jayy dodd’s The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus

jayy dodd’s second poetry collection, The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus (Nightboat Books, 2019), is a lyrical masterwork full of sensuous feeling, playfulness, and poetic depth. The collection, rooted in song, is split into three sections: Side A, Side B, and Bonus Track, taking music as its central force in terms of how the poems can be read and understood. This collection also swirls around Narcissus as a persona figure, providing another layer of complexity for readers as they encounter the speaker in their varying states of mind. However, the main power of these poems comes from their boldness and physicality, the way in which they move back and forth between creativity and honesty, and how they remain tuned to personal truths even as they grapple with issues of identity.

dodd’s biggest asset as a poet is the way in which they explore sensuality within the poetic form. dodd never shies away from the physical in these poems, and the body becomes a very tangible thing, rooted in sex, love, spirituality, and emotion. In “I Know I Been Changed” the body becomes a divine figure; the language is drenched in beauty and sensuousness:

no longer can you call me a beast of this earth
this tender flesh is not satisfied by the harvest
in my mouth—now abundant—milk & honey
i’ve crossed barren waste for holier land
because i am an angel now
the blood of my body made snow-white robe,
all-gilded miracle, my new language is flight
at my shoulder blades, an expanding
without ache…

These lines captivate the reader as they unfold to reveal a speaker transformed from “beast” to “angel,” making use of language at near-erotic levels. The most alluring moment of the poem occurs when the speaker proclaims: “my new language is flight / at my shoulder blades, an expanding / without ache.” Angel wings become a new mode of expression for the speaker, presenting possibilities for what language can be—physical, powerful, and “without ache.” In “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” dodd fuses sensual feeling with a lyrical voice:

this is my fantasy though,
all my barking, is rooted
in fear of you realizing
i wanted this before
even entering the room.
i wanted you,
before you,
to spot me a blooming
succulent. call this look
a ripening.               pick me,
dripping in my dew.
slopping up the cool of the night.
trust i will flower in your hand.

On a deeper level, dodd excels at creating poetic tension inside poems. In “I Know I Been Changed,” tension occurs between animal and divine states of being, between “beast” and “angel.” Here, tension operates on multiple levels, between “fantasy,” “barking,” “fear,” and “wanted” and the speaker’s desire to be seen as “a blooming / succulent.” As a result, these tensions between emotion and image take on metaphorical power. The speaker says: “call this look / a ripening.” The lyrical moment is heightened as the speaker’s tone shifts to romantic seductiveness: “pick me, / dripping in my dew, / slopping the cool of the night. / trust i will flower in your hand.”

Another compelling element of The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus is the way in which dodd imagines Narcissus as a speaker. The way they do this is primarily through language: the lowercase “i” and plainspoken style create an interesting contrast to the idea of Narcissus as an arrogant, self-absorbed figure. dodd’s Narcissus, although obsessed with the self and how the self is seen by a larger, often hostile society, is a very grounded figure—and brave. In “narcissus (to mother),” the speaker addresses the mother in ways that carry heartfelt, complex feeling:

you believed i was beautiful before i did
because you knew. when you told me—
i wished the beauty you saw was yours
i believe it was, i believe i couldn’t carry it;
the way you fill a room. i wished my body,
the expansive extreme, would apply grace
to every crevice & side glance.
how my hands hold your beauty.

The language is stripped down; the poem contains pure emotion. The opening line: “you believed i was beautiful before i did / because you knew” is incredibly poignant for its egoless wisdom. Phrases like “i wished” and “i believe” are threaded throughout this passage, creating layers of personal feeling, climaxing at transcendent levels when the speaker says: “how my hands hold your beauty.” Here, the speaker expresses tenderness and admiration, conveying personal truths about their relationship to their mother in a way that honors them all as central figures within the poem. The speaker ventures into more intense emotions as the poem ends:

i want to sit between you & a world that
refuses to praise you. how those who bask
in your grace dwell peacefully in a kind of heaven.

because of you i cannot fear this earth.
what is death when raised by an eternal?

The language is heightened with words like “praise,” “grace,” “heaven,” “earth,” and “eternal,” but the emotions are still very raw: “i want to sit between you & a world that / refuses to praise you.” This version of Narcissus is noble, caring, and confident. The ending couplet brings those feelings to fruition in ways that are spiritual, contemplative, and well-earned.

A noteworthy poem in this collection is “My Black Condition,” included at the end of the Bonus Track section. This poem encapsulates much of what The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus is about: full expression of identity in the face of a world that seeks to mute, and to some extent, erase individuality in its most basic form: the body. dodd uses the lyric to explore the body and how it functions as a vehicle for self-expression. The first half of the poem seeks to address this relationship in a tangible way:

an obsession with language for the impossible.
a fear of my mouth giving away my fear.
my mouth being a spectacle of its own right.
meaning my mouth as truth teller & body pleaser.
meaning my body pleases whether i like it or not.
my condition is believing my body could be mine.
my Black body is mine most in my mouth.

For dodd, language is the expression of the physical nature of the body. Additionally, language is oral—a sensory experience that connects the mouth to a variety of states of feeling: from “truth teller” to “body pleaser.” However, dodd complicates the poem when they admit that “my body pleases whether i like it or not,” confronting the challenges of maintaining self-empowerment against objectification. This is amplified further when the speaker says “my condition is believing my body could be mine” and “my Black body is mine most in my mouth.” These two lines enact philosophical tension in imaginative ways. The speaker feels most empowered in an oral sense, emphasizing “Black body” as a specific condition unique to their identity. The speaker makes another interesting proclamation in the lines that follow: “i condition my body to obsess over itself / make Black a necessary fixation.” The words “condition,” “obsess,” “body,” “Black,” and the phrase “necessary fixation” point to complex states of being within the speaker. These verbal elements make up the physical nature of the speaker, but not all of them derive from an internal source: “there is no dialect for wandering eye, / or wet mouth.” According to dodd, certain external relationships can never be articulated through language because what happens is nonverbal, yet the body continues to find ways to translate it into existence.

jayy dodd is an incredibly gifted poet; The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus is a strong movement into poetic maturity in terms of how they use the lyric to express complex states of being as well as moments that venture into spirituality: “i have heard on high my body is harmonic gospel.” dodd’s work in this collection is refreshing in the ways that it celebrates and complicates identity and how that identity is represented as a physical thing—a body that lives, breathes, and inhabits sensual beauty.

May 13, 2019