In her debut poetry collection, She Has a Name, Kamilah Aisha Moon satisfies a deep need to speak about her family’s experiences after her youngest sister was diagnosed with autism. Moon’s collage of loss, grief, and gratitude reveals a family that is undeniably close and poems that feel absolutely necessary.
Some of the most poignant poems here speak in the voice of the father, whose pain struggles to find expression within the confines of traditional masculinity. Titled “(Father),” it opens with this double-admission as he recalls holding his youngest of three daughters: “The last thing / I ever wanted was to let her / down.” His next observation is a gradual, devastating realization:
She didn’t wriggle
like my older girls did,
restless for ground. No, Lord, no.
Please. Not my baby girl, not the one
named after Mama, gone. (11)
The poem makes room for the father’s grief. An empty nest is one kind of sadness, but this fledgling cannot fly away.
No one has it easy. In the case of a family member in need of extra care, moral questions abound. The older and middle sister must work to individuate and, yes, leave home as most children do. Yet as the speaker of “(Middle Sister)” reveals, one sister’s autism diagnosis has ramifications for the other siblings: “We know ‘watch your sister’ means forever” (41). The line packs so much meaning into so little space, revealing the power of family vernacular.
There is room for joy here, too. Moon takes mini-breaks from the collection’s official theme in order to honor and reflect upon other facets of experience—early childhood, coming of age, falling in love. In “Me and My Friends Circa 1981,” we enjoy a whimsical memory: “At least half of us walked around/ wearing constant Kool-Aid mustaches / and fresh knee scabs” (16). The self-deprecating humor gives way to a celebration of childhood play while hinting at hurts to come.
Yet even in these poems of departure, away from the troubles of home, there is that needling theme again: what could have been. As Moon’s speaker admits: “Each visit home frays me, / the price I pay for being able to drive away.” (53) Survivor’s guilt is real. Profound truths like these abound in She Has a Name—even the title edges in a lesson, correcting acquaintances that neglect to ask a certain sister’s name. Moon’s poetry reveals the work of years—both on and off the page—though the truth in her poems may appear effortless to the untrained eye.
In “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express.” Moon’s speaker observes a distraught passenger:
I can’t stop looking. You can’t get over
whatever has happened, so shell-shocked
that birds could land and roost. I want to ask—
just so you know someone
is paying attention, but not enough
to know what ravages. It’s rude
to stare. I’m from the South, a suburb
where Grief pulls the shades first,
stays home if indecent… (53-54)
The poetic muse has no doubt visited this “Express” bus: the poet sees suffering, feels it in her bones, and must write. Thus, a new vantage point opens up: the younger sister’s autism runs parallel to the poet’s own Negative Capability, to borrow Keats’s oft-quoted term. And autism does not stop the younger sister from performing a transcendent African dance, painting a “Possible Self-Portrait,” and speaking her own truths. From suffering falls wisdom, drop by drop. Personified Grief must find her way out, somehow, and this New York poem feels the tug of Southern roots.
Moon follows in the tradition of Lucille Clifton, both in terms of vision and style. In the collection’s final poem, “A Superwoman Chooses Another Way to Fly,” the kid sister—no longer a kid—breaks away from the margins of italics to voice a full-bodied persona poem that transcends Autism. Here the speaker wakes, as usual, covered in sweat from nightly torments. Despair beckons. The poem is written in lower case, a tribute to the Goddess Clifton, whom I imagine as the angel that inspires another way to be free:
it’s always a choice, the angel spoke-sang,
to be stronger than what pulls
us down. let these night sweats
rain a salty hope, despite waking up
full of old water with the flaked mouth
of a sharecropper at dusk. (72-73)
Here the poem—and indeed, the collection— breaks open and outward, and back in time. We are in the presence of a Southern, black poet. And a deep spirituality. Electric currents of race, gender, and identity politics run throughout the collection—if you know enough to look, you’ll notice lines like “Autism, the one-drop rule for minds” in the opening poem, “Borderless Country.”
Let’s set all that aside for a moment, as we have been invited to a healing revival. Moon’s book bestows a parting gift, an argument for how to live after loss: “Why stay thirsty when / many draw from my well? / Why settle for shacks when I own / a sprawling, rambling heart?” (73). Pity is rejected in favor of self-affirming love.
Moon’s is a very personal project. In the Author’s Note, she calls her work “a ‘biomythography’ in poems,” citing Audre Lorde’s term, “based on a larger family narrative.” Moon adds: “I can only speak for and as myself definitely.”
Wise readers will turn the page and greet this important literary debut by Kamilah Aisha Moon.
Safia Jama is an MFA Candidate at Rutgers-Newark