Book Review: Begin With A Failed Body by Natalie J. Graham



by Natalie J. Graham




It is hard to resist Natalie Graham’s newest collection of poems, Begin with a Failed Body. When I set out to read a couple of her poems, I did not expect to finish the whole collection in a couple of days. I had been absorbed by that black hole which every reader is familiar with.

It is no wonder that Graham’s collection was awarded the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, an annual award reserved for extraordinary works by African American poets.

Natalie Graham is concerned with language, music and rhythm, and matters of personal identity, especially when it comes to African Americans, and she is now assistant professor in African American studies at the University of California.

Begin with a Failed Body can easily be connected to her career, but has nothing academic. It has music, it has rhythm, it has beautiful language, and it deals, as poetry tends to do, with the complexity of identity. And it is evident, from the first poem of the collection, that Graham’s poems come directly from her own veins' blood.

Because of this, the collection is pervaded by a sense of authenticity which, however typical of poetry, cannot be overrated. As the title of the book already indicates, explorations of the body are central. It is in the realm of what is physical, raw, and sensuous that these poems find their voice and their dimension.

Powerfully charged bodily images are especially the vehicle through which most of the pain contained in the poems transpires. The most present, not to mention haunting, image is perhaps that of the mouth, and is set in the first poem, “Junior Choir Recessional”:

… This is how you wait,

baby bird, mouth cracked for a worm.

Whereas it is intuitively supposed to be the main means of expression, the mouth of Graham’s poems carries different weights, and is often in some way broken. “To Hurt You (Reprise)” sheds light on the “failed body” which titles the collection–Graham’s body, and the “black body”. The poetic voice here is intense and raw as ever.

Open tender body, open hand, supple fleshy palm, bony wrist,
sing bright song into my dark, wet mouth.

The sturdy body cannot become ribbons,

The black body becomes
the carcass of an insect,
splinters of branches.

At the same time, the collection is larger than the author: the black body of the writer becomes intertwined with other black bodies, especially those of African American slaves, in nightmarish visions of the past. The poems thus move into the realms of ancestral and cultural inheritances, to a “haunted Southern landscape,” in Graham’s words, “where history is inescapable.” There, the individual is caught in the nets of systems which go way beyond themselves. As Graham explains, “When [the poems] speak of nation, religion or family, they often ruminate on the individual body’s frailty in the face of these larger, sturdier structures.”

Begin with a Failed Body is not one of the books you would read before going to sleep to feel fuzzy and warm inside, as it will most likely leave you with some feeling of the darkness by which it is pervaded and with some unsettling, though beautiful, and haunting images. However, it is one of the books which you will be happy to have read. I know it left me with a sense of catharsis, as good poetry often does.


The book comes out on 15 September in the U.S. 30 September in the U.K., but you can preorder it now:



Did her BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, and is currently doing her MA in English and American Modern Literature in Cork. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.