Review: Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas

Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas book cover
Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas

Reading Taylor Byas’ debut chapbook, Bloodwarm (2021), I could not help but remember a talk Angela Davis gave at NYU Skirball in 2018, where she discussed tools for emancipation during the Trump presidency. Davis provided a clear-sighted intervention—as vital as political action, she argued, is our capacity for imagining better futures. Imagination, as trying out new relationalities and modes of social reproduction, must be kept alive to lend meaning and direction to our efforts.

Today, it is difficult to stay alive in America, let alone cultivate imaginative potential. In the face of unrelenting antagonism and oppression, we usually survive in muted tones—I often find that my ability to perceive and articulate recedes into simply what is and will always be. Yet Davis reminds us that art should not be the idle domain of privilege but a critical mediation of language, structures, and surfaces that have become lacquered with everyday imperceptivity, attentively illustrating how wonders and possibilities subsist even in the ruins of the present.

Bloodwarm takes up this critical imaginative work. Byas choreographs sharp, technically-informed language to deliver the surprises and heights of artful language as well as unflinching articulations of racialized and gendered violence in America.

What immediately distinguishes this work is Byas’ discerning use of poetic form—these poems are so well-constructed, their significance so deeply etched into their structural constraints, that it feels like they could take on no other forms and still gracefully communicate what they need to. Byas uses the sonnet, pantoum, and erasure poetry as not just contingent containers of expression, but as formal reflections of the sociopolitical, historical, and interpersonal stakes taken up by her work. Several pieces in Bloodwarm are pantoums—the formal structure of repeated lines refractingly echoed forward before ending at the beginning mimics the repetitions of racist and colonial violence under scrutiny throughout the collection. In the first section of “Pulled Over,” the speaker is stopped by a cop, his exhortations for understanding and de-escalation repeating and dislocating into anger, panic, a doomed pleading within a familiar pattern of state violence:

No I don’t know how fast I was going

over the limit. Can you see my hands? I’m reaching over to

the dashboard. I was singing

so loud I didn’t hear your siren, officer. My backtalk is

 

over the limit? Can you see my hands? I’m reaching over to

open the door and step out of the vehicle. Why you yelling

so loud? I didn’t hear your siren. Officer, my backtalk is

a misunderstanding. I’m just trying to

As each line is drawn into varying points of relief through subtle yet precise punctuation and enjambments, Byas coheres a powerful continuity extending into the compounding cross-generational trauma of such murders. In the poem’s second section, the previous speaker is eulogized to his surviving family (“Because daddy died by the blue—his last words / on repeat in the mind’s playlist”), the pantoum’s pattern unbroken by the section break. The formal continuity enduring between the two sections, between the murdered and the bereaved, instantiates Byas’ ability to deliver both the cutting immediacies of scenes of harm and the broader, obscured costs exacted upon Black families, communities, and cultural imaginaries.

As a whole, Bloodwarm is a triumph of formal elaboration, inhabiting structures—of poetic form, feeling, violence, hope—to powerfully address intercontinental hauntings, intergenerational trauma, and structures of oppression that often loom so large we mistake them for the very shape of the world. Despite the unending latticework of old bones and fresh killings unearthed by the footsteps of our days, Byas’ language forces us out of complacency, resignation, and studied ignorance with both hope and defiance. In the stunning poem “Voicemail to Madam C.J. Walker,” the speaker challenges the flat portrayal of Black life in American historical memory: “I saw those bloodied backs so close to you / in the book, as if it were all the same. As if the hand / that straightened your curls was the same hand to whip you.” In addressing Walker herself (“Talk to you soon. Try to picture my face”), the speaker places themselves in living relation to a history deadened by violent remembering. And in the ekphrastic sonnet “How Young Boys Survive the Ghetto: 101,” the speaker desperately holds onto a snapshot of Black youth despite the world leaving it behind, ending beautifully with a tender act of remembering: “boy look into this lens, let me remember you / like this, carefree, acting a fool like you always do.”

Bloodwarm’s critical imaginativeness ardently resists domestication into a self-enclosed aesthetic object, instead staging enduring confrontations between language and political exigencies. The first poem excoriates the “hollow promises” of white friends who then “bullet / into our inboxes and ask us to hand them the answers,” demanding better responses from both the speaker’s friends and the poem’s readers alike. It made me think of how incredible and provocative work from BIPOC writers can be read as anthropological archives or nodes of data, a kind of polite consumption that hides a ravenous appetite for centering white knowledge and mastery. Bloodwarm’s beautiful and haunting language resists this domesticating gaze, inescapably drawing you into the anguishes and terror and beauty of life ongoing. Ultimately, a disciplined question cuts across this collection: What forms of life need to be improvised, fought for, mourned, and remembered for a better future? When I remember Angela Davis’ directions to look to artists and writers, I now think of Taylor Byas, whose lush imagination provides a critical context that challenges us to elaborate meaningful responses.

More on Bloodwarm and Taylor Byas

You can purchase Bloodwarm at Variant Literature and Byas’ debut full-length collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, is out on 8/22/23 and available to pre-order at Soft Skull Press.

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