“The Rootwork Stretched,” an intimate and inviting new poetry chapbook by Mant¿s, is soaked in the groundwork of artists and healers who have come before them.
Specific and alive in one Black fem’s reinterpretation of the world, Mant¿s gives the reader keys to the doors they step through, so we can find our way in, too. The feeling of heat pouring off the concrete with the taste of corner store candies still on the roof of your mouth is immediate from the jump, as the collection opens with herbal medicine and foraged curatives blending with an essential childhood favorite in, “An Ode to Bitter Bitches.”
Mant¿s writes, “… Sour Patch Kids on the summer’s hottest day / Think of me when the sun pulls / the sugar you swallowed from your skin …”
They conjure memories of hanging out on the riverbanks and having parties in the woods, of winding through herbs and grasses, of blooming into calla lilies, inhaling honeysuckle, taking in yarrow and dandelion root. Mant¿s’ pastoral is not the pastoral of Wordsworth. Here is August Wilson. There is Whitney Houston. Over there is Danez Smith. Both Lucille Clifton and Tupac Shakur walk and talk behind the scenes, and, in fact, Mant¿s says that they “came alive for poetry,” when they read Tupac’s collection, “The Rose That Grew from Concrete ” (2009).
Two erasure poems, both titled “Petitioning my Memory, Respecting my Mind,” converse with one another and their structure on the page creates space and breath in the words.
“The words have a shape — a visual shape, as well as an auditory shape,” said Mant¿s.
Other unconventional configurations call us back to Danez Smith’s work, especially the poem, “litany with blood all over,” from “Don’t Call Us Dead” (Graywolf, 2017) in which Smith arranges the words “my blood” and “his blood” all over the page to describe contracting HIV.
“[The poem] describes what it felt like in their body. And I didn’t think that looking at the words visually arranged that way would make me cry, but it did,” Mant¿s said.
In “Alternate Names for Roses,” Mant¿s reached out to Smith, while summoning stems growing in concrete in Sugar Top, the blood from a papercut and the most robbed woman on the Hill in unexpected spaces and shapes. The poet and performer uses the page in ways that make their work visually compelling. Their poems blend with cover art by Alexis Royall and fine line drawings by Tobi Ashiru scattered throughout.
“For Black Kids from the Around the Way Who Considered a Degree when the Funeral Dirge Wasn’t Enuf,” is Mant¿s’ planting a flag in their home city as they also celebrate the revelatory and seminal choreopoem by Ntozoke Shange, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
“At one point, someone will try
to teach you / that your home don’t got
trees. Don’t let them / twist
that lie on their tongue / like scorched roots
because they can’t fathom how your hair stands
like branches …”
“The Rootwork Stretched” is published by Deesha Philyaw (the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award winner for her book “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” [WVU Press, 2020]) and award winning artist, performer and activist Vanessa German. Previously, German and Philyaw collaborated to edit and publish the 2019 anthology, “tender: a literary anthology and book of spells: evidence,” to which Mant¿s, writing under their name Tyra Jamison, contributed the poem “At Odds.”
Mant¿s is a performance persona and a name to write behind, they explained. It creates a boundary, one that is sometimes permeable or mutable, but that affords Mant¿s the freedom to create, while allowing for a life away from the page and the stage. “I’ve seen it happen where people feel like they can access their private life simply by accessing their work,” said the Hill District native.
Mant¿s said that they learned to really “straighten their spine” for the work from German, who is one of their mentors. The poems are righteous and reflect Mant¿s’ feelings about the ways in which Pittsburgh, their home, is so harmful to the health of Black women. The 2019 findings of Pittsburgh’s Gender and Equity Commission exposed many of the ways in which Pittsburgh is one of the unhealthiest cities in the nation.
“[I thought about] how Black women are twice as likely to have birth complications nationally, but in Pittsburgh, Black women are five times as likely to have birth complications. That’s a large number,” Mant¿s said of the the findings.
“That statistic is part of my story. And part of the stories of so many people I know. So thinking about that, and thinking about the ways that health issues have impacted Black women, it really does make me angry.”
The raw data is personal for Mant¿s and this 18 poem collection is a response to the hard facts of life in their hometown. “[The book] truly is for Black women and Black fems through and through. I literally view it as medicine. I think about the ways that — in a world that has neglected or abandoned us — how do we even know how to save our own lives with what we’ve got,” they said.
Here, on their own, Mant¿s’ poems evoke city overlooks, steep slopes and wild growth amidst urban density. They bring forth the feeling of a childhood spent kicking around the neighborhood as it celebrates Black women and all the ways that they find to create community and family and restoration.
“The Rootwork Stretched” is holistic plant medicine, but also the healing of elder wisdom and a balm for contemporary Black women and fems. The roots pull on what came before, to carve out something new and this chapbook is the land furrowed out for a new voice, one that leans on the past as it demands a place for cultivation and growth.
“When I first set out to write this work, I felt like I had to save my own life and my own spirit. At times, it was just hard to approach the day with joy, but I thought, poetry has saved your life and this work is going to save somebody else’s life. That’s a spiritual technology,” Mant¿s said.