Samiya Bashir’s third collection of poetry, Field Theories, is intricate, explosive, polyvocal, deftly-crafted. Exquisite span with acute vision, from the title onward. Consider the word ‘field,’ which is not only an actual expanse, worked and cleared by the labor of bodies, used as a site of physical contest, but also a sphere of interest or expertise or experimentation. As a verb, an active position of exchange and engagement—field a question, field a ball. Bashir’s poems enact this interchange and encompass sites of harm and beauty; they embrace the persistence and trials of the physical—see ‘Sometimes in a body,’ also ‘Upon such rocks,’ in which she writes:
‘Positions of the body that force it to touch its
own flesh. Positions that don’t. Hallelujah…
Bless the burying of
chins into crook. Bless standing. Bless rest.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be
afraid. Keep going.
The poems in this book fear no field—science, song, sound, history. To say Bashir’s attentions and expertise are wide-ranging would be a gross understatement. Her verse does the magic of stretching a reader’s mind and pleasing their ear while maintaining a hold on their flesh and stirring their heart. Take the fifteen sonnets (voiced, in alternation, by the legendary John Henry and his wife Polly Ann) winding through the collection: ‘Coronography,’ in reference to the coronograph, a telescopic attachment that blocks light from a star (usually the sun) to increase other kinds of visibility. Not only does this framing align the sonnets with themes of light and darkness vital throughout the book, but it also highlights the prosody, since this is a corona (or crown) of sonnets. The crown invokes astronomy, music (the story of John Henry’s steel work was traditionally a folk song)—it tells a love and a life story, stories of intense passion and hardship, giving voice to an oft-voiceless figure, Polly Ann.
...I want to keep listening, to return to the splendor and power and pain in this verse...
From ‘Polly Ann has an ordinary day—:’
—I’m useful. I’m my milking body and
another slung around me like hard rock.
I’m dreaming us laced use dropped so low it
sounds like shaking
feels like screams
From ‘John Henry feels fate—:’
Felt like shaking sounded like screams wasn’t
nothing but hot air and hot noise coughing
up hillside coming bent over double-
jointed wheezing vapors and threats.
The sonnets are just one illustration of how Field Theories stands firmly, openly, fiercely prepared to field any toss, many at once, to pitch its own. No less faceted than ‘field’ is ‘theories,’ a word indicating, among other notions, equally a proposition for testing and a widely accepted (and thus foregone) conclusion—question and answer. This contradiction seems apt, as the poems here are both intimate with the theory (thermodynamics, transitive relations, relatives, cycles, rotation, probability) and eager to experiment. How do scientific theories test with jazz, technology, race? What happens to language and theory under pressure, in combination?
How do scientific theories test with jazz, technology, race? What happens to language and theory under pressure, in combination?
Bashir employs concepts like the blackbody curve and blackbody radiation, the blackbody being, in physics, an ideal surface, a ‘perfect absorber’ and emitter of all radiant energy (in contrast to a white body which is rough and reflects all energy away from it). The blackbody curve measures the emission of light as it relates to temperature; Bashir investigates this concept as a rise and fall of violence, joined linguistically as in a curve:
From ‘Blackbody curve:’
…Argument: two buck hunters circle a meadow’s edge.
Edge: one of us outside bleeding.
Bleeding: shards of glass; doors locked.
Locked: carpet awash with blood.
Blood: lift and drop; a sudden breeze.
Breeze: its whistle through bone.
Bone: the other was looking at---
Bone: cradled to catch drips.
Drips: quiet as a meadow fawn.
Blackbody radiation refers to the emission of energy and Bashir’s poem ‘Blackbody radiation’ slants across the page in short bursts of text (‘witness,’ ‘take it,’ ‘crack whip,’ what if you’re running,’ ‘what if you’re running,’ ‘secret’) separated by symbols (addition, equals, less than)—these are the black bodies of today and yesterday, the bodies holding the black lives that matter, energy spilling out, energy persisting.
I was fortunate to see Samiya Bashir at last year’s Thinking Its Presence Conference. She performed on the event’s last day, using recordings and collected (overheard?) phrases from panelists and audience members earlier in the week—she repeated expressions, varied intonation, blended soundbites, bits of language, to potent, devastating effect. It was like a live remix from an archive both public and private. In reading this book, I am reminded of that experience, how her performance resonated, from the personal to the ephemeral, on so many levels (including countless ones, certainly, beyond my lived understanding as a white audience member)—the performance was experiential, experimental, emotional, visionary.
The book is this and more, so tightly, wildly and expertly it is assembled, with some frequencies that are felt immediately, some that are a product of return, some intensified by theoretical knowledge, some outside my range, many beyond the possible scope of a review. And I want to keep listening, to return to the splendor and power and pain in this verse, to the ‘Law of total probability’ marked by bullet holes, to the erasures, to the title poem (The best skin of our lives. /The best skins of our lives./What is a thing of beauty/ if not us?/ Repeat:), to the little girl in ‘Relations between planets and stars’ that jumped like a linefish and jumped like a dockfish [jumping] look! [jumping] look! [jumping] look!’
REVIEWED BY RACHEL MINDELL
Rachel lives in Tucson, Arizona. She is the author of two chapbooks: Like a Teardrop and a Bullet (Dancing Girl Press) and rib and instep: honey (Forthcoming, above/ground). Individual poems have appeared (or will) in Pool, DIAGRAM, Bombay Gin, BOAAT, Forklift, Ohio, Glass Poetry, The Journal, Sundog Lit, Tammy, and elsewhere. She works for Submittable.