NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The Speed of Our Lives by Grace C. Ocasio
(BlazeVOX [Books], Buffalo, N.Y., 2014)
A former two-year college English instructor, poet / performer Grace C. Ocasio lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, her MA in English from the University of North Carolina, and her BA in Print Journalism and English from Howard University, graduating cum laude. Her work, which has been published widely, has won several awards and prizes. A chapbook, Hollerin from This Shack, was published by Ahadada Books in 2009. She is a Soul Mountain Retreat fellow and Frost Place alumna and currently serves as a contributing editor for Backbone Poetry Journal. The Speed of Our Lives is her first full-length collection.
Definitions of speed fall into several categories. There is the obvious one that speaks of swiftness, quickness and dispatch; the rate at which a distance is covered. There is also an archaic usage which defines speed as success or good fortune. Both are applicable here. There is also a third meaning, which Edwin Ocasio captures with technical brilliance on the book cover and that is the time taken for a photographic film to accept an image.
After a short introduction by Lenard D. Moore, Associate Professor of English at Mount Olive College, the poems are divided into four sections of roughly equal length.
The first section, titled Sheroes, which I take to be a fusion of the words she and heroes, focuses on Biblical characters (Ruth and Naomi and Esther), and figures as diverse and wide-ranging as Anne Frank, Audrey Hepburn, Michelle Obama, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and Alondra De La Parra. Collectively they are powerful, influential voices but these poems are not about celebrities – they go much deeper than that. In drawing on the lives of others, she calls us to observe how we conduct our own lives, how we respond to each other and to nature.
Ocasio is a people-centred poet who is wedded to the idea of community. In an interview she gave with Wang Zuyou in 2013, Ocasio states that, in her opinion, Good art (good writing) should compel the reader to ask the deeper questions of life: Why am I here? How can I better serve others?....I do believe in demonstarting goodwill toward others, and I hope that in my own small way my writing conveys the idea of goodwill, that my writing upholds the notion or ideal of being my brother’s keeper. In other words, I cannot live in this world as though I am not a part of a greater community whether that community consists of the neighbourhood I live in or the world at large.
In her poems, Ocasio holds imagined conversations with her subjects, looks into their faces and contemplates their lives. She evokes a selfless, genuine concern for her subject matter. In Memory of Anne Frank she reflects upon her image:
In the only picture I’ve ever scanned of you,
your hair gleams like a phonograph record.
I unlock that expression on your face,
carry it in my hands
like a corsage or diamond pin.
I tilt your visage sideways,
at an angle,
even flip it upside down,
marvel at the vastness of your countenance,
vaulting over the demure and puny decades
that stagger under its weight.
Then I replace your cast.
Place it back on your face.
The poems in the second section address issues such as race and racism, division in society and the longing for acceptance. In a poem central to this section, Ars Poetica, the title of the collection makes its appearance:
It’s up to us to set
the speed of our lives.
Here, speed seems to be more about quality, about how we present ourselves to the world. Elaine Equi sums it up on the back cover of the book as a chic sense of style. Ocasio frames it in these words:
But isn’t it better
to be swift than rushed?
Better to be svelte than thin?
Better to seek than to settle?
How we as individuals interact with one another in society is at the core of this collection.
Geographically, the poems spread further afield in the third section, ranging through Africa, The Middle East, America and Europe. In this section, the sequence The Lost Boys of Sudan is a particularly powerful piece of writing inspired by an article that Ocasio read in Life magazine when author Katherine Seligman chronicled the harrowing experiences of a group of boys who, in an effort to find relief from the deplorable conditions they faced, often resorted to sniffing glue. Years later, in an article in The Charlotte Observer, journalist Diane Suchetka noted how a small number of the lost boys had migrated to America, residing in certain cities in the Southeast.
Ocasio ends her sequence with these words, addressed to the lost boys:
I who jangle my skin implore you
to spread your dreams in America
like a Japanese silk fan,
stack nights like facts,
gather years like reeds.
A few poems near the end of this section relate specifically to the natural world and reveal another facet of Ocasio’s writing.
Ocasio’s poems are very accessible. One of her strengths is their directness of approach. In the interview I quoted from above, Ocasio states that she would like to take poetry out of the academy and into the realm of the everyday. I think it’s important to reach people where they are, so if that means reading at a nursing home, a local branch of the YWCA, or a local prison facility, then you go....My dream is to have barbers, beauticians, florists, ballet dancers, dentists, and others attend my readings...I think the average person doesn’t necessarily have access to poetry unless he or she attends a college-level literature course.
The poems in the final section, Patriots, are more personal and closer to home. A list poem titled Father’s Favorite Things And People yields a lot of information in quick succession. Music played a big part in his life. It also playes a big part in Ocasio’s poems with references to figures from the world of jazz (Coltrane, Mingus, Gillespie), blues (Holiday and Brown), pop (Winehouse), cross-over (Gershwin) and classical music (Mozart, Tchaikovsky and the Mexican conductor, Alondra De La Parra). In an earlier section, in the poem called On Rhapsody In Blue, Ocasio writes:
Whenever I imagine the sheen
of a Boston train shifting
in the wind,
I also conjure Gershwin
charting notes with his pen.
And when the great cymbals clash,
I become a woman
who can’t say no
to dancing barefoot across a bridge.
Ocasio’s receptiveness to music in all its forms gives her an intuitive sense of rhythm which is ever present in the written word and, by implication, in performance.
This is an exciting new voice in American poetry, one that is committed and engaged. Ocasio offers up powerful poems of substance and poses questions to which there are no easy answers.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).