Please Make me pretty, I don’t want to die / Tawanda Mulalu / Princeton University Press, September 2022 – $60 (Hardcover)

Tawanda Mulalu’s Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die begins at a bathroom mirror, where the poet stands combing coiled knots out of his hair. He likens his afro of snarls to Medusa’s serpents and the heads of the Hydra––the sink collecting the little myths released by his detangling tool. The poem tilts seamlessly from this moment of grooming to a reflection on writing as song-making:

“Last night, 

Achebe tried again

And I nearly heard him.

Ngũgĩ refuses these tones, says,

this music has the worst sort

of oceans beneath it

Throughout his debut collection, we read and hear Mulalu stretch the lonely forms of elegy, aria, and sonnet to reflect the breakages of migration and the heart-politics of interracial intimacy. The choice of cover art (Władysław Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations) is as much of a provocation as Mulalu’s epigraph to the first “Aria,” quoting Sylvia Plath’s use of the n-word in “Ariel.” Racialized aesthetics resound within Mulalu’s work, confronted variously with a skinned-raw hurt, an ambivalent probing, and with bleaker, Marecherian pronouncements like “All my poems are in whiteface.” Mulalu’s triad of film studies poems is notably adept at parsing this subject.

Following the seasons of the northeastern year, the collection’s cyclical, four-part structure counterposes the poet’s thematic preoccupation with distances: between self and beloved, between private self and social identity, between uprooted self and home country. Mulalu maps the gulfs, everywhere calling to mind Meena Alexander’s heart-winding first line of “Birthplace with Buried Stones”: “In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria.”

The collection brims with the particular anxiety expressed in the title of the work. To poetize life and the dissonances of self is to render both beautiful and, canonically, immortal. The question stands: who might sing the poet back to himself? In the dead of winter, in a poem written after Plath and Podkowiński titled “Frenzy,” we arrive:

“Divine me. It will only make me feel

More real to know the pain of your mind,

thinking somewhere, riding into another red sun

not imagined by me. Still the indefatigable hooves beat

only for every other woman who has loved me, beat

only for you as I have made you here. And another horse

on this horizon, holding me as myself, inking itself

into dawn. I am alive. Pretty”  

— Yeukai Zimbwa