Citizenship, Persona, and Testimony: Hafizah Geter’s Un-American
(Wesleyan University Press, 2020)
“My grass-stained knees pledge allegiance/to a country that belongs to no one/I love,” writes Hafizah Geter in the title poem of Un-American, a debut that interrogates citizenship, statehood, police brutality, and national identity. At the core of this collection, Geter expertly demonstrates the fragility of familial and political ties, exploring the relationships between members of a Black family with mixed citizenship statuses, and between these individuals and the state. Geter presents America in bas-relief, defined in its negative, made visible through those whom it fails to protect.
The daughter of a Black father born in Jim Crow-era South and a Nigeran mother, Geter’s speaker narrates her own origin story, moving fluidly between her parents’ respective childhoods and her own adolescence in Ohio. Geter uses the first person sparingly, favoring repetitions of “my father,” “my sister,” and “my mother” rather than the lyric I. In doing so, Geter places the speaker of her poems within a vast constellation of familial mythologies. The speaker is reflected back to the reader through descriptions of the people she loves: her mother memorizing the names of presidents as part of the naturalization process, or her father imagined as a boy in Alabama, placing a shotgun to the temple of his abusive grandfather. Geter’s style is sparse and highly observational: describing a neighborhood break-in, she writes, “my mother counted/her jewelry and called/overseas. My father counted women/afraid one of us would go missing.” Her economy of language is a major strength, reflecting the fraught act of bearing witness.
Harm runs throughout Un-American, both immediately and under the surface. Early in the book, we learn that the speaker’s mother has suffered from a stroke: the speaker’s father describes witnessing the event as “walking in on an affair.” Harm is both random, as in the instance of the stroke, and mechanized: references to kingdoms and crowns are scattered throughout the poems, likely a nod to the United Kingdom’s presence in Nigeria, first as leaders of the slave trade in the 18th century, and then through colonial rule. The Alabama of Geter’s father’s childhood is dotted with similarly evocative images: shotgun houses and actual shotguns and hard Baptist pews. Geter deftly employs the objective correlative, a method of evoking emotion through symbols, often alluding to intergenerational trauma without directly naming it.
This is not to say that Geter’s poems do not name oppression head-on. They do, most strikingly so in her series of four poems entitled “Testimony,” each written for a victim of police brutality. As the book shifts from an intimate examination of the speaker’s family history to an indictment of America’s justice system, Geter’s speaker expands and transforms, first addressing the audience through a poem dedicated to Sandra Bland, and then through persona poems in the voices of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown.
Persona poetry—poems in which the speaker inhabits the voice of another individual—can be contentious, with many white poets virulently defending their entitlement to write in the voice of racial minorities, relying on justifications of one’s “right” to creative expression and framing creative writing as an ideological neutral realm. But Geter’s “Testimony” poems represent contemporary persona poetry at its best: even as she inhabits other voices, Geter herself remains present, and demonstrates a vested stake in the individuals she seeks to represent. In her poem written for Bland, Geter remains within the voice of her previously established speaker, writing, “I thought: her body is my body, is a church/set fire.” Though she uses a structure of parallelism, this comparison is not solely a metaphor. As Geter links her speaker’s body to Bland’s body, she places the poem in the domain of the real, rather than the abstract or purely imagistic. The author haunts the persona and vice versa.
The poem for Bland occupies a transitional space in the book, and afterward, Geter moves to directly speak through the voices of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, creating a distinct syntax for each. Particularly devastating is her poem in the voice of Rice: Rice was only 12 when he was shot by a police officer in Cleveland, and Geter captures his youth through her phrasing, writing “it took one whole day/for me to die and even though I’m twelve and not afraid of the dark/I didn’t know there could be so much of it/or so many other boys there.”
The use of the word “testimony” to title these poems highlights the failures of America’s justice system and adds depth to the book’s discussion of national identity and belonging. Through poetic subversions of legal terminology and the speaker’s attention to her mother’s naturalization process, Un-American calls attention to the bipolar nature of United States citizenship. In Geter’s poems, citizenship is paradoxically both materially valuable and an inadequate mode of protection. When we watch the speaker’s mother become a citizen, citizenship is something to be sought after, but when Geter turns her gaze to police brutality, the reader is forced to question what the worth of citizenship is in a country that repeatedly enacts and condones violence against its own Black citizens.
In the title poem, Geter writes, “My longing could drive a car—citizen I am/to my parents’ wounds.” Here, the speaker’s own citizenship is defamiliarized and made more expansive, a denotation of belonging and responsibility outside the framework of the state. Ultimately, Geter’s treatment of citizenship is fluid, more phenomenological than bureaucratic. Its foregrounding of interpersonal relationships pushes the reader to imagine modes of organizing beyond our current political system. Geter leaves room for new and better structures, grounded in community and caregiving. Upon finishing the book, I was reminded of two questions posed by poet Bhanu Kapil in her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: who are you, and who do you love? In Un-American, the answers are inseparable.