Where better can we trace our own origins than in the roots of our hair?
Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” is a multiple series of journeys, made in hair and bone, blood and sex, strife and sisterhood. It reads like a fable of self-conjure, and brings us, in echoes of “Daphne”, the female figure excavating herself from inertia, through the effort of pain: “Her afro traced her scalp / Like patterns of poetry. / She dug her nails deep / To carve out the self / And lay herself in a cloak of snow.” So many of the best speculative poems I’ve read are about the self-rescue of women; Tsamaase’s poem is about rescue, and also about the ritual of bringing oneself forth.
“Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” presents us with a hybridized principal speaker, one who is both ‘she’ and ‘I’, ‘myself’ and ‘her’. In her first-person voice, the speaker claims sovereignty over her beauty, but a line later, we see ‘her’ titrations of doubt: “Her make-up, a ghost’s mask, / Buries ethni-cities in layers of bone / ’Cause isn’t it so tidy to be the color of bone / Unwrapped of skin / Instead of the color of sin— / Skin?”
Look, the poem might be telling us through the mirror of its own structural apparatus, nothing about claiming yourself is easy.
The poem pulses with images of gestation and procreation: “belly is full of unborn worlds”; “a womb where oceans beg to seal earth with sea-skin”; “phallic caves”; “a sex digger, mining her loins.” The most startling of images comes when the poem’s speaker has her uterus pinched, by one who is “begging the blood to stop:
“Go back. No, we don’t want children.”” What a darkly conjured reward is Tsamaase’s poem: a pelt, mapped tight, to show a planet, to sound a drum.
This is the tenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.