What We Ask of Flesh
Remica L. Bingham
Etruscan Press, 2012
Perfect Binding, 85 pages
Reviewed by Kim Loomis-Bennett
Remica L. Bingham’s second book brings to mind She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks by M. NourbeSe Philip. Both collections break the silencing of women. Both collections adapted the rhythm to suit the voice represented. Both use white space as silence—the waiting period for these lost and fractured voices to reach us. We need more poets to tell marginalized stories and Bingham joins in the chorus with What We Ask of Flesh. Bingham explores, with innovative free-verse, the language of the feminine body and what it endures. To do this she invokes biblical characters and fellow women poets as her allies.
In section one, the opening poem “The Body Speaks” is an impressive sequence for the oracle-like tone is sustains. The concubine in “Judges 19:29, 30” counsels that being broken does not equal annihilation:
this sum becomes every broken body
by being flesh-gone only
spiritwe are ever being
here and always here
The eighth poem is presented as two prose blocks that address Eve:
Don’t birth us, Eve. We are clay and reed
and sinew. We’ll become Medusa. We’ll
bring everyone in. You’ll try to bury us. Fix
us to one place. Find some stone myth can’t
uncover. Name us or spit out what’s left.
We’ll be the bludgeoned child, waking you.
Women speak to one another through generations, calling back to the past to the first biblical mother, sharing stories of suppression and survival.Many women will feel their experiences represented in Bingham’s verse—the haunting images are from our inner experiences made manifest. These poems never break their gaze.
The title poem, “What We Ask of Flesh” in section two is heart-wrenching to read. A toddler steps into a pan of cooking oil, she has third-degree burns up to her ankles, the mother is absent, and the mother’s mistake reverberates throughout the extended family. There are seven sections to the poem as it explores the consequences of harm to a helpless child.In “II.” Bingham observes her cousin: “The girl does not smile/in the portrait/of the grandchildren.//She cannot stand/and wears no shoes.” The young girl’s accident, her injury is a story she cannot tell. Bingham’s respectful reflection honors the child who cannot speak for herself.
“Index”offers an objective look at a woman’s place in her family and her family’s history. The poetry here is in the interplay between the connotations of the index listings:
Adolescent search for self, 3
Adoption of false self, 12
Adult, child needs the same, 15
Age most vulnerable, two to six, 23
Anger, 32, 55, 60, 85, 92
Attempt to make parent happy, 64
Attempting the impossible, 65
Subversive communication is sometimes the only way to communicate. Bingham represents the urge to document experience any way a woman can. We need to build up to bravery, to the confrontation.
The final section of Bingham’s collection is grounded in images of nature, homes, and death. “How I Crossed Over” is a sequence that allows Bingham to imagine the final moments of Lucille Clifton, Ai, and Carolyn Rodgers. Readers don’t need to know the work of these three pivotal black poets to appreciate the distinct voices Bingham renders. It’s a pleasure to be able to meet these poets through the voice of the next generation.
What We Ask of Flesh accomplishes its aim to speak for women who have been silenced by patriarchal forces. For all the seriousness of Bingham’s subject matter there is still a nuance of hope that sings through the pages of this collection. In section “VII” of the poem, “What We Ask of Flesh” Bingham lists “USES FOR FIRE”:
ALTER: The flesh is lost after a burn
the heat can scar bone
but if it lives it will heal
Kim Loomis-Bennett is an MFA candidate in the Wilkes University creative writing program.