Sylvia D. Hamilton's Tender
Reviewed by Jérôme Melançon
Tender is a book Sylvia D. Hamilton seems to have written after having been everywhere. It carries encounters, passings through, and relationships unraveled by violence; it holds hope and rage all at once. Hamilton's writing is focused, each poem wrapped up with care; the collection as a whole that is expansive, defying time and distance—a vessel in which even more expansive determination can be and flourish.
The book's description repeats what the poems already make obvious: Hamilton is writing about everything that strives to make Black lives impossible, about Black lives ended short of their possibilities, about Black lives taking place nonetheless. She deepens the sense of threat to show its concreteness in "Dreaming the Periodic Table," where half-lives are those of children and young adults, where the hope is for all to have lives rather than half-lives, in a system meant to make most people fail: “Don’t go out at night. / Don’t go out in the day. / Your half-life is not your own.” While Hamilton speaks of the deaths of others, she recognizes, in “Hindsight,” that they could have been her own: “By rights I should not be here, alive. / By rights I should not be writing this poem. / By rights I should never have gone past grade 9.”
The many meanings of the word "tender" run through the collection, appearing in a few poems: Hamilton writes of vulnerability, bruising, passage, and care. The poems are concerned with bodies and the possibility for them, specifically for Black bodies, to be free to be more than simply bodies, to be more than some of their aspects, to do more than prepare to receive harm. This concern appears as care and worry, as rallying cries and as an expression of beauty and possibility—in other words, as a prolongation of life, blooming into a vision of justice and righteousness.
Despite including a few pages of notes at the end of the book, Hamilton does not explain herself. The notes are sufficient only to give readers the minimal information needed to jump off the book into a rabbit hole, a discography, a biography, a book of history. But they give no insight into the poems' meanings or provenance. We get deeply personal reflections and narrations, as Hamilton takes on voices to give them a new life, places herself in her poems to carry lives within her own.
The first section, “Thursday Forever African Book of Testimony,” is life-holding and life-giving. A narrator, fashioned after a Black girl who escaped her captors in Halifax in 1772, collects stories of other Black people whose names also come from the archives. Hamilton is thus able to bring together many imagined voices, each telling a different part of a larger story, each part being a story of defiance, escape, and self-determination. “His invisible cells could no longer imprison me,” Hector explains before recounting his own reinvention (32). Sam speaks in strong, simple words of his sister Beller and the judge in whose house she worked: “I would not let him force Beller to his bed.” In her own story, Keziah adds: “See, my face bears the evidence of the many times I refused.” So much resolve passes through their telling: simple words, simple actions, simple refusals, and an immense determination.
In the next section, “The Women among Them,” we jump from the 18th to the 20th century. Death is everywhere, met or escaped, usually brought by violent men but also by childbirth (and so patriarchy). Hamilton lets her readers come to the conclusion of each story by themselves; she does not spell out death but asks questions, distorts the flow of time—as death does. These poems are not gloomy; in them, music is a necessary element of life. Far from being a distraction, it is a source of energy and hope. Hope itself can be found through the arc of this second section, as the stories in each poem go from death to escape, to life. There is nothing bleak in this survival. Hope can be felt especially as music gradually takes up more space, until it becomes the topic of the last poem, “Sax”: “I shook hands with another legend in Montreal last night. [...] Right hand extended, I’m glad you were here, he said.”
A third, longer, more loosely arranged section follows these two well-contained wholes. Picking up on the themes of travel and movement, and drawing on Elisabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel, these poems question the decision to be in any place at all, the decision to leave but also to remain, to remain present or to escape in thought. Here again, the most horrific ideas are contained in questions: “What kind of trees / did the KKK use? / Random choice / of what was nearby? / Or did they go searching? / A mighty elm, an elegant / chestnut or a humble ash?” Jumping between Toronto and Sevilla, Rhode Island and the Atlantic ocean, Cuba and Lesoto, each poem is a knot in a net of dangers and threats.
The last poem in this section, “The Long View,” is simply immense. It flows from a smaller source – “A thousand tiny snow stars / glisten at 10 AM. It’s another year”—into a current of memories of solidarity and mutual protection, to a great river that takes along with it the theft of the materials that are kept in the Musée du Quai Branly as well as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting and the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the contents of other poems in the section that reappear briefly from the flow of the poem. There is a present time in this poem, the life of the narrator anchored in mentions of the cold and memories of the cold. “Some life stands still. You wonder why,” Hamilton writes as she leads us through the underlying transformation that can be seen even through the repetition of violence and death. Freedom, self-determination, and love are here again constant concerns, as they become more than “Freedom to die trying to live.”
The last two sections are much shorter. “Tales and Fables” contrasts the known expectations and the routines of survival meant to allow Black people to disappear from the racist gaze, with the activities that are forbidden to them, activities that open them to insult, injury, or death. Public and popular representations of Black and white people abound in these poems, from stereotypes to heroic statues, and their weight seems to remove the very possibility of hope as this fourth section rises like the previous section, but this time toward an unbearable pessimism. The threat to life present in racism is joined by the climate catastrophe, and questions devolve into statements before they are uttered: “will there be lights? / Or just insatiable, everlasting darkness.” And again: “Some say we have time. Will there be babies? / I’ve always had faith in babies–faces forever open to the world around them. Will they live to grow, / learn to laugh? They well know how to cry loud enough / to give a fright, to bite down hard on the air of freedom. / Will it carry them through?” Hamilton’s poems are not a light in the darkness, but a cry, a shout: “I need my outrage back,” she writes in another poem about the destruction of the world.
She transitions to the fifth section by ending on Gramsci’s optimism of the will, but it is the biting, frightful, outraged reaction to injustice that she expects will cut through this pessimism. Aptly titled “What Remains,” the last section takes stock of what is left of centuries of violent racism and of a resolve to save lives. Optimism does not come easily: in “The Pond,” spring never seems to come as winter lingers; in “Falling Child,” the same nightmare repeats, the falling child is never caught. This section, like the second, ends on an almost positive note, that of the mundane and grand projects she is able to prepare, the life that is present in the smallest things and moments—and among all the concerts that come to town, Tina Turner is back, and this time without Ike, free of a threat others had grown to admire.
In shaping her collection as a succession of defeats and escapes, Hamilton builds toward outrage and protection. She never forgets what it is for the body, for the whole being to remain tender, and she carries her readers through the worst that was placed into so many bodies and remains lodged there. By giving life to the past and to those who have recently lost their lives (and are losing it as we speak), she also affirms her own life in an act of self-determination: the telling of stories and the repurposing of language that will let us see what has been there all along. This us as readers will differ greatly, as her readers will not form one public. There will be Black readers, and others, those whose bodies are still tender with the weight and strokes of the habits, the words, the acts, and the structures she conjures—those who can perhaps find strength in the distance she creates and in the shared outrage she channels. And there will be those white readers, and others who, like me, have been kept from experiencing and knowing about this same ongoing violence and destruction, and picking up on what is said and shown to matter, have quickly become too good at keeping themselves from what others have done and what their complicity and participation might be. Here, to create new attachments and new views of ourselves, we have the stories, and new phrasings, and the knowledge that “We never sleep, we are with you.”
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent chapbook is with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022, after 2020’s Coup), and his most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram, both at @lethejerome.