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This week’s featured poem is “candelabra with heads” by Nicole Sealey.

candelabra with heads

If I had not brought my mind with me
as it has been made, this thing,

These mannequins, enclosed in a cocoon.

placed on a timber platform

There could potentially be eight babies wrapped in blankets and peacefully resting.

It is possible to have eight fingers on a single hand.

There could potentially be a depiction of a family tree with eight individuals shown.
frames. Such treaties occur in the brain.

Are the shadows visible as they hang?

A group of people are taking items from the tree as keepsakes.

The skin becomes smaller and tears apart. Our bodies produce tears.

The hue of the fat is like that of a yolk. Are you able to detect their scent?

Is their fragrance rising from burning?

Like how wisteria embraces a trellis.

The wisteria would cover the trellis like a blanket.

“Is it burning? The fragrance is rising.”

The hue of the fat resembles that of a yolk. Can you detect their scent?

The skin becomes smaller and tears. Our bodies cry.

A group of people is taking items from the tree as souvenirs.
is not showing

Are you able to observe them suspended? Their silhouette is not visible.

These agreements take place within the mind.

It is possible that there is a family tree depicted on the right.

There could potentially be eight fingers made of flesh on a single hand.

There could potentially be eight babies wrapped in blankets and peacefully resting.

placed on a structure made of wood,
this brood of mannequins, cocooned

This item has been created in its current form.

If I had not brought my mind with me.

Who is able to view this without witnessing lynchings?

The book “Ordinary Beast” by Nicole Sealey, published by Bloodaxe Books.

This week’s featured poem is from Nicole Sealey’s first published collection, which was released in the US in 2017 by Bloodaxe. The same publisher also released her second collection, which was recently published. The poem is partly inspired by Thomas Hirschhorn’s sculpture, Candelabra with Heads, which depicts a family of small, featureless figures coated in duct tape and hanging from a wooden frame.

The speaker notes that their perception of the sculpture is influenced by their understanding and thoughts. The second part poses thought-provoking questions that bring attention to areas of distress. The figures suspended from the tree are corpses, with their shadows representing a group taking mementos from the tree. These bodies have either been left to decay or have been burned. The sculpture brings to mind the gruesome aftermath of a lynching and also possibly alludes to the Holocaust through the resemblance of the candelabra to a Jewish menorah.

In the final lines of the second verse, there is a rhetorical question posed: “Are you able to detect the scent of burning?” This is followed by a sarcastic comparison, likening the smell to that of wisteria vines climbing a trellis. This serves as a commentary on privilege and its tendencies towards avoidance and superficiality, which is the central theme of the poem. While we may be familiar with the scent of death, it is not a pleasant perfume like that of flowers. Some of us may have been fortunate enough to never experience this smell. However, we are now forced to imagine what it would be like and what it signifies in the context of racial violence.

The poem now unveils its mirrored arrangement. Sealey coins it as the “obverse” form and clarifies that “the latter half of the poem is composed in the opposite sequence of the first, with the final line serving as the central question of the poem.”

She echoes the words and punctuation while moving back over the territory of the poem. The repeated punctuation leads to illogical moments: “Can you smell them / Skin shrinks and splits …”, “The bodies weep / is a crowd stripping the tree …” In other parts, the lines fit together more tightly, which may be more pleasing from a formal perspective. However, I experienced a sudden jolt from the disrupted sentence structure, which helped convey the visual shock of the hanging bodies and captured the disorienting feeling of being a bystander to their public exposure and decay.

The candelabra, adorned with multiple heads, creates a contrast between naivety and knowledge. As the structured repetition unfolds, it appears to retreat back to its original state of innocence, evoking the same visual connections that the sculpture would have inspired if the viewer did not possess prior knowledge. This leads to the emergence of a distinct “thesis question,” forcefully asking, “Who could witness this without recognizing it as a symbol of lynchings?”

This particular line has sparked controversy. It was removed at the suggestion of the editor when Sealey first published the poem in her earlier chapbook, The Animal After Whom Other Animals are Named. Interestingly, the current collection includes a dedicated poem defending the uncensored candelabra with heads. The speaker questions, “Who can witness this and not see lynchings? / Not because I doubt you, dear reader, / or my own abilities. I ask because the imagination / can lead us to believe, much like faith, in things unseen. / You should be aware that human limbs burn / like branches and branches like human limbs.” This may suggest the danger of imagination straying from the poet’s intended vision and seeing substitute things instead.

I am certain that the final line of the candelabra adorned with heads is deserving of its position. The use of subtlety can serve as a shield, shielding both the poem and the reader from what must be faced. The core of this poem is truly centered around the necessity for confrontation: it rejects its initial suggestion of being ekphrastic. The bold and direct thesis question, which concludes all of the previous questions, dares to challenge the aestheticism that serves as a veil. It challenges the reader, particularly the white reader, to not just acknowledge the scent of wisteria, but also the scent of burning.

Source: theguardian.com