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I want to like Asha Bandele’s book. She exhibits the kind of progressive politics often lacking among poets. Unlike many ivory tower specialists, she brings the art to the people, which makes her poetry relevant. absence in the palms of my hands features no poems about roses, clouds in the sky, or bluebirds. Instead, the book pulses with the same anger that simmers in oppressed communities worldwide. I really really want to like this book.
But despite all the relevant politics packed between its covers, absence is a book of poetry, and unfortunately a very mediocre one. Bandele is clearly influenced by the politics of the Black Arts movement, which is not a bad thing, but she seems to have forgotten that this is not 1968.
To be clear, Bandele is a very gifted writer. At times her verses communicate perfectly, and with time her work may become some of the strongest her generation has produced. But in this first book Bandele will give you a few beautiful lines and then without fail allow the poem to break down into didacticism, melodrama, or both.
This inconsistency is Bandele’s biggest problem, as exemplified by the poem “date rape.” Bandele strings together some picturesque images: “he touched me & I thought of wire hangers…i closed my eyes around the quarter moon & sucked acid out of rainclouds/i reached beyond knowing/for staccato breath/hydrochloric air.” Later she springs into an interesting statistical riff, “every 1.3 minutes a woman is raped/which means every 80 seconds a woman is raped/which means every time you hear the first part of this poem/a/woman/has/ been/raped.” It is interesting to note that Bandele says “hear this poem,” not “read this poem,” but at any rate she ruins the riff by stepping onto her soap box and giving us lines like, “oh that woman/she looks for freedom/ everywhere!”
When not lecturing, Bandele becomes trite and sentimental. In “love poem, american style,” she writes, “if the whole world tasted as pure as u/then i could run my tongue across the earth/as tho it was yr/chest.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, but really, who cares? Who is this man she loves so much? All of us have felt that way before and made similar statements, but why is Bandele’s situation different? If it is not, and if she can only state it in a clichéd manner, then why are we reading the poem?
Similar problems plague the poem “from the center 2 the edge.” Again Bandele shows a flair for good imagery: “when we first began/what else mattered/but the orgasms u brought/riding me thru the california morning/on magic afrikan carpets.” But again she negates it with melodramatic proclamations. The poem is supposed to deal with her mate’s pain, yet she describes this pain only as a father addiction, and she only mentions it directly once. This in a poem that runs a whopping three pages.
Ultimately, absence’s virtues are overwhelmed, and the work seems simplistic and somewhat cartoonish. In absence, life exists on a flat plain, rendering depth irrelevant. The book is filled with the type of stuff that might go over well at an open-mike reading but simply falls flat on the page.
Bandele’s politics are very important, but they cannot carry the book. People are not liberated by bad art; melodrama breaks no chains. Oppressed people everywhere need Bandele to go back to the woodshed, and come back next time with well-crafted work that displays all the intricacies of our lives. If anything, absence shows that she has enough talent to do so. The essential problem is stated by Bandele herself when she writes, “in the urgent hour of now/ we need stories beyond shock value.” Hopefully with her next book, Bandele will heed her own advice. CP