A review of Blue Hallelujahs by Cynthia Manick

Reviewed by Elvis Alves

Blue Hallelujahs
by Cynthia Manick
Black Lawrence Press
ISBN: 978-1-62557-945-4, June 2016, $15.95

Cynthia Manick’s Blue Hallelujahs is an impressive debut poetry collection. Manick’s talent shines here. Her poetry is like a good meal, worth savoring. She describes small things in big ways. This approach draws the reader into the landscape of her poetry. In The Shop Washington Built, laughter is described as “the size of two small ships” (8) and strength is the ability “to hold lightening inside/grow daughters among/shifting currents” (Things I Carry Into The World, 16).

The collection is peopled with characters that feel familiar. One surmises that this is the case because of their influence on Manick’s life (and her ability to capture this with words). Manick shares her grandmother’s wisdom, “…they fear our womb/the reckoning hive of dark/berries and stems” (The Sun Don’t Know, 13). A strong yet struggling mother appears in some of the poems as in Mind The Gap (17) and Tapping at Mama’s Knees (28). Here is a stanza from the former.

Does she know how the world works?
How some of us are born without 40 acres
and the weight of a mule on their chest. Like my mother
and Monday mornings—boarding the F train and two buses
with two children, her own negro caravan. A sonata full of low-watt
clinics and hurling vowels like swords. How I often waited
in those long-ass lines
and imagined myself a boy, a whirlwind digging in the muck
where only muscles and gold matter.

Tapping Mama’s Knees too calls us into the harsh reality that is poverty (the female character migrates to the North from the American South to escape Jim Crowism) but there is a gentle feel to it. This is the case because the mother is drawn to music, a salve to, or at least an expression of, her pain, “While the body craves light/mama wanted the dark arms of trumpeters/watching veins pull notes together/was like an island being born.” Herein lies the beauty of Manick’s work. She lets you into her world to the degree that you recognize yourself in what she presents. The same can be said of music, like the blues.

Can some things stand? Can some things change?
Or will you banish her, like your other pets—the mammoth,
the bison, and the dinosaur? (To Speak About What Isn’t Spoken, 40)

Here we see the threat of extinction. This is found in other poems in the collection, including in one of its strongest, The Museum, where Manicks is pictured on display, “my carcass in this museum…my fluted bones dance, say hi, in the last great African mammal display” (72). This is the gaze, how others see Manick, a doing she wants to dismantle with words. The title poem begins with “In the right light I’m beautiful” (Blue Hallelujahs from Hand, 73).

Manick sees herself in the footsteps of great female African American poets,“ When I doubt I look to Gwendolyn, Phyllis, and Lucille” (How a Poet Carries Weight, 60). This is true. Her collection signals the maturing of a powerful voice and is worth reading.

About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com