Haymarket Books ($17)
by Rachel Slotnick
Maya Marshall does not mince words in All the Blood Involved in Love, her debut poetry collection. Twitter declares #believewomen and #sayhername, and Marshall claps back, “Down the maternity halls black women are dying.” Reading this book is like looking through a kaleidoscope at a cross section of violence: the violence of motherhood, the violence of race, the violence of illness, and of course, the violence of love.
Marshall begins by calling out lies. Our reality is a fiction, she declares: “The story is that there is so much loss, // so much waste in a woman who does not make // a body with her body // . . . // The story is that the black woman is safe.” In the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson, the news cycles have washed their hands of the residue of intersectional progress, and Marshall leans in: “I have the good fortune to be free: / to choose, / to have part of my cervix intact, // to change the locks after / I’m attacked.” Through the suspense of enjambment, she addresses the horrific historical use of hysterectomy. She also implicates its continued contemporary use with references to Dawn Wooten, the detention center nurse who came forward regarding the forced sterilization of immigrants at the border.
The pain of both having and not having circumvents the collection. In a poem titled, “An Abortion Ban,” Marshall weaves together the inequities of gender, race, and longing: “Semen is an innocent bystander. / Penises are just boys being.” The narrative splinters as the kaleidoscope turns. We move from logic and sequential design to metaphorical and abstract figures: “An embryo is a fingernail. / A fetus is a jail,” followed by “A uterus is a leash. / A stillbirth is a tether.” The synthesis of her words is unavoidable: whether a woman becomes a mother or not, she is imprisoned.
With each new atrocity, Marshall’s words build intimacy. Many stanzas are confessional in nature; they are loveless letters. They were drafted and stamped, but never sent: “He thinks we understand each / other because of his illness / and my blackness, / but my blackness / does not make me sick.” In weighing pain and adversity against heartbreak, the reader feels like a voyeur, spying on a woman who is hemorrhaging words. Marshall laments: “Our two bodies empty / of bodies. A friend and a widow on the shore.” Even before the violence of illness comes to fruition, a loss has taken place, and before that loss another loss, and before that another.
Between personal asides, Marshall ruminates on the implications of choices for women of color. She sometimes speaks with regret: “When I remember the man that I wanted to marry but couldn’t, / I think about the children we didn’t have. // My fibroids would have made room.” Fibroids affect nearly a quarter of young black women, and by mentioning the ailment, Marshall underscores the pain of motherhood with the ache of marginalization. She asks of an unnamed man in the text, “why he doesn’t walk on lit major streets. / He says he is afraid to be outside in his body. // In a museum, a white woman reaches for me // tells me she’s never thought / of black men being afraid.” Marshall seems to be asking, Where do we go from here?
The cumulative effect is that the distinction between forms of violence is narrowed. Moving from same sex desire to childbirth, Marshall writes of “the stretch marks that surround the /exit wound.” In so few words, she likens childbirth to gun violence. Elsewhere she equates queer love and viciousness: “I looked into the open cleft of a lover and watched / the month’s first rivulet descend as she called / on my tongue’s continued praise.” In other words, to love is to bleed and to make bleed.
In this collection, Marshall doesn’t lean on irony or falsehoods; she tells it like it is, unafraid of poetry that doesn’t sound like poetry. Perhaps this is most astutely demonstrated by her shrewd dedication: “To mothers, especially mine. And to those who choose not to.”
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