This is not so much a review of Jaha Zainabu’s The Science of Chocolate Milk Making as it is an attempt at a rhapsody that will fall far too short of telling you why you must know this poet and her words.
Jaha Zainabu is a gift; and now she is a gift you can give to yourself, anytime, in her new collection of poems. Read it out loud, if you can, in a voice tinged with chocolate and burgundy, with some candles lit, incense burning and something real nice on the stereo. Her voice leaps off the page from the font to the line breaks. This is Jaha doing what she does best—telling you how it is, like it is, no holding back.
When Jaha stands on stage and rubs her hand back and forth over her scalp, looks at the audience and speaks,
I will be for love today
there is an audible sigh in the room. “I Am” is a poem beloved by many, not only for its beauty, but also because it is filled with so many things we all need to hear, think, and know more often:
Not the contents of my wallet or weight
Not my relationship status or work
My circumstances shall not decide my worth
I am flawless
In that moment of hearing, you will agree completely that Jaha is flawless, and more, you will know that you yourself are, too. For Jaha’s greatest gift is that she can give yourself back to you. All those little pieces you’ve been holding back for fear of not being understood, the ones you pimped and the ones you ho’ed, the ones you loaned out and didn’t get back and the ones that were straight-up stolen, Jaha will give them back to you, until you are the only you that you truly recognize and honor. That is the gift to inspire, the one that makes us all better, even if sometimes it is only momentary.
All of Jaha Zainabu’s poems contain an undercurrent of the same thing: reassurance. You are not alone in the struggle, each poem seems to cry out. The struggle yields beautiful fruit, the lines say. Stay engaged and you will witness miracles, until you exist from wonder to wonder.
In “Jeans,” it is the voice of a woman not afraid to be one:
These jeans will not ever kiss these lips or
hug these cheeks again
And the beauty finally
Is that I don’t want them anymore
They are not big enough to
hold the woman I am today
These poems take you to that place in yourself that will be so happy to see you when you get there, and hope you’ll stay awhile, ‘cause you just don’t visit often enough.
One of the strongest pieces in this collection is “Friends”. The narrator of the piece is an older woman, looking back, telling the story of her best friend Talanda’s death. In this piece the promise of Zainabu’s writing is revealed. She weaves a tale worthy of a literary descendant of Hurston and Morrison; she glides us in and through a narrative tinged with love, sadness, emotional regret, bitterness, revenge, and violence, and she does it expertly without losing her distinctive voice:
I told her time over time
Talanda a woman’s gotta love herself
enough to love herself all by herself
If she got to
You gotta go
Cos you’s a dead woman in this house
Every time I tell her she just look at me cross
And tell me shame on me for not
showin family respect
See I never did tell nobody but Talanda
But me and him is first cousins on my daddy side
But that don’t never no mind to me
Woman is thicker than blood
This is a love story between friends. It is a cautionary tale veiled as a down home, good old-fashioned juicy story.
It is the small things, Zainabu shows us, that illuminate the goodness of continued survival, even in the daily face of extinction, even when we are so far from thriving. In “Times,” one of my favorite pieces, she illuminates what really holds us back from that moment of complete suicidal despair:
Ain’t that really the struggle
Seeing the rainbows through the smog
And how would you know it was winter
if you never felt the fog
You see it’s all about the goin through it to
the getting to it
One of my teen heroes, Abbie Hoffman, wrote Steal this Book. Well, let’s not steal from anyone. Let’s put art and spirit where it deserves to be: on a pedestal. Buy this book and buy it knowing that however much you may pay for it, you are not paying what it is worth. You cannot pay Jaha what it cost her to live, experience, process and then turn into art this life she is inhabiting, and you cannot pay for what it will mean to you as you read it and hear her voice come to life, wrap itself around you like the afghan knit by your auntie that’s a little worn and doesn’t match your new couch, but is all you ever want around you on a night like this. This book is your best friend on the phone after a bad day, it is your Sunday Church when you are too lazy to get out of bed, it is the lover you wish were next to you on a Saturday afternoon, it is the hot bath ready when you come home tired. This book loves you, the best in you, even if it hasn’t met you yet.