The Sealey Challenge: Blood of the Air

Ama Codjoe's BLOOD OF THE AIR, yellow on yellow, in front of a sea of gold flowers.
Blood of the Air

Ama Codjoe’s Blood of the Air grabs with its first words, hooking fingers—talons?—into the reader, drawing them into a world that is our own, and also is not. Codjoe pulls from myth, and from legend, and from art, and from reality, and Blood of the Air is the greater for it. (And I love it so much it will be difficult to review.)

Blood of the Air is a quote borrowed from Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” and Codjoe makes use of that poem throughout the chapbook, turning it on its head, blood turned to the power of life-giving and of passion, women reclaiming their stories and their bodies and their names for themselves.

Codjoe honors Betty Shabazz and Pauline Lumumba in “Burying Seeds,” acknowledging the interiorities of private losses that are also public. She builds a poem of strength hard and cold as ice in “Head on Ice #5,” inspired by Lorna Simpson’s cool, magnificent photograph of the same name. (You can check out the whole series on Simpson’s website.) She writes two poems inspired by Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,1 both of which twine through mythology and folklore, exploding them on the way, giving the figure of Aunt Jemima desire and agency and voice of her own.

Blood of the Air is a quote pulled from a poem about sexual violence—because, let’s face it, that’s what Leda and the swan is, it’s rape—and Codjoe doesn’t shy from interrogating sexual violence in the text, making what is likely the most powerful use of white space I’ve yet seen in the poem “She Said.” Here, Codjoe draws directly from two women’s testimonies regarding sexual assault—Artemisia Gentileschi and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford—to build a poem that feels like a sucker punch, and could be any of us. (And how often are women historically relegated to those holes in the page?)

Codjoe finishes out her collection with a poem about Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, and a poem about nasty women and nasty gals—both of them, in very different ways, gathering mythos close, and claiming life and vitality and agency for the women in them, and, I think, for the women who read them. They are alive, pulsing with vitality—and also with agency.

Leda trembles, in Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” The women of Blood of the Air tremble, surely—but they fight back, rise up, claim bodies and souls and agency for themselves. Blood is life, and also death, and both are here, in these poems that pulse with life and with vigor, claiming their own agency.

1 You can, if you are interested, read about Saar’s assemblage sculptures, including The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, at JSTOR Daily.

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