After the birth of a first child, many parents morph into peek-a-boo-ing, goo-goo-ing shadows of their former selves. Old friends drift ever further as a couple’s new bundle sometimes seems to completely sap their identities, their interests, and their edge.
Not so for writer Esther Iverem. In her poem “Rock My Soul,” she describes the frenzy of her birthing room with language bloody and evocative: “The glowing ruby red coil/Connecting my heart and womb/Began to churn./Oh, rock my soul!/Something deep inside me broke./Something deep inside me opened./And everything I’d ever known spilled out./Oh, rock my soul!”
“Rock My Soul” appears in Living in Babylon, Iverem’s new book of poetry, which was inspired in part by the birth of her son, Mazi, and published last month by Africa World Press. “I felt the new identity of a mother, but I didn’t get lost in it,” says the 45-year-old Shepherd Park resident. “More like I was a citizen, but with a bigger stake.” But Iverem wasn’t immune to the challenges of motherhood: It took her more than a decade to complete Babylon. One poem, “Venus in 1995,” took three years to piece together from journal entries and notes on scraps of paper, she says.
Mazi, now 13, attended her book launch party on Dec. 2 at the Charles Sumner School. Iverem performed a poem hiphop style, much to her son’s delight.
“He said, ‘Mom, you rap better than me,’” she says. “He was into it.”
Iverem is a contributing film and television critic for BET.com and Pacifica Radio. She also edits the Web site SeeingBlack.com, which she started in 2001, and teaches a poetry workshop once a week for DC WritersCorps.
Babylon is Iverem’s second book of poems, and though she’s not a part of the slam scene, she reads “often enough so that I’m not nervous anymore.” She learned the basics of stage presence from “perfectionist” jazz musician Fred Ho when she performed as part of his Afro Asian Music Ensemble in the early ’90s in New York.
Holdovers from her work with Ho were evident at the Sumner School event. Iverem arrived early and immediately replaced the podium with a music stand so that she could keep her face tilted up, toward her audience of about 50.
Short haikus and tankas break up the longer pieces in Babylon. One is titled “1997 Redbone Haiku”: “This boy told my son,/‘The people who look like me/are better than you.’”
The real-life incident behind the piece took place in Mazi’s preschool class, and the book’s epilogue, “Second Inauguration Riffs,” slams other injustices that Iverem sees in D.C.: “No more money for stadiums to divert us,/While crumbling schools and lead in our water/Really hurt us.”
Iverem feels a special responsibility as an African-American woman to tell her story. Even though she’s a part of the media, she still blames it for quashing a forum of free-flowing ideas.
“I do whatever I can in whatever format I have access to,” she says. “When I look at the TV or a newspaper or listen to the radio, I don’t hear or see voices that sound like mine….It’s all about raising your voice.”—