In his poetry chapbook Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020), Matthew E. Henry reimagines a past, present, and future where religion and fairy tale walk hand in hand, making readers reevaluate what stories get told and whose stories are remembered. Part celebration of resilience in the face of systemic violence and racism, part mourning of lives taken through this violence, Dust & Ashes presents a truth in contrast to the commonly held belief that art can immortalize mortals: “there are no resurrections,” Henry writes in “A Home Burial,” a theme that presents itself time and time again in this short yet powerful collection. Dust & Ashes is a testament to how art may serve as a way to remember and honor our dead, but it does not bring back those who were killed by a system at war with their bodies and minds. Throughout all of this, there is a steady undercurrent of betrayal and secrets kept.
Mimicking biblical structure, Dust & Ashes is broken into two parts: “The First Testament: in the beginning” and “The Second Testament: at the end of the age.” Populated with characters such as Hansel and Gretel, Adam and Eve, Noah, Pecola Breedlove, and other characters from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and an unnamed prophet, “The First Testament” rewrites a creation story in which creation takes on many meanings: biblical creation, creation through birth, and creation through art. Poets including Auden, Williams, and Rilke are called forth throughout, and Flannery O’Connor’s work is alluded to on multiple occasions, as “a class of misfits found a good man / hard to find,” situating us in a new tradition of hierarchical literary canons.
Henry layers meaning upon meaning throughout his poems, as characters take on ever changing roles, with ever changing interpretations. Father becomes not just a paternal figure but also God—a god and father figure who is sometimes present, sometimes absent, and sometimes mentioned as a reason for lack of redemption: “for him there is truly / no peace for the redeemed. and therein may lie / his integrity…no doubt this all stems from / the father-figure he won’t discuss …” (“From the Notebook of the Prophet’s Court-Ordered Therapist”). In this way, Henry not only reworks traditional religious narratives that have favored certain groups of people over others, he asks us to reimagine the stereotypical patriarchal family structure, and question what our culture has made of Black men and Black fathers.
“The Second Testament” begins with the poem “Lady Daedalus,” in which “Mothers see a coffin in the cradle,” an allusion to the Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who, despite his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun, causing his death. “Lady Daedalus” subverts this narrative by highlighting the work Black mothers do in raising their children, and Icarus’s sun becomes “a stranger’s candy / in windowless vans. stray bullets, cocaine, / the average cop.”
The relationship between parent and threatened or murdered child is teased out in the remainder of “The Second Testament” through the lens of racial violence. We see this through the voice of someone who has been told they must “kill the children / of my people, with my own hands” (“For Myself and Others it is the End of the World”), through a reimagined Mary of Nazareth who witnesses her son “scaled & / skinned. bones / still in place” (“Mother Mary, Behold Your Son”), and through a guardian of Sai no Kawara, the bank of a river in Japan believed to house the spirits of dead children.
Like the children mentioned in “For Myself and Others it is the End of the World,” the future generations Henry writes about in Dust & Ashes are not simply the descendants of the speaker, and thus their responsibility. Henry’s poems highlight the need for a collective family, a collective weight of responsibility for racialized violence. The poem “…And Who is My Neighbor?” for example, reimagines the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of police brutality, the “unholy hands” the man falls into being those of “officers, who stopped him for / [insert ____-ing while Black reason]. they shot him, stood above his leaking body, and left him for dead.” The measured tone of this poem is reminiscent of the straightforward way the Bible is written, contrasted with the horror of its content. Dust & Ashes, then, is a fierce portrayal of the effects of racism and colonialism on our past and present, and a biting plea for our future.
As described on his website, Matthew E. Henry is an educator whose career has found him teaching English, teacher education, philosophy, and sociology at the high school, college, and graduate levels. His writing shines a black-light on the bed of race, relationships, religion, and everything else you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. Along with Dust & Ashes, he is the author of Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), and has a full-length collection of poetry, the Colored Page, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2022.
Dust & Ashes is available at Californios Press
Hannah Soyer (she/her) is a queer disabled writer born and living in the Midwest. She is the founder of This Body is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers.She is the editor of The Ending Hasn’t Happened Yet, an anthology of poetry from disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent writers forthcoming from Sable Books, and her work has appeared in places such as The Rumpus, Disability Visibility Project, and Entropy.