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ARTS & SOUL
Altars for the alter-life
Destiny Hemphill's latest poetry collection, 'motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life' opens portals that transcend capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, and antiblackness.
by MÓNICA TERESA ORTIZ
May 16, 2023
At the beginning of Prince's iconic Let's Go Crazy, he starts his eulogy with: "Dearly Beloved/we are gathered here today/to get through this thing called 'life'/Electric word, life/It means forever and that's a mighty long time/but I'm here to tell you there's something else/the afterworld." His scripture raptures the listener and prepares us for what is to come.
Convening an audience for an electric word is precisely how I would describe North Carolina-based poet Destiny Hemphill's new collection motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life. Civil Service author Claire Schwartz calls the book a "brightdark joy that is grief's marrow," while poet Tyree Daye (who wrote the brilliant Cardinal) praises the poems that make him feel like he's "learning a new language."
This isn't just a collection of poems. These are songs of the South, lit up with magnolias, finches, dandelions, rivers, "testaments/of the cosmic & telluric." The lush language is a practice of imagination and speculative freedom.
motherworld is a cartography of possibility where the speaker has "come here to reshape my cavern heart, both collapsed & calcified… or more precisely, i'm trying to reshape the language languishing in my mouth as rot." And we are raptly attentive to the invocation, sermon, and benediction of each spit and swallow on the page. Like Sun Ra, Hemphill transports us on an interstellar trip that allows us to feel "more alive than when [we] began," so by the time a portal appears, "& as you summon other worlds, may other worlds summon you," we, the reader, are eager to enter, intoxicated by "the fragrance/of mulberry trees."
Scholar and poet Alan Pelaez Lopez quotes from motherworld: "mama, grandma mabel, grandma nellie, and mama's mama's mama come together as if to chant at the rhythm of a heartbeat: 'empire can't catch us,' 'empire can't catch us,' 'empire can't catch us.'" That is one of the many splendid gifts of this ritual—the empire has no power in motherworld. There is grace, tenderness, and toughness in the spells and spills throughout, so that by the time the "planet growls with its own grammar of secrets" we are through the portal and remembering "the power of testimony."
With each devastating daily reminder of our violent present, Destiny Hemphill offers us not only respite, but a vision that channels a one-of-a-kind space-making specifically attuned to the South. It is a vision that embraces collectivity, community, interdependence, queerness, and the possibilities of a future outside capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, and antiblackness. Because of that, motherworld is a story of a constellation, rather than just a single star—a demonstration of Destiny's linguistic ability to not only reach other worlds, but open portals to them.
'beyond a better hell' / talking to ghosts: a mixtap/e/ssay
History is a groove according to hip-hop scholar A.D. Carson. But when the soundtrack of Black grief continues to be remixed and sampled without meaningful change, Black folks are forced to compare this current hell to the last one.
Poets aren't in the business of studying stars, but we know how to listen. Destiny provides the reader with everything we need to decipher the echoes of ancestors. In "the future is un-settled," Destiny writes a spell for fugutivity: "may the sediment of this/sentiment s(h)ifting the/ruins un-settle you &/make no apology/for our being untethered." This is probably my favorite incanto in the book, as Destiny skillfully shimmers across the page with imagery rooted in our world and the otherworld, deftly moving our haunting along so that we almost don't know there are ghosts with us at all times.
Destiny's somatic movements graciously gather the likes of Octavia Butler, Ashon Crawley, Toni Cade Bambara, Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, and Frantz Fanon—to name just a few—and envision death and rebirth. This is not a brutal choir, but a poetic prophecy rooted in Blackness, queerness, and family. The portal takes us on a journey through generations, calling and remembering the collective that created the speaker, that made them who they are. In many of the poems, those manifest in the form of mama, grandma mabel, grandma nellie, and mama's mama's mama. Destiny weaves each devotional with care and love, and by the end of the book, has written an abolitionist text without ever uttering that word.
In "dispatches from the now/here," we are told "this is what we know: we practice dreaming together/not because we know the place of our dreams/will come true, but because we know/that what we dream is possible by virtue of our dreaming it." Divided into three sections, "the portal appears," "& the portal opens," and "& the portal expands," motherworld begins with the question: What is a ritual with no return? By the time the portal expands, we are fully immersed in the alter-life. Destiny asks us to read aloud an invocation in "iii. & the portal expands." The words are chants, but also breaths that prepare us for "like an orb. like a planet."
We needed this book. I needed this book. In a time of violence and oversaturation, of consistently devastating and enraging acts rotating through the news cycle, we receive poems of joy and spirit and survival punctuated by imagery as thick and luscious as the marshlands of Louisiana and East Texas, as verdant and alive as the landscapes of the Carolinas. motherworld reminds us to live outside of empire, that "this world/is not the only world/but only a world."
When Destiny writes that "the mythos of capitalism/its empires would deceive/you into belief/that we were nothing before it,/that we are nothing without it," she frames her critique in a way that isn't just defiant, but also transcendent. Our bodies and our spirits will outlive the empire. Destiny's work in motherworld engages with horror and loss from trauma, such as "hymn in the name of mama-n-em: nellie & lucinda." Telling these experiences is a part of the process towards healing and rebirth, and imbues the collection with more depth, a stronger connection between the Black women whose heartbeats breathe life into the poems and each other.
As Destiny writes in the hymn: "i say. my aunt lucinda, a black/woman, cared enough for another black woman/ & she was gonna find her." This lineage allows the speaker to "be full of myself/i say/i be enchantress/i say./i be shapeshifting/i say./it took a culmination of miracles,/miracles just for me to be here/i say. it took a culmination of/miracles just to be."
There are many of these moments throughout the collection: big miracles and small ones that allow the poems to shapeshift and declare that "this world has been carved/from what's been extracted from us/this world held up by the gleaming bones/of those who came before us." But, "we keep living & we keep laughing/on the porches of our homes made of halm & ash,/keep singing–our throats lush, gushing/with memory of honey & salt." The emergent place that Destiny offers in motherworld is simultaneously a testament and testimony of being left more alive than we began by the grace of those before us.
By the time we arrive at the final poem, "how we got our blues-tongue," we have made quantum leaps in the material and immaterial worlds. Destiny slows down her beat, and I hear the lines as whispers—as if I were sitting outside listening to the quiet of a simmering July day. There is an ethereal quality to that emotion, of being so attuned to every sound that one could even hear their own heartbeat.
Destiny has that ability to hush us delicately with each line, from the first to the final breath. We are witnesses to rituals, hymns, chants, psalms, whispers, wonders, memory work, and callings—but even more than that, the reader is reminded we are not alone. Our collective nourishes us while the language of these murmurings transmutes us to what Arturo Escobar calls the pluriverse. Even the notes are filled with gratitude.
With Destiny as our guide, we are invited to walk around the block but the block turns out to be other worlds, the alter-life, and from the "porch where i would eat pecans/with my great-grandfather" to the "tabernacles in tennessee & texas & arkansas/that my mama would make out of closets" we are only asked to be present. And when I sat experiencing motherworld for the first time, there was no other place I wanted to be.
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