cover image Black Crow Dress

Black Crow Dress

Roxane Beth Johnson. Alice James (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-882295-95-1

Ancestors haunt this book and “each one is hungry a voice.” Johnson gives voice to slaves Clea, Caroline, and Zebedee (“My little pain,” Zebedee says. “There is this living. I don’t know how to let it go”), and also to the family Finch that owns them (“Her hands on my piano are dark feathers dusting bones,” says Prudence Finch of Clea. “She does not need music to play it”). Split into two sections—the first following the experience of life in slavery, and the determination to grasp onto even a life in chains, and the second, “Afterlife,” addressing if and how plight is inherited—the book has its most gripping moments when Johnson explores the complexities of her own project to declare the suffering of others: In “Zebedee at the New Plantation” she begins, “He resists me writing the word new in the title of this poem. And the word plantation irritates him. He wants you to know forge, anvil and hammer were the tools he had and never did he touch a head of cotton.” The poems, mostly in bursts of prose, aim toward transcription for the voiceless where there could be none—and when voices of the unreachable falter, these figures, for Johnson, “make orchids bloom and create a nice echo in the bathroom, where I can sing.” (Jan.)