Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems

reviewed by Maya Phillips

In the nineteenth century, physician J. Marion Sims, known as the “the father of modern gynecology,” pioneered new surgical tools and techniques in the field by experimenting on enslaved women, usually without anesthesia. In Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems, selected by Tyehimba Jess as a winner of the National Poetry Series, Dominique Christina tells the story of Anarcha, one of Sims’s most frequent test subjects, in a series of narrative poems written almost entirely in her voice. These poems are so grounded in their sonic elements—consonance, assonance, alliteration, and rhyme—that even in their most gruesome moments, they read like songs. We watch the scenes of Anarcha’s life pass by in explicit detail, as when she is raped by her master: “his whiskers / chafe my cheek / splinter my back”—and realizes she’s pregnant with his child: “when he left / seem like he stayed / like i kept / some of it.” Christina’s words run together, frequently without capitalization or punctuation, giving the sense that this text is, as a whole, a run-on sentence capturing not just one black woman’s story but the larger history of injustices related to black bodies. The persona work is most dynamic in its second section, when the perspective jumps from Anarcha to Sims in paired poems that depict the same situation through their wildly different perspectives. The book’s most horrifying moments are the ones when we see Anarcha through the doctor’s eyes, as “the cougar-eyed gal / Split clean from end to end,” and we, too, look at Anarcha with probing intimacy: “She is open all over. / Her upflung hips, everything unhinged.” Anarcha Speaks aims, and succeeds, at presenting a history that mustn’t be forgotten: “Every time you see a black girl bleeding / Think: Progress.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.