Poet and curator Cheryl Boyce-Taylor returns with her sixth collection of poems, We Are Not Wearing Helmets, a tribute to the women who have lifted her and an acknowledgment of the grief she still feels after losing her late son Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest. She gets political in this work, weaving together themes of lost dreams, of failing to find the supposed great America, of the joy in locating and nurturing your community.
Whether reflecting the 1960s or present day, her poems often represent both the rage and remedy that can come with protest. From “First Amendment Rights”:
Late into that summer we marched for women’s rights
We marched for mothers
We were women married to our rage
Hangers tore us open still we marched
Questions of her body
We lit our world on fire
Boyce-Taylor also turned to writing poetry during quarantine, when many of us were forced to face loneliness—even when surrounded by loved ones—and navigate all the subsequent conflict and opposition that continues today.
From “Red White Blue: Quarantine 2020”:
I don’t want to sleep with war nipping at my dreams
to feel a piece of rich dark earth falling through my fingers
I always knew the great America was overrated
Trump’s red white blue
a generous lie rigged to my living room window
Boyce-Taylor’s poems also speak to the uncertain certainty of aging, of deep love and partnership, of losing and grieving a child. Her candor is moving and gentle. She was born in Trinidad but grew up in New York City, now residing in Brooklyn. As she told Brooklyn Poets in an interview, “the poetry and art scene brought me to Brooklyn, as well as the opportunity to live freely as a lesbian. I grew up in Queens in a Caribbean family and there was not much opportunity to be a divorced mother and an out queer person.”
Over the years, she found community in pockets of the city with other queer black women, like Audre Lorde. “A Woman Speaks” is a tribute to Lorde and a tale of how the author met her many years ago. Lorde invited her to attend her poetry class at Hunter College, though Boyce-Taylor wasn’t a student. Lorde said, come anyway. Eventually, after turning Lorde down because she didn’t feel like a “real poet,” Boyce-Taylor did attend a class and forgot to bring all the poems she had written in preparation. She writes:
“She asked me what kind of poet I was to come to class without my work. She asked what kind of poet I wanted to be.
I did not know.”
Years later, Boyce-Taylor seems surprised that “one of Audre’s friends told me that Audre really admired and loved my use of Trinidadian dialect in my work.”
In the same Lorde tribute poem to Lorde, Boyce-Taylor also brings in this second voice, subtly mixing her past with present:
I am filled with birth stories and moon’s sickled lamp
Now and then I sit quiet cup ah coffee in meh hand
listen hear de words hissing
draw magic in dem breath
rest crimson in de damp gauze of girlhood
She learned many valuable lessons under mentors and friends like Lorde, and other women who influenced her including Aracelis Girmay, Winnie Mandela, Adrienne Rich, and her mother. She ends her section about these female influences—“Salute to the Women Who Lifted Me”—with a poignant poem dedicated to Breonna Taylor, “killed by police in her home”:
Black woman your heart is everything I believe in
your breath is enough
to save this trembling earth
may sun wrap you in her glitter gold sari
may the wind drape your head in bright orange heliconias
may we never cease to call your name
call your name
call your name
Here’s an apology for your legendary life.
Does Boyce-Taylor feel like a “real poet” now? Her work no doubt takes to heart the advice Lorde imparted on her all those years ago, when she told their class that “Poetry Is Not a Luxury. She said we should use words as weapons or not use them at all.”
With her piercing, lovely verse, Boyce-Taylor almost takes on the role of Lorde, a mentor who lifts other women with word weapons, unapologetic in delineating true experience. Once again Boyce-Taylor has written a set of affecting poems, her language packed with the complex emotions of being that aren’t always easy to sift through.
We Are Not Wearing Helmets
By Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
Published February 15, 2022