Channeling the collection’s muse—jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams—Hemming the Water speaks to the futility of trying to mend or straighten a life that is constantly changing. Here the spiritual and the secular comingle in a “Fierce fragmentation, lonely tune.” Often mimicking fairy tales or ancient fables, Yona Harvey inhabits, challenges, and explores the many facets of the female self—as daughter, mother, sister, wife, and artist—both on a personal level (“To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking”) and on a cultural level (“A woman weighs the price of beauty—”).
Harvey employs a variety of voices in embodying Williams’ tenacity, spiritual devotion, and love of music, each speaker a vibrant part of the whole: “I’ve trembled among strangers / & lovers turned strangers, my small voice collapsed in solitary song.” We always come back to song—“Black-winged bird, / you’ve become / lyrics layering air”—until the repetition used throughout becomes incantatory. Every page is rich with Harvey’s rapturous music, in which “even disasters // wear white & turn / to honey.”
“Ocean Song,” from Hemming the Water:
“Hemming the Water by Yona Harvey is something unheard of – never quite ‘seen’ before. It is original – despite the title’s graceful bow to Keats’ ‘writ in water’. The voice in these poems sometimes seems to be mimicking the oddly portentous voice of fairy tales or ancient fables or family legends – but then the poet’s ‘song’ alters, medium-like – and we are spun into lyrical music, stunning ‘inscapes’ of language. These poems are, as she says in a poem, ‘more hypnotic than paper striving to be infinite’ – they are simply extraordinary – feats of pure poetic ecstasy. The ‘seamstress’ at work here is Fate, yes, but stitching in a fluid element that, before our eyes, makes Poetry’s miraculous garment!” —Carol Muske-Dukes
“…There is no rest in this extraordinary debut book by Yona Harvey. It is a book in which the devastation is still very much alive. It is not a personal story. As in any great disaster, the privilege of uniqueness is taken away. We are taken to dizzying uncertainties, a place between what’s real and what isn’t, what’s intimate and what’s strange, between evil and good. How to make a form when there is no form? Nothing you can count on? Hers is not an easy art—nor is it harmless. She sets out to accomplish an impossible task, Hemming the Water. Music is the only thing she can turn to, and poetry is the exquisite stitch that turns the forces against us to our advantage. Read this book again (there is not one predictable line!) to appreciate even more its fierce elegance, and the joy of its triumph.” —Toi Derricotte
“Like her matron saint, Mary Lou Williams, Yona Harvey hunts ‘a low-down connection./ Boogie-woogie promise/of call & response.’ Harvey knows Soul music wasn’t the revelation that gospel and juke sweat are both salty, but the disquieting reunion of spirit and flesh after a long quarrel. So her haunted debut, Hemming the Water, is a communion, meaning wine must be blood, bread must be body and the Holy Ghost stays terribly hungry for both. This poetry remembers the Devil is make-believe until he knocks at your loved one’s door. This poetry watches a baby’s heartbeat turn into a bomb with the gentlest nudge of alphabet. This poetry insists on sewing thimbles and mountains into the same tight pocket. Take this poetry. And read.” —Douglas Kaerney