Call Her by Her Name

By Bianca Lynne Spriggs


Northwestern University Press
April 2016

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh


Everywhere we look, there are narratives of men doing great things. On any given day, in any medium, men see themselves celebrated. When women are part of these stories, they are often ignored, villainized, or mentioned on the periphery, but even when women are the focus, their stories can be told through a man's gaze which ignores aspects of a woman's identity or commodifies her body. The (thankfully) growing number of narratives that do feature stories of women told by women are doing much to combat these damaging aspects of our culture and Bianca Lynne Spriggs's third poetry collection is no exception. Call Her by Her Name weaves Spriggs's own voice with the voices of women throughout history, myth, and fantasy to construct a book that builds a complex vision of identity.

Though the book is not divided into formal sections, each part of Spriggs's collection begins with a different epigraph that signals a shift but also provides a clue towards how to read ahead. The first epigraph she provides is from Khalil Gibran which reads, ". . . is not the lute that soothes your spirit / the very wood that was hollowed with knives?" The first poem, "Pedicure" has the speaker putting nail polish on a sister's dead body:

When you are clean, I pull out a platinum
polish called, mithril. You were always
a little bit razor blade, a little bit shooting star.

The polish shines like nothing could chip it,
not a jackhammer, not some hero's mythic blade.

The tenderness of the speaker applying the polish, coupled with the strength and edge of the sister's personality, are a perfect connection to the epigraph and how this section grows. In "The Skate Doctor," the speaker interacts with a man who is described as an "old gnome." He helps fix her skates and "murmurs / that if I want to learn how to fly on wheels, // I've come to the right place." This continued mix of soft and hard aspects of identity happens in "The Quiet One" as well. Here, an unseen dragon moves "to accommodate / your replacing the toilet paper roll" in a bathroom, but the dragon remembers that she would, in the past, "deliver an infant dragon tangles in your entrails / into the world, to enjoy its first fresh meal." Even when the woman in this bathroom does finally notice the dragon, she is "unable to remember / a time when she was not always there," which allows the dragon and woman to become one: prey and predator.

The second section shifts towards poems more explicitly in persona as the epigraph from Tanya Tucker suggests: "I'll come back as another woman." Here, Spriggs explores the ways women exist by including women speakers who question lovers, mold men the way they wish, or are physical aggressors. "All That Glitters" shows how Spriggs is unafraid of addressing all aspects of women's existence, even the darker sides:

In three years, he will still call her, Lover,
on the phone, will say he understands
why she needed to overturn the bookshelf,
how the wall asked for that hole,
why her dishes needed to hurl to the floor,
how her father's temper sprung sudden
from her temples like bright hoodoo pins . . .

As Spriggs's poems resist categorizing women, her sections also resist strict categorization. The end of the second section introduces more mystical elements. In "Antibiosis," a man comes home to find his partner "whittling a little man / out of driftwood," which then becomes a totem that roots the man to the ground. "Legend of the Boy and His Box" introduces a parable of a boy, "who is not a boy," who steals voices and puts them in his box. The exquisite metaphor of a woman who has her voice stolen by this boy shows another layer of Spriggs's dedication to depicting women as varied and infinitely different, exploring the abuse that women suffer at the hands of men. But the women are not merely sufferers, they exact revenge.

Call Her by Her Name's third section revels in more explicit fantasy, giving voices to fictional female characters. Two of the early poems in this section take black characters from the Star Trek series (the original and Next Generation) and allow them space to speak. In "Uhura: On the Moon," the character reflects on her love of the moon:

I've slept beneath her reflection,
her filmy fingers making a web
of the world, leaving me
the trapped star in its center.

"Guinan: On Listening" examines expectations of listening and speaking, ending with Guinan admitting:

They say I'm a good listener.
But this isn't listening.
This is just me, behind the bar,
mixing your voice in with a drink.

The rest of the section incorporates Oz, water-spirits, and a celebration of Tsuyako Ito in "Kamaishi Seashore Song." The poem describes how "this hungry wet world wants more" from this 84-year-old geisha and leaves her little. "Yet my hair remains. / My skin remains" and she "will always know when / to run.

The collection's final section begins with an epigraph from The Epic of Gilgamesh which promises to "bring up the dead to eat the living" if "thou openest not the gate." As if that were not clear enough, the section begins with the haiku, "Dream State," which reads:

Even in her sleep
she stays ready to spring away
from monsters and men.

In "Dark Moon" Spriggs has a woman burn her slave master in a fireplace as she watches the body "bubble up then char, tongues / of flame remindin' me too much of his own / across my flesh." "Palimpsest: The Lynched Woman Continues" then has a woman who has been lynched go to the "Next Place," putting on a new "hide" that has "alla' them scars you just tore / offa' your outsides / is pressed into the insides" so that she carries her history with her.

In the last two poems of the book, Spriggs demands we "Call Her by Her Name," "Not your Trophy. / Not your Icing-on-the-Cake." This list poem builds to "Not your Resolution" which perfectly segues into the final poem "What Women Are Made Of." Spriggs challenges us to see woman as "ventricle, spine, lung, larynx, and gut," but also as "full / of cicada husks and sand dollars and salted maple-taffy." She ends the poem with the invitation that the whole book has been teaching us: "You want to / know what women are made of? Open wide and find out."

Call Her by Her Name is a powerhouse of a book that reveals new ways of understanding being with each poem. These poems explicate and create narratives that the world was worse for not having. While I am a cisgender man, and the beginning of this book is explicitly dedicated "to the women," Spriggs has inspired and challenged me to "Open wide and find out" what women, and my own self, are made of and I could not be more thankful.