Cornrows and Cornfields by Celeste Doaks

Reviewed by Caroline Davies

The first collection from Celeste Doaks, Cornrows and Cornfields comes garlanded with praise from England’s Helen Mort (‘these poems are so vivid they are cinematic’) and Doaks’ American mentors. Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar and Patricia Smith (‘pulses with the life-force of a young African American woman coming of age in the Midwest). This book by an American poet – published by Wrecking Ball Press, who are based in Hull – symbolises how compact the contemporary Anglophile poetry world is, and how connections are made across the Atlantic.

Does it live up to the billing?  My answer is an unequivocal yes. It feels as if Celeste Doaks has poured her whole life so far into this book. She writes poems which sing from childhood incidents, remembering the ember from an uncle’s cigarette:

He flicks embers out his window and they fly back into mine,
spiral to the seat, burning a hole so deep the metal coils
sprang up like angered gargoyles.

(‘The First Time I Heard The F Word’)

A school teacher who encouraged her to write:

At lunchtime I’d pen short stories and the occasional poem
which she’d read and quickly extol “How innovative”!
Those times were like rubies to me, as if my classmates
disappeared in a puff of magic smoke.

(‘My First Public Reading’)

There are mother-daughter poems and father-daughter poems. The mother comes out of this well, especially when she is trying to protect her daughter:

This was her attempt to shield me from knifey words
Knowing sticks and stones can break anyone; and just as I was about
to utter the tiniest hi, something rendered me silent as the swallow.

(‘Grocery Store, Bow Legs and a Barbie-Lady’)

The sad, inevitable undercurrents of racism that Doaks experienced surface in several of the poems:

this small ivory boy…
–––––––––––––––He would always be the first bright white boulder
crashing into this dark pool, with liberty and justice for none.

(‘First Fight At Mother Goose Nursery’)

and more forcefully in

Nigger is a word
that sits on your plate for decades,
an uneaten vegetable
no one wants

The collection includes a villanelle, ‘Black Lotus’, dedicated to Michelle Obama, but the form comes to dominate the content and the second part of one of the repeating lines felt rather strained. The first part was more effective, and who wouldn’t want to marvel at the first lady, ‘Lotus rising out of South side water and night’.

These are mostly free verse poems in a conversational style, which suits the subject matter. As a Brit who has never been to the USA, I was aware that some of the cultural references were rather lost on me, such as ‘The cubs versus The Sox in Grandfather’s Stadium’, who are baseball teams presumably. In fact, this poem is less about the sport than it is about a child’s experience of wanting attention, and not getting it.

I enjoyed reading these poems so much that by the time I’d reached the end of the book I wanted to hear what they sound like as spoken by the poet, so here she is on Youtube. I certainly want to read her next collection.