Aaron Counts’ STRANGE-TONGUED NAMES: Aware and Alive

Aaron Counts’ new poetry chapbook, Strange-Tongued Names offers us the chance to look at ourselves. This talented poet asks us who we are, where we’ve been, how we love. These are beautiful poems, elegant and smooth in their craft. But they are also important poems, these poems can help us be our best selves: aware and alive. You can purchase this book here via PayPal.

From the evocative photograph on the book’s cover, to the last poem, “Burial Instructions,” this collection invites us to be aware and alive.

Some poets like to use language that is beautiful but hard to understand. Some poets use such common language they lack beauty. Aaron Counts finds the best language– surprising language. It is beautiful and accessible. It is delicate and tender, then urgent and dangerous. This is a gorgeous collection. My only critique is that I wish there were more poems.

Strange-Tongued Names opens with “My Name.” Written in a kind of prose poem format, this poem serves as the poet’s self-introduction, his greeting. This reflection on naming starts in the most primal place: the sea. It recalls the Middle Passage, suffering, even romance.

“My name was coughed from the mouth of a volcano and / floated in a cloud of ash toward the sea.” It continues: “It [My name] became netted in the sails of a three-masted schooner and was pulled / by rough hands into the ship’s dark hold.”

One of the most powerful poems in this collection is “Swimming with Sharks.” This poem also recalls the Middle Passage, reminding us in the epigraph that “so many bodies were thrown (overboard) that sharks changed their migratory patterns in order to follow the food supply.”

In the underbelly of this sleepless beast,
purple blood pools in rigored bodies
and buttocks too long lying idle.
Shackles rust in stagnant air and scurvied
fingertips bleed as they claw at keyless locks.

The world is inside out.
On deck, old friend taunt.
Sun’s thorny rays betray hollowed eyes
with shards of piercing light.

It’s hard to imagine beautiful writing relating details of the Middle Passage. But Aaron Counts manages it here. And he does it, in fact, by managing. His language is vivid and descriptive but controlled. Writing about the horror of a slave ship, one is dangerously close to two sins: one can understate and miss the horror– or one can overstate and indulge in victimhood. Counts avoids both with controlled and careful language. He writes with an accurate historical eye and with a well-tuned heart. We, the readers, are allowed to see and feel this poem.

Three beautiful poems in this book are a thread of poems, “Central District Love Song #1, #2 and #4. These are poems of the city, of place. Counts again employs masterful restraint in “Central District Love Song #1” as he describes a young boy grabbing, protecting, and singing to his little sister during gunfire.

We see the two in a car near a Starbucks while gunshots ring out:

When gun shots bust
out the window at Starbucks,
boy unbuckles baby sister
from her car seat, holds her
chubby fingers in his fist
and hums a lullaby
while the two
do their best to melt
into the floorboard
of the car. 

Again, here is controlled language. Here is moderation. The event itself has enough horror. This believer in cities knows how to relate the story in such a distilled way, reminiscent of Lucille Clifton, that the heroic love becomes clear. He barely needs to tell us.

“Central District Love Story #2” feels more personal. The poet might be discussing gentrification, but in very personal terms.

All our places are gone now.
Your grandma’s porch, where you asked
me if I liked you-liked you…

One of the most beautiful poems in this collection is “Letter to the Visiting Poet Who Told the High School Audience Hip Hop Is Too Easy.” Because I have often been the “visiting poet” I know the dangers this poem voices.

You, sir, knew hard once.
Before book tours and boutique hotels,
you walked a similar path
to these boys who have yet
to earn your respect,
soldiering through the jungles
of a strange lang with no path…

He goes on to describe the boys learning to write:

These boys are ravenous.
They rip open language like
MRE rations, gnawing
on machismo and violent verbs–
dogs fighting for alpha-position.

One of this book’s most astonishing poems is “Central District Love Story #4.” This poem, in very few words, takes us into the world of police violence, the dangerous space between police officers and citizens, and a quiet evocation of Eric Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”

The opening line, “According to law” nearly makes us stop and ready ourselves. The poems states that

police officers should remain
at a distance of at least 21-feet
from suspects who display pre-attack

This poem is short, powerful, and true. I’ll leave the reader to experience its surprise and its sadness.

This potent collection ends with “Burial Instructions.” In this poem, I love Counts’ use of short lines and brilliant line breaks– to give us a narrative but also small moments of sadness and beauty. This is a gorgeous poem that I will be using in my own readings. Washington, D.C. poets often open readings with O.P.P. (Other people’s poetry). As soon as I read this poem, I knew I would use it myself.

Aaron Counts and Backbone Press give us all a gift in this collection. As I said earlier, my only disappointment is that I want more. That’s a great feeling to have at the end of a poetry collection. Aaron Counts, I am sure, will give us more in the future. Here is a poet, former publisher and editor of WORD IS BOND, and an activist who is writing strong and necessary poetry. These poems will help us stay aware. They also help us to savor being alive.

Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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