, desire an intangible being with a longing realized as a river. The poem reckons with the beauty and the terror of inner selves functioning as a small world, which, if it is anything like the outside world, is beyond our control, beyond even our knowledge of it. But this knowledge, the poems argue, does not keep us from the hope of becoming something more than ourselves. In ‘‘Remember,’’ a poem dedicated to Weaver’s granddaughter, a poem that rests on a series of repetitions, he writes, ‘‘If I forget to tame the lightning / let me know.’’ The poem is made of a series of conditionals, each one ending in ‘‘let me know’’ until the final six lines of the poem:

If I forget that the divine thing
moved inside me to write this,
the thing that can do all things,
let me know
let me down easy
into the earth.

This poem, like many others in the collection, imagines the world inside us as being the place from which poetry comes, a place where ‘‘a divine thing’’ lives, ‘‘the thing that can do all things.’’ The poem is, on the one hand, a wish for being able to protect loved ones from harm, a wish for a gentle end, but it is also an argument for the infinite possibility and power of poetry itself—a power ‘‘to stop rushing cars’’ or ‘‘to plug the sun.’’ The poems in this collection are also a set of complicated questions about identity—who are we? what parts of us are God? are poetry? are embodied? how are we both empty and full of the world?

The contradictory nature of identity is inescapable. Our identities—heavy and thick, yet as ungraspable as the air we breathe—work on us, empower us, constrain us, construct us so that we might fully experience the paradox, the beauty, and the pain of who we are. At least, if you ask me, those tensions are what bring poets to pages. And a poet’s ability to clearly reflect those tensions, however contradictory they may be, is what makes poetry worth reading. And if you want to come face to face with the ways identity, family history, language, and suffering build and rebuild who we imagine ourselves to be, then read The Government of Nature. And read it more than once.