We Are Not Wearing Helmets by Cheryl Boyce Taylor

Review by Glenis Redmond

In We are not Wearing Helmets, Cheryl Boyce Taylor populates the poetic landscape with flowers: Hibiscus. Delphiniums. Morning glories. Petunias. Peonies. Cosmos. Hydrangeas. Moonflowers. The litany goes on and on, proving how this Trinidadian poet not only loves blossoms but also knows them. She weaves a floral chain as an extended metaphor throughout the entire collection that transports the reader. Though the ground is riddled with emotional land mines, Taylor does not sidestep them but uses floral imagery to deftly wield her elegiac pen to uplift the reader and memorialize her loved ones.

Taylor’s blooms act as portals for the reader to step through and discover where and how this island woman came into being. To see the poet as daughter, mother, lover, and activist and to learn where she holds her greatest wounds. Each flower rises from the ground as a testament as Taylor points out to the reader her losses. Here. Here, and here. As readers, we are carried along in a dreamlike state through the poet’s memorial garden. Yet she is palpably awake and covers much emotional ground, while tending to pertinent people, places, and injustices.

As she protests in “No More War Poems,” we understand that there will always be war and war poems. There will always be wailing and loss, but right alongside this grief and rage, there will also be beauty. We see an example of this in “Praise for Her Noisy Laughter”:

Praise kiss of cherry blossoms blanketing the land
praise the poet’s voice loud enuf
to still gunshots”…

With these juxtapositions, the poet masterfully textures her work. One moment we are outraged, and the next we are filled with love, hope, and longing. Taylor makes room for all of it in her garden. With these sudden shifts and time-travel-like leaps, emotional whiplash is inevitable and glorious.

Through Taylor’s poems, we meet Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights leader, as she grants the poet the rhythm of the congo drum. With each thrum, Taylor strikes every beat as she battles ever-present micro and macro-aggressions. Rhythm extends through this volume, creating another through line. Taylor does not hold back. She delivers what needs to come to view through her lyrical light. From jump street, in her first poem, “Devouring the Light, 1968,” Taylor positions us on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This small, nine-line poem slowly unfurls and sets the tone and mood for the entire book. With this poem, Taylor warns us that her walk will be determined and her gaze direct in addressing personal and societal ills.

The poet also loves a turn. Taylor is at her best turning and turning, with flower-gripping fist packing well-executed punches. “First Amendment Rights,” a poem dedicated to her Aunt V on her 90th birthday, celebrates in the most righteous way—delivering straight blows for women’s rights. Taylor shapeshifts herself and other women into warriors who “face a world that was not ours.” Her raw rage and images haunt:

Throats scissored open 1967
Late into that summer we marched for women’s rights
We marched for mothers
Against the mad acrobats trying to displace us trying to eject us but this
Was our house
Our bodies
Our children
Our home

In the last two lines of the poem, she enacts how race complicates women’s issues and the women’s movement:

Next day the white woman refused to say mornin’ at the bus

Her rage is apparent. We did all of this, and we are not wearing helmets, but the blows come unceasingly. This is the crux of black women’s lives. In the poem “Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor,” the poet calls for action:

we did not know our world would get so ugly…
we did not know Sandra Bland
Rekia Boyd
Kisha Michael
Tanisha Anderson

Shantel Davis
Miriam Carey
Eleanor Bumpurs
did not know did not know did not know…
did not know Breonna Taylor killed by police while asleep in her bed

This is where the poetry turns sacred: Each poem a petition, a prayer, and ammunition for the “unlearning of America.” Exhaustion comes from tending. Weariness inhabits the words as Taylor mourns her dead and how America has failed us with its “unpaid promissory notes,” but the warrior rises again and again. She notes and handles inequities of class and race with rage and wit: “Lottery: Brooklyn”:

I ask about my delivery
she ask me if I won the lottery
to get in the building I mean
I flip cock my head and go off on her ass
to prove that I too can be fake as shit
never trust a sweet-faced Caribbean
they got more faces than jobs.

Taylor also gives us her coming-of-age story, when her first poetry teacher comes into view–––the root of the root––the woman who molded her and held her and recited poetry: her mother. “For The Love of Tennyson & Langston” shows us how poetry is passed down the line:

bless her Lord Tennyson
and the poem she recited until the day she died
bless her favorite poem

her “Charge of the Light Brigade”
and her Battle of Balaclava, 1854
bless her pride at finding Langston Hughes

Then, we learn about her chief mentor, Audre Lorde, through epistolary poems. We witness her poetic genesis:

Dear Audre:

I think that I may be experiencing a change of heart. Today I read poems from The Black Unicorn. It reminded me of how much I want to be a poet, a badass, grown woman poet like you.

Grief populates this collection too, yet Taylor heeds Alice Walker’s sage instruction: “The way forward is with a broken heart.” In this proceeding, we see the poet’s iron-willed resolve as she is the twin that lived. Her grief continues. She is a daughter who loses her mother––a best friend––a mother losing her son. In “Tenth-Grade Fly,” her grief for her son Malik is palpable:

Finally this morning river sings
sun is bright and we are smiling
now all we need are your eyes to guide
us into this aging.

Dear son,
Please come home soon.

We Are Not Wearing Helmets is a book exquisitely layered with honor and uplift, while addressing the double-edged-ness of life. The broken-hearted warrior advances with a battalion of women poets behind her. We are Not Wearing Helmets is a treasure trove of celebrations of black women writers: Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Aracelis Girmay, and (JP) Juliet Howard.

Taylor speaks with a necessary tongue of tribute––proving she fights and loves in equal measure. In “The Home You Left Long Ago” for Aracelis Girmay, we feel the weighted mixed nature of love:

your mother reassuring you
we will be together again
soon I love you daughter

for a moment you hate her
her voice calls your words from its hiding place
her poem calls and calls you
like every ocean you have ever known

She also sings of enduring love. “How to Make Art” eloquently proclaims:

I always want to praise sky & Ceni
my night rider
twenty-two years and I can still drown in her wildness

Taylor’s writing constantly examines and weighs joy and loss. Her temporal shifts allow her to be in many places at once. In this collection, she busies herself with re-membering––putting herself back together again after the most turbulent of tragedies.

She calls on a group of women clad in white to help her enact spiritual rituals, to come back from the depths of her son Malik’s death. She writes it out. She lays her wreath of flowers down. In these pages, she turns inward. She turns outwards. She burns sage, reads poems, and takes her place as a literary citizen as she creates an online writing circle named for her loving mother: Elma’s Circle. In this embrace, she “feels lighter and partially whole again. ”

Cheryl Taylor is a poet’s poet, a master gardener. She holds a master class on how to sow poetic seeds. She bows her head poetically, while tending to a new crop. In every weather, she is there cursing the sky––nurturing self and others. With tears sprung from her grief, she waters the ground. Yet she never gives in to the struggle. She knows when to raise her head in gratitude to the sun. With love and defiance, she becomes the boldest bloom in her bountiful garden. She writes and reaps from her labor and brings forth both beauty and balm.

While celebrating and mourning the past, Taylor’s work also turns our gaze toward the future. “Moonflower,” dedicated to JP Howard, resonates as the poet asks vital questions about poetry and legacy:

who will remember our poems
their lives blue petal petunias
their lips scolding sky
who will remember these lines
scattered geography trailing moonflower
their pearl-white throats
ripping red at night

Taylor prophesies to herself and others of what is about to flower. Ever watchful, ever listening, she waits on the steady beat of the heart of the earth. With this pulse, she sees truth burst into bloom in its proper season. She captures the fullness and plunks down verse into rows upon rows on the page.

We Are Not Wearing Helmets by Cheryl Boyce Taylor
Northwestern University Press 2022
104 Pages, Paperback