There are rare literary moments when you can truly see an author shine beyond what they have set for you on the page. A sort of kinesthesia takes place as the characters and their stories move in such a compelling way that all five of your senses can’t help but be engaged and feel truly connected. In her second full length poetry collection, Home.Girl.Hood., Ebony Stewart reveals to us what these three words mean beyond the surface, with a depth and nuance as infinite as the many ways she manifests the pain, tragedies, and survival of queer Black Womxnhood that cannot – that will not – be denied:

“She who carries weight
and still be fly.
She who did not ask
for your permission
to love a womxn.
She who does not also date
womyn because
she be confused
or ain’t had it right.
She who made her own
choices”

The spacing in “Lilith” here implores the reader to wonder about what is being left unsaid and what lies between the lines and deliberate pauses. As a poem where she flips the portrayal of a biblical character who is so often demonized as an archetype of destruction (an appropriate metaphor that parallels the treatment of Black Womxn across the world), the use of enjambment and erasure-like technical writing style was a choice that worked in Stewart’s advantage, highlighting the special attention she pays to her craft.

There is a reoccurring theme of reclaiming the narrative that permeates this collection. Although this can be seen through a universal lens, do not be fooled: Home. Girl. Hood. is a deeply personal story where the individual informs the collective in a visceral and necessary way. For those who may have witnessed Ebony Stewart perform live, the power, grace, and understanding of the conventions of the stage she often exudes translated remarkably well onto the page. Her poems never miss a beat, and they live harmoniously in tone and conciseness to bring this point: despite the trauma, she has and will always transcend beyond it, and will always celebrate herself first – even if no one else does. This approach seems entirely due to Stewart’s immovable need to make her own choices – something she hasn’t always had or has seen taken from her – by crafting pieces which hold the readers accountable and responsible through the various experiences she presents. Whether it is street harassment and toxic masculinity in “Psst hey yo bitch let me holla at you,” with deep cutting lines:

“when he honks his horn
or blows me a kiss
and calls me names I do not own,
I wonder if he’s bothering me because he’s bored
or
is this the way he catches everything he hunts?”

Or if you take the somber and almost desperate plea in “How to write a poem about Sexual Assault…” where Stewart wonders if “this poem has no ending or every time a girl is born she’s the new ending to this poem or it happens to boys too or sad facts or…how to write a poem about ending sexual assault or rape or has it stopped happening, yet.” She meticulously blends these stories with both eloquence and a tactful simplicity for maximum impact. But she also makes crucial space to hold herself accountable. All the way from “Interlude,” which begins the second arc of the collection, where we see Stewart present another “…episode of wanting someone who/ did not want me,” to the self-reclamation we find her having to do in “on the way back to myself.” Stewart offers her full self in a balancing of joy and acknowledging her own misgivings and even the moments of appropriately named “Fear…” where she articulates “…must be coming out but, still having to pretend to be someone else.”

Home.Girl.Hood. does not want to pretend. It wants to be looked as a full being in its corpus, with a modus operandi of being both flawed and flawless, yet still worthy all the same. This collection offers a careful exploration of relationships, colorism, sexism, patriarchy, queer identity, culture, and Black Womxnhood with a straightforward language wrapped in secret meanings. The book invites you to look underneath, to discover these meanings that you finally realize as a reader the further along you seep into the pages, were alluded to in the collection’s title: Home – what she is becoming; Girl – who she is, Hood – where she comes from. What also makes this special is that these main title words can be seen/defined interchangeably, a testament to the layers of human successes and failures.  They become an anthem of all the ways the hood – or the experiences we have/gain – can be what builds a home, and how the girl chooses to be a home for herself first. “I don’t waste energy on what you THINK,” Stewart boldly proclaims in the culminating poem of the collection “I’m so tired…(the anthem),” reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin.” The poem is unapologetic in language and presentation, an arrogance usually reserved and praised in men but vilified in women. It is exciting to see such a raison d’etre that defies any preconceived notions and challenges the reader to bask in the joy that there is in flexing on those that don’t want you to win, while highlighting the difference between humility and allowing others to quiet your shine. The poem is loud, takes up space, and knows exactly what and who it is: one that WILL NOT succumb to erasure of any kind.

This collection has small moments when it may seem as if it faltered with a poem which breaks the pace that has been set by the work which preceded or comes after. But if you adopt a unique perspective, you will grasp the genius in the intentionality of not being conventional. Nonetheless, it is a must have especially in our current times and for our upcoming generation of teens and young adults who often don’t see themselves represented because their stories aren’t posh, pristine, pale, or palatable enough for consumption. Home. Girl. Hood. offers us not just words, but an experience interwoven in pain, laughter, which is an overall triumph. It is a defiant flame which does not ask for your permission, “the return of the burn/” and this is a fire you cannot prepare yourself for.

This blog post was lovingly provided by Pages Matam. Matam is an international artist & educator from Cameroon, Central Africa, currently residing in Washington D.C. He is the Director of Poetry Events for Busboys and Poets, a Callaloo Fellow, and Write Bloody published author of The Heart of a Comet (2014), which won Best New Book 2014 from Beltway Poetry Quarterly and was a Teaching for Change bestseller. A national and 2x regional poetry slam champion, he has passions in the field of education, violence and abuse trauma work, immigration reform and youth advocacy. He has been a featured artist and performer on Upworthy, Huffington, Okay Africa, The Pentagon, the The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the Apollo Theater, BET Lyric Cafe, TV One’s Verses & Flow (Season 4 & 5 & 6), The Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Smithsonian African Art Festival. He is a proud gummy bear elitist, bowtie enthusiast, professional hugger and anime fanatic.

What to read: Celebrating National Poetry Month at Busboys and Poets

April in DC – a time to welcome the sun, greet the cherry blossoms and relish the city’s many parks in bloom. April is also National Poetry Month, and being home to a vibrant literary community, DC celebrates every year with a diverse offering of events, readings and books to savor. Here at Busboys and … Continued