A painfully articulate and driven first collection, The Language of Shedding Skin employs the powerful force of words to speak about struggles with race and gender. Niki Herd, a Cave Canem fellow, follows in a tradition that engages with lyric and rhythmic language, using song as a guiding principle. In poems that freely range in form yet always possess an emotional depth, this compact debut collection will captivate with its spirited language.
Some poems try to resurrect and reclaim family and racial history with the use of song. In “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” the speaker mixes song lyrics with couplets, such as when the speaker addresses a you, “dirt digging and planting mums the color of tangerines. / He’s got the whole world … hands no stranger to cast iron // skillets, the combing of defiant hair.” Language beats rhythmic in “In the Company of Women,” where the speaker recalls “my first feminists” who were “big / booty wearing grape blowpop smacking kick / ball playing wash cars on saturday black & proud” when she lives in Cleveland. Many of these poems respond to and provide closure for longer poems.
Herd prefaces and ends the collection with two poems that echo and respond to one another by addressing hot and relevant topics concerning race and art in today’s society. The opening poem, “50 Bullets, One Dead, and Many Questions,” distills the fervor of the Sean Bell killing by NYPD officers in December 2006. The reader is immediately immersed in Herd’s lyrical language as the speaker says:
Remember every bullet is a hymn
every hymn a taut line of rope
a row in a cotton field
a path to the back of the bus
a razor’s edge as it cuts.
Over the course of the collection, the final title poem earns its joyful uprising by subverting the lines of the original poem. The stanza provided above is altered slightly, with the first line saying “Remember each ancestor is a hymn.” Instead of reiterating curses, the speaker celebrates a love that she brings about through art.