Poetry books work in different ways. Some teach, some inspire, some surprise, some provoke. Saida Agostina’s collection, let the dead in, reminds me. It reminds me to remember the richness of living, the beauty of love in places we don’t expect. This beautiful collection of poems is a tap on the shoulder, followed by this advice: “Look everywhere for beauty.”
let the dead in begins with beauty before you open its pages. The cover, a painting by Stephen Towns, a Baltimore painter and fabric artist, provides a visual feast for this gathering of poems. Towns’ painting, titled “All Is Vanity,” shows us a Black woman standing in what might be a cane field, beneath a canopy of cards, bearing images of people. The woman, halo-clad, indicating her own holiness, stares directly at the viewer/reader. This is just what Agostini’s poems will do in the pages to come. She stares right at us, asking, daring, insisting that we see people and places: Black women, people who have suffered erasure, her mother, her granny, her great granny, Guyana, people whose bodies and loves are often ignored or despised. The book unfolds into three sections, which the people at Alan Squire Press, including co-founder Rose Solari, have formatted beautifully, with space and simplicity.
Here is a brief look at a few of the poems from let the dead in. I hope this reflection/review will encourage you to buy this book. Its poems will follow you and remind you of what’s important.
One of the early poems, “an incomplete legend on love” especially moves me. Several poems in this collection draw on the poet’s love of “granny.” We see this remarkable woman in various moments of her life. In this poem, she is a ten year-old girl, having climbed a tree which falls as she’s in it, “her right leg / smashed underneath its trunk…” But the poem tells us that this young girl’s cries brought her brother from miles away to help her. This is a powerful reminder of love’s efficacy, how we hear each other, how we pray and turn prayer to help. This poem especially reminds us of “the little moments we horde / in tasks that separately would not be counted as holy.”
Among my favorite poems in this book is “I write of my mother in the book of joy.” This poem recalls Agostina’s mother and her insistence that love and beauty can travel with us, wherever we go. We learn that “even in winter she is pledged to nursing life / in the bitterest of Maryland snow, think on the four lime trees / sheltering in our house…” This poem, and others in this collection, sing resistance, a force that makes life good no matter its circumstances. This poem also sings praise of Black women, who are always “…stubbornly willing love into life.”
In “great granny’s last night,” we see a death scene as tender as any I can recall in literature. We learn that great granny’s “…pipe lays packed and unsmoked by her bed, / clean sheets huddled round her, cups of / milky tea and weeping held quiet in the next room…” We will learn that Elvis’ singing was heard. But most beautiful, we will see that life’s end need not be all sorrow, as her granny recalls, that “death and god dance together.”
As a poet, Agostini might be at her strongest when she uses unusual forms to help her words work their magic. In “notes on archiving erasure” she uses short lines to teach us, through memory and lesson, how to remember what others want us to forget. In “steps to safety,” she uses a numbered list to remind us how to care for ourselves. She urges us to “1. listen to luther nonstop” and “16. read macbeth. imagine trump in tights and a codpiece. sage your eyes.” Then she gives us the wisest advice of all: “19. ask your heart if it can flee” and “20. listen to the answer”
Many of these poems achieve the distinction of being political and tender at the same time. Explore “2 fat black women are making love” and “when it is 2pm in your office and you have a flashback to that moment you were raped.” These poems, like so many in this collection, manage to challenge us and move us at the same time.
This beautiful book closes with the personal. In the final poem, “at the end,” we see great granny on the beach, “in Barbados, the days her swollen legs could run / by her son near the shore, how the brown sweating men / would put down their nets just to watch them dance…” We will also see what does not surprise us at the book’s end. That “great granny. fed herself on love / why should she die any different?”
Saida Agostini gives us a gift in these generous, provocative, crafted poems. I hope you will take the time to read them, hear them, and let them remind you of beauty you might have forgotten.
Order this book here from bookshop.org.