I first met Urantia and Shaina several years ago when they were undergraduates at Hampshire College. I had the great luck of working with them as their teacher then. They were alive already (as my Hampshire students often were) to language and its possible uses to nourish or stunt the flourishing of people, and their works were often concerned then with investigating the break (in body, history, story, sound) and contextualizing it in order to better understand, speak, mourn. I do not know if they knew each other well, or if we were ever even in a class or room together. My sense is that they knew each other peripherally, and continue to carry the mutual admiration or joy for knowing the other is out in the world doing her work. These years later they have continued to forge a life of writing in their own personal and distinct ways. It is my privilege to bring them further into constellation with each other on the virtual pages of West Branch.
Urantia Ramirez’s is a fierce, lucid language flecked with a lyric saturation across (at least two) languages. This ability to make a poem that is seemingly solid and grounded but upon closer experience it falls apart like a ruin in one’s ear, is part of what I find breathtaking about her work. In columns of text made of smaller blocks of sound, she tells a story of her family’s history while also saying something larger about Puerto Rican history, colonization by the U.S., migration, labor, violations of reproductive rights, and language loss. She conjures her grandmother’s “broken Brooklyn Borikén” while also making music with it, of it. And this music is layed over a circuitry of Bomba music, which suggests, to me, a history of invention and song-making in the ruin. So here is a work that is also a palimpsest, a carrying, revision against mastery and toward some other thing… possibility, simultaneity, language unfinished and wide enough to hold some history. She writes: “drums | bomba | and santo to | remember / tongue…” The sound work of that repeated “o” in “bomba” and “santo” moves strangely into the English “to” and is also a stutter like “santo to.” In such seemingly tiny moments she makes multiple and simultaneous soundscapes, rendering a disorientation that is generative, loss-ful, and true.
Shaina Jones writes a cosmology in which “Girl” is often one of the centers. She tells the history of a single life with a stunning sense of detail and particularity and yet such strangeness that a subject is never wholly contained by a word, rather a fragment (shiftful) moving through: “x, 20 is blood. is a tiny heaving set of collar bones, asking her big sister, will it hurt? sister is small sound.” She writes through and in life in this poetry made of privacies and intimacies. Shaina’s image is minimalist, impressionistic, and original. Her diction and syntax are taut and, sometimes, in the line of Gwendoln Brooks. Sometimes lines saunter newly making a scene: “a palm-tree girl of fifteen, a bush.” Such lines read like a momentary assertion of independence, beauty, sensuality, and Life, before the pull of Next. Her poems, again and again, are made on this very tension. They imagine both toward and away from history. They are poems as afterlives. They insist on being a place of healing, they dream a dream of simply being (which is part of the clarity and devastation). She writes: “I am chainless, naked, I am nobody’s lover / and I am just the girl…”
Audre Lorde. Sandra María Esteves. Lucille Clifton. Mariposa. Harryette Mullen. Suheir Hammad. These are some of the poets I see Urantia Ramirez and Shaina Jones walking beside and after. And of course the countless poets in their lines whose names I do and do not know: to them I throw my flowers and give thanks.
Aracelis Girmay is the author of the poetry collections Teeth and Kingdom Animalia, and the collage-based picture book changing, changing. Most recently, Girmay’s poetry and essays have been published in Granta, Black Renaissance Noire, and PEN America, among other places. She has received grants and fellowships from the Jerome, Cave Canem, and Watson foundations, as well as Civitella Ranieri and the NEA. She is currently at work on a new project tentatively titled elelegy / The Black Maria. Current collaborations include work with the Critical Projections collective and a translation project with writer and visual artist Rosalba Campra.