Once you start reading allegiance, it’s like francine j. harris has indeed pulled the pin out of her mouth. Her poetic persona is like a live grenade. The collection is compelling, interesting, and above all pretty consistently spunky. The voice that speaks from her poems is strong, whether she writes about her high school, the grit and dirt and poverty of Chicago, or religion.
The only weak poems — and those are few — are the usual suspects: poems about writing poetry. This type of meta-writing is incredibly hard to pull off, and I’m always suspicious when I see a poem headed that direction. That said, most of harris’ poems are not in this category.
I was particularly impressed with the poems that feature God and Jesus, such as “would like first to thank god” and “another finger for the wound,” and the title poem “allegiance.” The former is a response to that ever-so common trope at awards ceremonies etc: “as if god wanted to be thanked. like god cared / about thank you. like god didn’t have a whole warehouse of thank-yous” — clearly, god has other things to think about. “the clock ticks and god is trying to decide whether or not / to have the next hurricane, the way one may decide whether or not to have the soup. / / you must think god is codependent.” When you get to this poem, note the careful avoidance of personal pronouns when referring to God.
The speaker goes on to conjure up a mental image of this scenario: “like god was sitting in the audience wearing god’s sexiest dress that got bought / just for this night, just because things have been tense between you” (21). As a reader you’ll think you have this poem all figured out. You know where this is going. But then you reach the end of the page, and as the poem overflows onto the next, there’s the turn: “but tonight / / god’ll take you / standing up there on the mike” — as ridiculous as the scenario may be, God will accept your thanks, kind of like you might accept a crude drawing of what may or may not be a flower, complete with peanut butter and jelly fingerprints, and put it on the fridge. Or like a ring fashioned from the silver paper strips of gum come in: “god’s blushing now.”
In “another finger for the wound,” the voice is even stronger. “jesus. if i had your hair, i’d lasso helicopters. […] if i was you, jesus, i’d yell for days. i’d pull the pin / from my mouth and blow up waterfalls / just to hear the glass it breaks.” like many of the poems in this collection, this one’s angry. but there’s more than just anger. “i’d roll my own image / / like a spliff,” she explains. And then, the question: “what if you were white on purpose? / / let’s just say you were jesus, then we could tap dance.” She’s not bitter: “i think you and i would click. / / jesus, if you were white, you’d cut your hair pink and be a punk.” She keeps moving the ideas around in her head: “if i were black and you were jesus, we / would eventually switch. / / you wouldn’t mind my fingers in your gashes, in fact / it wouldn’t occur to you to be painted.” I think she has a point.
Over all, this is a strong, vibrant collection and I think it makes great reading. I like the idea of angels who know how to fry chitterlings, angels who offer you coffee even if you don’t want it, angels who have crooked or missing teeth. I like the way harris meshes images on a language level, and the gritty, spunky voice that reverberates through the book. I also think this could be a great book for readers who are weary of poetry because they think of it as dusty, boring, and well-behaved. This book is none of those things.