By Livia Meneghin
Casual Conversation by Renia White
BOA Editions, Ltd. April 2022
In Casual Conversation, a Blessing the Boats Selection and debut collection, Renia White pushes back against erased history. With a nonchalant tone and variety of poetic forms, White takes a firm political stance, refusing to be silent in a sea of pressures to do so. By carving out this space to speak truth, she allows herself to whisper. The punch of these poems, and individual lines, come from the context they sit in. I read this entire book aloud my first time through; I felt compelled to. The words crept into my mouth and immediately demanded to be vocalized with a calm confidence.
White starts the collection with “hearsay,” immediately setting the bar for the pages to follow in terms of intensity and truthfulness. She wastes no time inviting the reader into an already-started conversation: “OK so you are telling me that the girl dared to say” (White 13). The in medias res addresses the larger historical context that Casual Conversation responds to: an ongoing and transforming American tradition of oppression and systematic racism. White combats that legacy by showcasing a female figure who dares, who fights, and, like so many others, is often punished. The poem concludes with a striking couplet that acts as a jumping off point for further reflection as well as encouragement for eager readers. White writes, “some eat and they say / ‘why all the hunger’” (White 13). Here she actively calls out all people in power and with privilege to check themselves, to confront their heritage of willful ignorance.
This call to action directly confronts history in “november 9, 2016.” White writes about the 2016 US Presidential Election as a moment of American division. In the poem there is a “they” and an “I” (speaker); while it would be easy to say this split represents Republicans and Democrats, white people and Black people, or men and women, White considers perspective and mindset above all. The othered “they” transforms into the second person “you,” forcing readers to confront where they sit in this stratification of power. She writes,
so dark and stratified[…] I wonder what it’s like to have a right and
believe it so much, you act in it without fear, congratulations,
you have chosen what makes it easier to not see me with difficulty. I understand
how hard it can be to know in order for you to eat, someone else had to starve.
in order for you to see, someone else had to be the thing you’re not staring at. (White 34)
The speaker here directly addresses that the victory of others is at the expense of herself and those like her. The metaphor of eating/hunger is extended from “hearsay,” but we also move into another of the five senses: sight. Reminiscent of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) that explores the invisibility of Black women in America and also uses the second person, White’s Casual Conversation bluntly tells readers that in order for patriarchal and racist systems to be perpetuated, millions of Americans are disregarded and ignored. Where do you stand? Do you eat? Do you starve? Can you see?
White’s style throughout Casual Conversation adds mastery to the storytelling—these topics are very commonplace and discussed daily by many discourse communities within America’s borders and beyond. Once a person outside of those communities opens their ears and eyes to witness and acknowledge oppression, it can no longer be ignored. It’s simply everywhere. In “all over, but only here,” a man flirts with the speaker, albeit in a self-serving manner. As the reader, I’m made to feel uncomfortable, not only from his touch, but also from the setting. Maybe in a physical body of water but also metaphorically in a disadvantaged neighborhood, the poem evokes the regular occurrences of drowning. White conveys a conversation with the man, while simultaneously using that exchange to speak to the reader, to ask the reader to witness something bigger. She writes,
you think: we could drown and we wouldn’t even fill.
you can give a body what it says it wants and if it doesn’t know
that’s what it’s getting it can refuse to sink or float
can refuse to receive. can hang its mouth open waiting to drink
when its already drowning. (White 22-23)
The system in place is designed for certain people to fail, to be so consumed in false hope or scrambling to survive that they do not recognize they will never thrive or succeed. The metaphor of water is particularly significant here, but it goes beyond a symbolic level and very much references explicit instances of racially motivated drowning, including not only the Middle Passage but also other government-designed acts of terror such as the purposeful flooding of Black communities to make recreational lakes or provide hydroelectric power to white cities, as well as the 1919 drowning of Eugene Williams in Chicago which sparked two weeks of racist violence.
Casual Conversation is seated within a religious perspective as well. More than once a yellow-golden color appears to signify a divine and hopeful presence. In “aurify,” a buried yellow bird “is / a speck of the God-flock” and “gilts” a community “in the name of the sun inside [them] all” (White 53). Not only is yellow a color to revere and locate in the natural world, but also in other people. The speaker of “bright, bright, bright,” the final poem of the collection, encounters a “yellow-bloused barista / Black girl with careful hands” (White 64). The sight of such a sign inspires the speaker to wish well on her life; what better way to build community than to cheer someone on as they follow their dreams.
In “some plans should be thwarted,” the speaker holds a conversation with herself, and makes a declaration of survival:
I announce within myself I wanna live real quick
and it’s revealed—the way to tilt toward unending.
I come back into the moment I never left with my bleaker
self-clutched against my chest and I have never danced so
right after an unraveling? (White 28)
Within the collection as a whole, the position of this poem as the last in Section I is significant to not only assert the speaker’s motivation to live but also a recklessness that is so vital to growth. The two nouns starting with “un-” indicate an attitude of starting over, of leaning into the fact that if she wants a better future, she needs to abandon the present. This undoubtedly calls to mind initiatives of defunding the police and decolonizing the classroom; systems within American society must be rebuilt. This, as White shows readers, is possible on an individual level as well as in terms of how a person can view herself and ignore all the negative voices trying to tear her down.
While refusing to ignore sites of trauma and violence, White challenges readers to open their eyes and not turn away from the truth. Even further, she invites readers into the conversation, asking what do you think? and haven’t you seen this before? In “un—,” White asks,
who is us and what are we and what do you do
with an open thing
that can’t be fixed by closing? (White 57)
Let conversations be windows—to look through and open and let in light. Let people be windows. And while America won’t change overnight, White encourages everyone to start a conversation, and the figuring out part will follow suit with more ease. Folks should not be afraid of questions, of history, of other people; instead, people should hold each other together like the hem of a star. Fellow Americans are neighbors, siblings, caretakers, and friends. Essentially, each other’s only hope.
Livia Meneghin is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair and a Review Writer for GASHER. Her writing has found homes in The Academy of American Poets, BOAAT Journal, tenderness lit, Entropy Magazine, Tinderbox, So to Speak, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at Emerson College, where she is now affiliated faculty and Program Coordinator for EmersonWRITES.