Christell Victoria Roach | Rinse
an excerpt & interview
On the end of Mango Season, and Still Falling Fruit
Love does not want this body
swelled as a June split mango,
bruised as all tree fruit pre-fall,
sitting atop tufts of dead grass
and snakeskin. This body been
baked for hours in the sun, has
stung the fence and leaves sweet
and untouchable. The branches,
bare and brown, been pulled down
like the arms of praying mothers.
Each pulp-stained head, a shade
of summer we call red. One ripe
stone-fruit, firm on one side, half-
eaten, brown or bruised on the other.
The pulp darkened in the heat, sap
lost all color overnight, and where
the mango sat rotting, a face-like
indent marked the once-alive grass.
Three months of fruit gathered
beneath the tree, brown, bodies.
The leaves gave up their green
as witness, were blown apart
by the constant fall. The tree takes
the shape of my mother, bending
to collect a basket-full of mangoes,
each one she names. The sound
of tree-fruit, thumping to the ground,
is an ever-growing toll. Sounds
like skin hitting skin, like dead weight,
My father dragged the television out
to the patio, so he could watch the news
and wade in the pool. His stereo played
bluegrass folk from the Florida room
I was gathering bulbs while he lay.
When the news rung out, I stilled
my hand. When daddy said not another
one, I bent down again. A brown boy
grown ripe in the sun, while a garden
snake began shedding at my feet.
The snake wound like praying hands,
wrung itself free of the dead skin,
and as I picked up a half-eaten mango
it cooled. Black, it sat, with splotches
of red, looking moist beneath a dry shell.
A black widow twitched on a leaf. It, too,
is black and red. Across the yard my father
swims laps. The television has yet to pick
up the boy on the ground. In the house,
mother is making jam, calling for my brothers.
In the title poem, you write, “Here the blackness feels like a village.” In conceiving of your own creative lineage and community, who populates your village?
Honestly, my village is comprised of the family who first gave me words, and the women who taught me how to use them. My village is both given and found. Important to this work is the ocean: it is the bed of voyages. I understand my blackness to be administered by way of passage and experience. Just as shambles, wrecks, and stilts get lost at sea, I always think of the enslaved peoples who were captured and lost at sea, too. I feel connection to them, to the waters that took their bodies. I don’t see their death as the end of a bloodline, but I see the ocean as a collection of bloodlines I belong to. While I certainly identify as being of African descent, my personhood is ocean-born. Many may credit this to me being from Miami, and having relatives from the islands, but it’s deeper than that.
I read that it takes years for a dead whale’s body to fall to the ocean floor. I was fascinated by this and read up on this phenomenon: the whale fall is generations deep, and ecosystems develop and live off of the carcass. Though dead, it’s body fosters life while still remaining as a monument to the original life, becoming, as Mandy Guzman-Gonzalez said, “an elegy unto itself.” This body falls for decades, wading through blues, until it reaches the black. This is where my Blackness is born. This is the village of blues, blacks, resilience, and life. How indignant must the body be, to wander even still, despite the constant fall, commanding the attention of colony after colony, salvaging life. I think continually about the women. I think of the blues of the pregnant women thrown overboard because they wouldn’t make the journey; I think of the blues of the women raped and abused on slave ships; and I think of the women who had their babies stolen from them and sold into slavery.
Alice Walker wrote in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, (1972): “Unlike ‘Ma’ Rainey’s songs, which retained their creator’s name even while blasting forth from Bessie Smith’s mouth, no song or poem will bear my mother’s name. Yet so many of the stories that I write, that we all write, are my mother’s stories. Only recently did I fully realize this: that through years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories—like her life—must be recorded.” [emphasis added] The manner and urgency with which I translate waves and colors into a village of Black folks is altogether coming from the village I inherited, that I found, and continually seek.
Your work has a unique balance of seemingly experiential and surreal depictions of narrative. Can you speak to the landscape of Rinse and how you maintain balance through language?
Virginia Woolf says in her book A Room of One's Own, that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. Importantly, I understand Woolf to be talking about white women. I am interested in the essentials of storytelling for Black women. Katherine McKittrick says in her book Demonic Grounds, that “the displacement of difference, geographic domination, transatlantic slavery, and the black Atlantic Ocean differently contribute to mapping out the real and imaginative geographies of black women; they are understood here as social processes that make geography a racial-sexual terrain. Hence, black women’s lives and experiences become especially visible through these concepts and moments because they clarify that blackness is integral to the production of space” (McKitrick xiv). By marrying the idea of space being essential to writing, and the realities of place and racial geography, I realize that when the geography of a Black woman's identity meets place, a story is enacted upon the space of her body, like bruises. This contact is spatial, nearly physical, it is categorized in her Blues, her creations. My work is Bluesing stories, a space-creation process, through literature. The balance is in the Blues. Where there are walls and inconsistencies, language and imagery gift me a raft out of the rip tide. History is filled with silences and omissions, but Bluesing permits me to conjure voice in spite of. Some ways of seeing call for new words, some call for trust: of the speaker’s native tongue. Rinse is a cluster of calls and responses.
By establishing a lineage of storytellers in women and my family, I am finding the "literary country" I belong to (Alice Walker once said this of Zora), as a Black woman writer and performer, a storyteller, who finds truth in alternative ways of knowing advised by history and language.
I find there is a constant movement towards the elongation of thought in your lines. In terms of syntax and rhythm, who are some of your fundamental influences?
This careful observation is certainly exposing my weakness for prose. I have a love and respect for the suite of stories prose situates me in. In poems like “The Birthing Suite,” I am really working in my element, as I produce a prose HAIKU. Also, as a former musician, I have always worked with movements within a suite. Syntax and rhythm are the “manner” and “urgency” I pattern after the women who taught me to use my voice. I learned from folk songs and hymnals my mother sang to me as a child. I read aloud while writing, and sometimes I even sing. I am interested in the focus which guides thought. Before I write a poem, I carry if for months, like a fetus. As an essay and novel lover, I would certainly say Alice Walker lines the walls of my house of references. Her work situates the Black woman as origin and destination and offers a seat of witness to the birthing process of her work, in measure and mode. Further, my fundamental influences certainly come from Natasha Trethewey, Toni Morison, Edwidge Danticat, Terrence Hayes, and Kevin Young. These are writers whose work I return to in poetry, prose, research and critique. I admire the successful birth and life of their writing. Their proficiency with language and space guide me as I dig up stories from my personal and shared geography. Sometimes I rework line breaks after I write, and sometimes I do it as I write. However, I am constantly thinking of the line to line conversation, and the motor of my lines is most often music, so most importantly I reference Blueswomen such as Classic Blues singers and storytellers from what I call the Black Women’s Blues Continuum.
Mangoes, glass, snakes, bodies, mangroves, and blood are a few of the recurring images in Rinse. They cycle and return, sestina-like in situations that build off their past iterations. What role does repetition play in regards to your world-building within the book?
To me, repetition is call and response. When something is repeated, it “means differently,” it takes on a new meaning. All stories start with the voice and ear. Words, letters, and phrases are forever chasing after the voice. Repetition serves as a utility to the music of this collection of poems, and a point of identification for the audience of this work. While I am grateful for all readers, and they are welcome to my words: my work is certainly for certain audiences. My work is for women, for people of color, for Black folk. It is for creators who are themselves creation. The role of repetition is a call to my village, to the collective memory of this body; the response is music making.
Rinse is dense in memorable assertions. In the poem “Conjur Woman: Judith Carmichael” for example, you write, “The horizon is a line parting properties.” Can you talk about the relationship between capital(ism) and setting in your work?
I engage with the politics of space often, as whiteness colonizes and militarizes communities of color through the utility of capitalism. For my work, it is important to understand that capitalism changes spaces: who’s in it, how they take up space, and who belongs to a place. As I write, I often come face to face with the question of ownership imposed by capitalism onto a place. There is a difference between owning and belonging. Setting is how one belongs, capitalism is what one belongs to. There is no crossover. Therefore, when I write out of the geography of my village, there are empty plots of land today where the government cleared residents for a highway years ago. There are highways so bold they nearly shine red, splitting up neighborhoods into racial divisions. This is the story of Overtown. Eminent domain. A historically black neighborhood was cleared in the 1960s for I-95, a freeway running straight through the city. The government came with “housing projects” and money. They scattered the residents and seized the space. While the place of Overtown remains as a pillar to the Black community of Miami, the space has been colonized and appropriated like a minstrel stage. My work engages the question of belonging, by looking at place through the lens of history and language and creating in that multi-dimensional space.
Christell Victoria Roach is a writer born and raised in Miami, Florida. As a fourth year in the college double majoring in Creative Writing & African American Studies at Emory University, she is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow. With this fellowship, she studies Blues performance in literature, through the works of Black women such as Alice Walker and Mari Evans. Her research interests primarily center Black women, focusing on their images and voices as a rejection of society’s historical and cultural lenses, which too often omit and obscure the contributions of Black women. Christell is a poet and playwright, but sees research as comprehensive storytelling, which allows her to actualize her goal in “transforming the academy.” In Spring 2018 she was awarded the Bradley Currey, Jr. Seminar Travel Grant, the Best Undergraduate Research Essay, the Johnston Fellowship for Travel and Writing, and the Academy of American Poets Award at Emory University. Each award assisted in her research and writing over the summer. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Black Star Magazine*, and was recently published in SWIMM Every Day, Scalawag Magazine, and the Miami Rail. She has traveled the country performing poetry and researching ways to access her personal Blues, a Blues that sings to and from South Florida. A quote she carries within her is “if God is for me, who can be against me,” and it pushes her to accept change, to continually become. She is in constant pursuit of stories.