Yona Harvey: Review by Bruce Lowry


Harvey Cover


Hemming the Water by Yona Harvey (Four Way Books)


Regarding her time playing piano on the Kansas City jazz scene of the 1930s, Mary Lou Williams once said, “You had to have a strong left hand in those days or they wouldn’t pay any attention to you.” The same defiance and resilience Williams must have needed to persevere in that era, when men, black and white, held all the power and purse strings, comes across in poem after outspoken poem in Yona Harvey’s debut collection, Hemming the Water. Like Williams, Harvey is an artist who has much to say, and, one gets the idea, has wanted to say it for a very long time, as evidenced in these opening lines from “Black Winged Stilt.” 


     When God says, “Meet me tomorrow

     at the corner of Seventh Day & Salvation

     just as the sun before nightfall strikes

     the fender of a red hatchback parked

     outside Worldwide Washateria,” you


     wait there

     fitted in a dress the color of cloud cover

     & hold a feathered hat

     to your delicate hair, newly picked &

     haloed with a small brim. &


     like a flect of Antique Black in a gallon

     of European White, you make everything


     around you


     like itself


     In this poem we get just a taste of Harvey’s broad talents and scope: originality, incredible ear, facility for metaphor, and most of all, like her idol and sometimes muse, Williams, a fearless and unpredictable way of making music. Like so many pieces in this collection, “Black Winged Stilt” moves well beyond the “corner of Seventh Day & Salvation,” to small details of strangers on the street, to guarded intimacies, and to a mind haunted by what has come before. Harvey, as she is wont to do, plays with form, sound and rhythm. She is writing at her best when she keeps us unsure of what’s about to happen next. “To walk the black, wired bars,” she writes, “is to follow a sound / so peculiar you / hardly notice / the ink gone out. / … Your stilts on the ground.”

     Harvey delves widely into memory, memories made all the more universal because they are so often bittersweet. These include poems as diverse as “Schottelkotte,” “Rose Lasse,” and “Discovering Girdles.” “Schottelkotte” takes its name from a newscaster Harvey’s family watched when she was growing up in Cincinnati, the Cronkite-like figure who introduced her to violence and missiles, to “Ka-Boom,” a bomb that is “married” to a teen-age girl. “Discovering Girdles” is a rite-of-passage anthem, layered in its tensions between mother and child, and commenting at one point on those “robust women” who filled her mother’s church: “My mother’s concerns for me were body odor & / virginity—how to smell like a flower without being plucked.”

     Other poems, such as “Report from the Daughter of a Blue Planet,” a shorter lyric poem that begins, “Night after night the land / delivers its verdict,” intermingles the mysteries of the earth and sky with hints of injustice, the speaker searching for reconciliation, perhaps clarity, while bemoaning the fact that “the man convicted as a child / will perish.” Here is more meditation on the known facing the unknown, the speaker struggling with the possibility that sometimes what might seem the most accessible, whether relationships or hardships, is actually millions of miles away: 


                         The mind 

     dissembles & covers itself with sleep. 

     from a distance we measure 

     the moon, but might not

     recognize our own children.

     A woman calls across a continent

     & no one answers.


     In “Turquoise” Harvey speaks more boldly, more explicitly about relationships, and all the fireworks that go off when there’s a whiff of infidelity, emotional or physical, in the air: “Men are so clueless sometimes,” her speaker exclaims, “which isn’t a revelation, but occasionally needs restating.” The voice of this poem, which is more narrative but moves down the page with greater pace, is so much more emphatic and defiant than the voice that projects in “Daughter of a Blue Planet,” yet the speaker’s gut feelings, and Harvey’s feel for the nuances and turns of the language, are the same. The woman in question, the subject of the speaker’s ire, in “Turquoise,” is fond of the artist Frida Kahlo, so in the second half of the poem the wronged woman’s scorn is directed more toward the image of Kahlo than the “other woman”:


                         I can’t help but conclude

     someone’s at work on a grand cliché I’m supposed to buy into

     & there’s nothing harmless about Frida Kahlo, exquisite painter

     of stitches & steel, thorns & wombs & vaginas – something utterly

     misleading about Frida’s face on a 4 x 4 note card, a little

     too neat & too square.


     Harvey doesn’t always write with such ferocity, but when she does there is a get-down-to-business nature to it. Here, we see her challenging the widespread following, and veritable ubiquity of an artist, Kahlo, who has become such a fixation in modern pop culture, and a role model for female artists, in particular. Harvey is not afraid to go there, to point to Kahlo’s risk of becoming overexposed, and her poem in the end becomes something of a treatise against those seeking to become artists merely for the possibility of celebrity, “those heroes & heroines dangling over / the cliffs of vanity, begging for a little more rope.” 

     Alas, this poet can shift down, as well, as she does in the very next poem in the volume, the poignant, yet still energy-rich “Mother, Love,” which begins “Because you are not April or June or January or / slush-caked boots or snow falling or melting or moving / in from the northwest plains, one cold coffee of a late / night, my bruise, my blade, my thorn, I love.” You can see the influence of the Spanish poets in these lines, Neruda maybe, or Lorca, and all their metaphorical agility. Harvey goes on to reveal that the mother, in this case, is perhaps in a state of assisted living, or maybe suffering from dementia, but the grieving is complicated, again, by the mother/daughter relationship, which has been messy: “What trip are you planning, you / never punctual retired secretary, you / flat-ended film, you holy shock of self-absorption, / polyester panties, cotton knit pajamas, you / paper jam, you yesterday, you.” Using “you” as the springboard for her enjambments, Harvey is able to speed up the poem midway through, breaking up what had been a more conventional three- to four-line stanza poem into a spiraling sensation of powerful, unpredictable associations with her mother, finally ending with “day / late, dollar short mother / of mothers, you / mother / you.” The speaker realizes that despite everything, she still has deep feelings for this woman. 

     Of course, Harvey’s artistic mother, at least in a spiritual sense, is Mary Lou Williams, the jazz icon who fought so hard, with all her talent and energy, to make it as a young African-American artist in a world that was mostly white, at least managerially speaking, and almost entirely male. In doing so, she of course paved the way for others, and Harvey gives the musician plenty of mention throughout Hemming the Water. Those tributes reach their zenith in the formidable “Communion with Mary Lou Williams,” a multi-layered poem rich in remembrance but never nostalgic, a poem that is musical in its own right, speeding up and slowing down, and showing Harvey at her roughest and messiest, and most imaginative. 

     The poem opens with a dizzying, jazz-like sequence that plays with both line and spacing, drawing its music from mono-syllabic flourishes, assonance and dissonance, and from a repetitive hard “t” sound:


          Tender-headed, cold-blooded, uncorrupt—

                              I rush

     & gather      & stitch            them      up

     your            flats  &                      bents

     & low                              dwelling notes

     onto            my sleeves     & onto      my     skirts

     your music has tailored a lovely coat


     The poem moves shortly to a prose-like section populated by salutation music, such as “Dear Comeback, Dear Plays Like a Man, Dear Chez Mary Lou, Dear Darling, Dear Rosary in the Palm,” … and then, toward the end, “Dear Mink Bowtie from Ellington, Dear Matron of Music, Dear Soup for Musicians, Dear Holy Spirit, Dear Glory, Dear Daughter of the Imperfect Mother,” Harvey showing all the while she can draw remarkable sound, memorable diction and metaphor from almost any source. 

     More conventional lyrical lines follow, and they are among the strongest constructions in the book. The next rolling section finishes with this flourish: “To get right / is to get with Memphis & Mississippi. / If you wanna boogie / with me, you gotta get right / with the Giver of Blues.” You have to love all those variations of “give” and “get,” the sort of repetitions that Harvey employs over and over again to such lasting effect. The homage to Williams realizes its most fevered pitch in a middle passage that is shorter-lined, and perhaps more disciplined, and yet so filled with Harvey’s gift for rich, life-affirming language:


     What you wanted was

     a low-down connection.

     Boogie-woogie promise

     of call & response. Music

     joined with spirit like the ball

     & socket of a swinging hip.


     Overall, Hemming the Water is combustion and passion writ large, music and poetry from the heart, often about the heart, but also about heart break and struggle and resilience of spirit. This debut collection charts a course filled with an ocean of varying emotions, and Harvey navigates them all in her very unique way, writing fiercely at times, and at other times staying vulnerable in the moment, merely observing, so completely, all that is happening around her.



Bruce Lowry’s poems and short stories have been published widely, most recently in Poet Lore and Louisiana Literature.