Who gets to tell the story? | Newsworthy: Poems by Deborah Mouton

 

Deborah D.E.E.P. Moutan photographed by Paula N. Luu | Courtesy of Bloomsday Literary

Houston’s Poet Laureate Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton’s first poetry collection was released on April 1 and, though it took four years for it to come together, this autobiographical feat is well worth the wait. Newsworthy, which examines growing up with the threat of racially-motivated violence, or being a mother to Black children amid police brutality, is 80 pages that grip you and won’t let you go–not until you have walked in the version of the world so many Black Americans have to deal with every day. Fear is like a shadow, always lurking around the corner which leads to a vigilance–both as a mother and woman–that’s necessary to survive.

Each of the book’s eight sections start with a poem that tells the story of a girl named Amandla, her brother Josh, and her parents. The poems follow the family as the children age, from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood, all marked by moments of tension and unfortunate encounters. These incidents and the resulting consequences lead them all to learn how life can be grossly unfair, how to stay aware at all times of the potential for racial violence, and finally, how best to cope with and stand up for your dignity without dying. Unlike the majority of the collection which is written in free verse, these poems consist of a paragraph of prose, documenting every detail of their existence, followed by a haiku that serves as a visual more abridged version of the main idea.

In “The Time We Went Over the Edge,” Mouton contrasts Amandla’s experience on a rollercoaster to the ride she takes with her mom to see her brother Josh who has been wrongly accused of stealing cars.

 

G-force pinning

them along every curve of the 91. Each broken law its own

death drop. Loop de loop.

 

In another poem, “The Time We Were Thugs,” Mouton masterfully builds suspense as she describes how Amandla’s parents experienced a traumatic traffic stop, provoked by police officers’ preconceptions of the black family. In addition to sharing her own experiences related to her nuclear family, Mouton also reflects on becoming a mother and how loving her children affects her–causing anxiety, deep-seated fear, and terror–knowing the risks they will face because of their skin color.

As the mother of a Mexican-American child who has the privilege of passing for white, I empathize with her completely when, in “Sanford Sweet,” she wrestles with an uncomfortable gratefulness as she watches Trayvon Martin’s funeral on TV one evening:

 

Our nursery

is quiet tonight

for all the right reasons…

 

in the most shameful

whisper say

I’m so glad we had

a girl

 

The poems that mention acts of mothering are bittersweet, tinged with melancholy and underlying anxiety, or guilt. In “Release,” she uses the sea and its creatures as metaphors for becoming a mother. In comparing herself to an octopus, she describes:

 

My children’s midnight risings are my palpitation

Their tangled sleep is me wrestling my tentacles

The hardest part is not looking

away when I see my ink blooming in them

 

Later on in the same poem, she talks about the various aspects of life that compete for a mother’s attention and how we build ourselves up against these competing forces:

when the pirates of work and school and sleep and stage

have stolen our collective chest bump, diverted

our propulsion

we be devilfish

lightly touching barbs

to get used to their cut

And in one of the first poems, Mouton delves into the most primal of motherly instincts, the need to protect (switched the order of these sections for better flow and clarity), as a group of children play hopscotch against the glow of the setting sun in L.A. The first time Momma calls them inside, she teases the them about how angry they are that play time is over. The second time she calls, it “seems more ambulance / in her throat / more flashing light /in her eyes,” an urgency that only a mother desperate to keep her children safe can recognize.

As a whole, these poems honor the victims held up by the Black Lives Matter movement as public figures who were victimized by police or racially-motivated violence, including James Byrd, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Jordan Davis, and John Crawford. The reflection on Bland which comprises most of the last section of the book is especially moving and striking. Just like reporter Joyce King walked the three-mile route where James Byrd had been dragged in order to better tell his story, Mouton drives to the site of Sandra Bland’s arrest and to the Waller County jail where Bland spent her last days, even though her husband warns her against it.

Though Mouton is not performing her work in person for the reader, she may as well be. Her voice, and the musicality of the language in this book, leaps off the page as you hear the dynamic beats and rhythms flow, their power only matched by the emotion behind them and the images she allows us to imagine. She has represented Houston well doing her tenure as Poet Laureate and this book only adds to that impressive body of work. Mouton shares her experiences as well as the stories of many lost members of the black community with desperation, rage, and compassion, and in the end urges her readers to “start the difficult conversations.”

Newsworthy is available via Bloomsday Literary.

Eloísa Pérez-Lozano writes poems and essays about Mexican-American identity, motherhood, and women’s issues. She graduated from Iowa State University with a B.S. in psychology and an M.S. in journalism and mass communications. A 2016 Sundress Publications Best of the Net nominee, her work has been featured in The Texas ObserverHouston Chronicle, and Poets Reading the News, among others. She lives with her family in Houston, Texas.

Born in Riverside, California, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton is an internationally-recognized performance poet and the first African-American Poet Laureate of Houston. Formerly ranked #2 Female Performance Poet in the World, she is a founding member and executive director of VIP Arts, a non-profit dedicated to promoting literacy and the arts in underserved populations. Her genre-bending poetry has engendered unconventional collaborations with groups as disparate as the Rockets and the Houston Ballet. Her work has been featured on NPR, the BBC, and the TEDx circuit. An opera about the life of Marian Anderson, for which she wrote the libretto, premieres at the Houston Grand Opera in the spring of 2020. Mouton lives and teaches in Houston.

Raising Mothers is a free online literary magazine for femmes and NBPOC parents of color. We center the work of the marginalized in our effort to normalize our stories and existence on the web, and in life.
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