Herbs and magic

Incantations to End Racism: On Cherene Sherrard’s Grimoire

Review by Heather Swan

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Autumn House Press | 2020 | 80 pages

Grimoire: Poems by Cherene SherrardIn this historical moment, when the streets are filled with upraised fists and songs about justice, with marches fueled by rage over the horrific death of George Floyd, with murals quoting MLK, Baldwin, and Angelou covering our buildings, we need the poetry of Cherene Sherrard more than ever. Not because the story she weaves is new—a story about being a Black woman and mother in her beguiling, hard-hitting, and beautiful new book of poems Grimoire—but rather because it is not new.

George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown are part of a long history of violence in the United States. Sherrard writes with full awareness of this context, but exposes another layer: What is it to be the mother of a Black child in this nation that has not yet healed from centuries of oppression? This book of recipes and spells unveils hidden histories and entanglements that need to be witnessed and felt as it also exposes the insidious subtleties of racism today, all with the commanding voice of a mage.

Upon discovering the first cookbook written by a Black woman, Mrs. Malinda Russell, in the late 1800s, which held recipes for everything from strawberry shortcake and edible wildflowers to a cure for rheumatism, Sherrard was reminded of a grimoire, or a book of spells, which inspired her to use the grimoire as a guiding form. Could she discover the spell or recipe we need for ending systemic racism? The result is a book that may very well serve as a cure––the poems themselves casting a spell which causes the reader’s eyes to be opened––one that could potentially shift our thinking as logic so often fails to create change.

In the title poem, Sherrard begins the quest:

Mirror, mirror:
show me that world
where black, gay, male,
dyslexic are
of excellence,
achievement, not

But the mirror cannot make this change, only the readers can.

The vulnerabilities of being a mother of a Black son begin to be unveiled in a poem called “Restoring the Hair to Its Original Color,” in which Sherrard writes, “They don’t tell you how it will age you…” The act of mothering gives the speaker gray hair. At the end she offers an answer: “I dare you to combine two drachms / of Lac Sulphuris with eight ounces / of rose water. Shake thoroughly, / apply every night before bed.” There is some ambiguity about what is being restored with this potion, hair or peace of mind.

In the context of this book, each poem acts as a kind of spell on the reader, sending us more deeply into a different kind of consciousness.

At the beginning of section two, Sherrard shares this devastating statistic:

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants… a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.

On the next page, in the poem “Outcome,” Sherrard juxtaposes that fact with the success of Black women heroes:

Her serve is 125 miles an hour
but she cannot outrun this.

She has won, she has published,
but she cannot outwrite this.

She has flown, sung, and swum,
released from parallel bars,
stuck a vault without a stutter
but always the eclipse awaits…

None of this will save you.

The astonishing achievements of African American women do not eliminate the dangers of institutional racism. Sherrard states so pointedly in the poem “Anomaly”: “when a thing happens that / the accumulated data cannot validate.” Nonetheless she continues in the book to seek “an ancestral cipher against the grim statistics of racial math.”

Sherrard has researched her ancestry deeply, traveling with her family to places on the slave trade routes in the Caribbean, uncovering how tourism masks unspeakable pasts and how ingredients as simple as sugar, salt, or lime have deep roots that involve colonialism and slavery. In “What Makes the Dutch Antilles,” the narrator muses while “sipping my mojito at a lime-in” about how the blue of the water is like a sky in Van Gogh’s painting of blossoms, while also recounting the use of lime like a magic potion that “can be drizzled over a mass / grave and still a grove of almonds trees will rise.” The vertigo of standing on a landscape filled with the tortured bodies of her ancestors becomes clear when she writes, “Maybe I’m really falling instead of floating.”

How can we negotiate joy in a present so fraught with the shadows of violent histories—especially when, as in “Red Truck,” any moment, even in a peaceful pastoral setting, can be a dangerous one if you live in a Black body. While listening to “the deafening music of the plateau… a dissonant composition of bees / gorging on white clover, wrestling / minks, and catcalling chickadees,” the narrator is caught unaware:

Watching for what might come
Out of the woods instead of the road,
I miss the engine’s quiet stall.

Suspense builds as the reader fears this will not end well, and the narrator ends it hauntingly, with only a hint of what happens next: “The opening bars to ‘Free Bird’ perforate my solace––its intrusion / a soundtrack to a hate crime.”

Sometimes the violations are more subtle, as in “IEP (Individualized Education Plan),” when a psychologist who is supposed to do an analysis of her son starts playing with the child’s hair, or when her son does not feel safe going to a Halloween party without a trident to protect himself.  

Sherrad’s lyricism alone makes the poems worth reading, but uncovering the layers of allusions is a large part of the joy of the poems. Referencing everyone from Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, Nina Simone to Beyonce, the book is woven with bright threads that create a rich tapestry of culture—offering the audience much to ponder long after the poems end.

To some it might seem painfully clear that being a Black mother today would make one want to be vigilant, like the narrator in “Open Curtains” who watches her beautiful sons in their white sneakers in the backyard, but after looking away momentarily discovers they are gone. The poet shows us that the act of bringing a Black child into the world is one of pride and joy and great vulnerability.

Why, then, wouldn’t one turn to magic? Spells to protect them? To make the self-resilient? Indeed, that is what this book exhibits: a narrator who speaks without fear, who has stepped into her power, who knows the strength of naming the ills and still proclaims, “I am always on the lookout / for beauty in the quotidian” and who sees the “survivor’s sparkle.” This is the poetry we need right now: poetry looking hard at reality, but laced with recipes for something sweeter, something that can help our communities heal. 



Heather SwanHeather Swan is the author of the creative nonfiction book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field and the poetry collection A Kinship with Ash. Her nonfiction has appeared in such places as Aeon, Belt, Catapult, Edge Effects, ISLE, Minding Nature, and The Learned Pig, and her poetry in Phoebe, Poet Lore, and Midwestern Gothic. She teaches writing and environmental literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Header photo by ksyfffka07, courtesy Pixabay.



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