Ama Codjoe’s “Blood of the Air” is a slim poetry debut, the winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. This short series of poems link together to explore mythic characters and assume the voices of women who have not always had their say. Codjoe does more than vivify recognizable archetypes. She creates interconnected ekphrastic poems that celebrate and delve deeper into visual artist Betye Saar and her famous work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” German choreographer Pina Bausch and “The Rite of Spring,” and the overlap of the mythically complicated story of Zeus and Leda with Codjoe’s long poem “She Said.”
A succinct foreword from Drinking Gourd judge Ed Roberson effectively explains how these poems interconnect, even as they stand independently, and speak with their own individual voices: “She [Codjoe] makes it clear that it is not just gods, but we mortals who abuse power—even the power of storytelling.” “Blood of the Air” is Codjoe’s response to this sort of flawed storytelling.
The opening poem, “Burying Seeds,” carefully weaves the story of Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, with the speaker’s narrative in tercets. “She Said” is the longest piece in the book. The poem borrows text from the transcript of a seventeenth-century rape trial, but its fractured language renders the sense of trauma and triggered memory that fills the blank white spaces between stanzas. There is a sensuality unfurling in the couplets of “The Beekeeper’s Husband.” The penultimate poem, “Nasty Woman,” celebrates musician and songwriter Betty Davis. Even though “nasty woman” has been a phrase coined by feminists across the country, the title itself is a nice play on the title of Davis’ 1975 album “Nasty Gal.”
Codjoe’s poetry offers a brief, powerful intersection where the subjects of her poems illustrate how some issues recur again and again throughout the human experience. In times like these, when blood and air are porous elements that we fear, we see how they are ancient and necessary, too.
“Blood of the Air”
By Ama Codjoe
Northwestern University Press, 48 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.