Book Review: Mend by Kwoya Fagin Maples
Kwoya Fagin Maples is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. She is the author of Mend (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). In addition to a chapbook entitled Something of Yours (Finishing Line Press, 2010). Her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize. Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.
Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.
Learn more about 3D Poetry in an interview for See Jane Write.
A Review of Kwoya Fagin Maples's Mend
Kwoya Fagin Maples’ poetry collection, Mend, is a critical resurrection of lost narratives of black women—turned subjects of experimentation by Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama—at the genesis of gynecology. Utilizing personae poems, Maples embodies these enslaved women and gives voice to the dead. Composed of four parts, Maples stunningly sutures together a lineage of ancestors, mothers, and children, reinforcing that we are all tethered to our histories through both our successes and hidden travesties. Maples gradually teases out the physical and psychological turmoil that follows a body abused and stolen with language that is both visceral and emotionally shattering.
Part one of Mend immediately transports us into a makeshift operating room in the opening poem, “The Door,” where “a naked woman / [is] on [her] knees / and hands / in the backyard of things past telling.” As the reader inhabits this space, we become voyeurs, witnessing this woman being poked and prodded by the doctor as “he taps apart her inner/ thighs” and “her used / belly / hangs like a sow’s.” The last three lines of this inaugural piece, “and she knows / she’s not here / for mending,” foreshadows the suffering closely lurking in the following pages, informing the reader that this operating room is not a space for healing.
Maples’ use of first person-point-of-view, and tender, yet brunt bodily images, is an exhibit of her acute precision of language that allows these women’s narratives to transcend the page, conjuring up an intimacy between reader and patient as we embody the women being inspected, “[climbing] up and [crouching] on [our] knees and hands...kneeling deeper when his naked fingers [press] deep into [our] back.” Placing readers in the position of patient, Maples submerges us in those same feelings of vulnerability and inescapability, emphasizing that no matter how much we advance as a society, we can never evade the haunting residue of the our past.
This motif of vulnerability and nakedness is threaded throughout the book as the women’s bodies become a colonized landscape for the white man’s taking: “His cold hand makes my spine shiver and / he tells me you’re gonna have to learn to keep still. My behind is high up in the air. Naked as the day I was born, like when that / overseer turned my skirts up over my head to give me lashes. I / just sit up there on that table and cry.” In this moment, we recognize that for the speaker, nakedness has always been associated with violence and feelings of hurt and shame; feelings that evolve into rage as seen in “Unfolded” when she expresses her want to protect her body and reclaim her power: if I could ball my body up / this tight / he’d never pull me / apart. / he’d never / eye what / I’ve never / seen myself.” We further observe Dr. Sim’s disdain and lack of regard towards the women’s bodies and them as people in “So Familiar He Is with Parting Her Brown Legs” when “the spoons [speculum] are quickly pulled out” causing “a quick suck that leaves [her] breathless” and “[she] no longer [bothers] to cover up.” Because Maples uncovers a truth once concealed, her utilization of language that is honest and pointed and real leaves no room for the atrocious acts committed against black bodies in the name of science, to be interpreted as anything but unjust and heinous.
The second section of the book is composed of five pieces that take place in the present day and record the speaker’s journey to locating Mt. Meigs, Alabama. In “Oak, Pine, Basswood,” the speaker describes Mt. Meigs and its “fields of ugly cotton plants…/ their bolls colded over and forever done, afflicting the stalks / like boils, a mutated offspring of their ancestors.” The speaker encounters Mary Catherine, a reference librarian for the Mt. Meigs library who proclaims “[the doctor’s] famous because he operated on an African American woman and saved her life!” We can sense the speaker’s urgency to locate this place, as if seeing it in real life makes the horrors all the more tangible, in Maple’s piece “I can’t seem to get to mt. miegs”:
I could stay and write for two hours and drive my / way home. I wouldn’t miss the day with my children. I can’t miss/ a day, and this is stopping me from the writing the book. A woman / in Montgomery tells me she’s never heard of Mt. Meigs, but she / thinks it’s out on Eighty-Two. Isn’t Mt. Meigs down off Eighty-Two? Her eyes weighing me. Her eyes crossing over my face, the baby in my arms wondering
The fact that the speaker inquiries about the Mt. Meigs with her baby in arms connotes that we and our ancestors are always interconnected; that nature itself will always draw us back to the root of our sense of being.
Part three of Mend concentrates on the attached relationship between mother and child, as well as the physiological reactions that ensue when this close-knit bond is continuously harvested and/or severed. In “Overseer Story (Told With a Smile),” the woman is whipped by a man—whom the reader can presume is her master. As she is being lashed, Maple highlights the close connection between mother and child: “The whole time he beat me, / felt like my heart was gon’ bust, / and what with the little one / kickin’ my insides, / while he beat my outsides, / I thought I was gon’ die.” Even before the child is born, it suffers in the womb right alongside the mother, and it too has to fight in order to survive these outside forces. In “Elegy for a Stillborn,” the mother is in conversation with the person responsible for taking away her dead baby, ensuring that everything is properly prepared for its burial: “Here is the sheet I stole soap for / and washed in secret, / to catch him when he came. / It was to give him a clean start.” Maples generates a feeling a longing for what could have been as the woman’s baby is taken away, and all that she has left is “[her] hand crossed over [her] belly, / a prayer on [her] lips.”
This section of the book also features “What Yields” a stunning “sonnet corona of eleven modified sonnets directly addressing the doctor and his motives for experimentation.” Each sonnet contains riveting metaphors that comment on the abuse and manipulation of the black female body at the hands of a white doctor:
The day we were born, we belonged to you.
The black enslaved women are not viewed as human beings by the doctor, but instead they are toyed with like inanimate objects to be fixed and broken again and again. Maples conveys this dehumanization and disregard for the black women’s life through these sonnets with lines such as “Thief, / all night you drink water from my body,” “ I am dead where I lie, already plucked,” “bodies above virtue are never black,” “First, you’d have to consider us women,” “You’d have to think my heart longed like yours / And that my mind wasn’t mindless, / awash with nothing” and “we must yield, even if you lie to reap.” These are only a few of the powerful lines that Maples employs to stress that when a human being is perceived as inhuman, the malady of their treatment can be justified and knows no bounds.
In the penultimate segment of Mend, Maples dedicates these closing pieces to her mother, grandmother, and children, showcasing the strength that derives from being surrounded by a strong band of women. In “Teeth,” dedicated to her daughters Eden, Vivienne, and Maya, Maples forefronts the power of the female body: “This body housed three women, / accommodated three sets of fists, / six eyes and three belly buttons. / It allowed iron bones and spines / to raise their way into existence.” Maples seems to simultaneously acknowledge the extreme capabilities of the female body, as well as her privilege to birth children and watch them grow up, especially considering that many of her predecessors did not have the opportunity to do so. The final poem of the book, “My Mother Bathes Me after I Give Birth,” is a snapshot of an intimate moment between mother and daughter in an instance of vulnerability and exposure: “Washing my collapsed belly, crossing the soapy cloth over my wilted shoulder and back is a familiar act for my mother, and washing her child is like riding a bike, a think she will not forget.” As the speaker is being cleaned by her mother, she feels a sense a shame “only [looking] at the titled shower floor and not at any part of [her] mother’s face.” And in spite of her embarrassment, her mother reassures her that she is “worth tenderness” even though the hundreds of years of abuse and neglect of the black woman’s body may say otherwise.
Kwoya Fagin Maples’ Mend is a necessary revival of the lost stories of black enslaved women who suffered for the advancement of science. Maples’ poetry collection could not have been released during a more pressing time in history, as it speaks to the continuous maltreatment and neglect of black female bodies when in the hands of people designated to save lives. Mend is an attestation to the generational trauma that accompanies bodies that are stolen and abused for the advantage and success of the oppressor.
Zakiya M. Cowan is a native Chicagoan and Managing Editor of Jet Fuel Review. She graduates in May 2019 from Lewis University, holding a Bachelor’s in creative writing and Spanish language and culture. She hopes to a pursue a graduate degree in creative writing or sociology. Her work has been featured in Split Lip Magazine and Windows Fine Arts Magazine. Additionally, she has published collaborative work for LU’s 2018 and 2019 Celebration of Scholarship and is the recipient of a Wolny Writing Residency Fellowship.