Blot Lit Reviews: Sea Island Blues by Tyree Daye

Review: Sea Island Blues by Tyree Daye
Backbone Press, Inc.
Reviewer: Janine Harrison
And when bone sprouts from under skin
we water it in hallelujahs.

Lines such as this one from the first poem, “When I Was New,” in Tyree Daye’s collection, Sea Island Blues, invoke enslaved African ancestors with whispers of lynching in Spanish moss-covered oak trees and a corresponding culture of prayer. Daye, a North Carolina native writing about coastal Gullah/Geechee culture, believes that poetry “allows us to turn chaos into beauty.” He often achieves this goal in a chapbook that serves as an investigative journey of the past and its lineage to the present, at once questioning and processing, readers in tow.

In fact, in the first stanza of “When I Was New,” Daye abruptly yet effectively shifts point of view from first to second person, stating “she never loved you.” Thereafter, he often uses second-person or, later, shifts to third-person point of view, as though we, the readers, now understand and have become an integral part of this exploration of Geechee people and language, still vibrant with the colors and sounds of Africa, in the context of America, and of the narrator’s related present day experience.

In a poem dedicated to the poet’s mother, “Croker,” the female persona, presumably a “Geechee woman,” follows tradition while preparing fish for dinner: “[scraping] the scales from one side/ breaks and then [scraping] it again and thanks Gawd/ for the fish and waterways.” She expresses gratitude for bounty and nature. In addition, the idiom “Gawd” seasons the poetry. Throughout the work, “E” is also used, mainly as Gullah vernacular, such as in the refrain in “Jimmy’s Prayer”: “Call em out ‘E name.” It is explained, too, in “A Meeting at the Praise House” that “Gawd’s favorite chord is an E.” The poem ends, “Come now children feel the sun on your back, call out. Let all the world know your light.”

However, faith is sometimes questioned, such as in “Croker”:

Our table was always quiet, hunger
made knots out of our tongues and what prayer do you
send to Gawd when you hardly believe anymore and sleep
feels like the only thing you own.”

Much is called into question. The narrator depicts a present day Lowcountry America, one of poverty, in which escapism is needed, whether via sleep or the bottle, as mentioned in “Praying” (below) and other poems:

Most everybody I know is stuck
in a gin bottle and Gawd’s too late
to get them out…

It is clear that this is a sub-culture of inherited dysfunction.

In his exploration of the blues, the narrator imagines scenarios. In “Around the Praying Tree,” he wishes he had seen a ghost, envisioning that it would be:

a soldier from the 54th charging our steps, his locked eyes singing glory hallelujah,
the scars on his back fresh and stinging.
A whole congregation holding hands in prayer  
around a loblolly pine, the weight of their songs
pressing against the thin branches.  

In other poems, like “Return” and “1847,” the persona keeps one foot in the present, looking back, while the other is a slave’s shackled foot. Sadly, he also shows correspondence–how that even with the passage of time, racism is a constant. In “My Country Song,” the persona maintains:

I went home to wild dogs and Sun Tea where
the little dipper sits right above a row of eighty year-old pines,
where following the North Star doesn’t lead to freedom anymore
but you can follow it and still get killed…

While this is well-trod territory for a black American poet, it is obviously terrain that is still necessary to traverse; if it was not, then we would not have Ferguson and many like incidents.

Occasionally, the poet abandons imagery to “tell it like it is.” For instance, in “Neuroplasticity,” the narrator begins: “Winning a basketball game almost/ makes you forget you’re poor. We are not the children of/bible readers. Performing a sin for rent money is a daily thing.” It is direct, taking the reader out of the moment of the poem to lecture. Even so, he does not stay in summary for long. The piece ends:

You can only
tell a man he’s gonna see heaven after this thinly sliced
life so many times before he decides hell
would make a better story.  

Several of the poems in Sea Island Blues have appeared in Prairie Schooner and other journals. Tyree Daye is an undergraduate creative writing student at North Carolina State University with plans to enter an MFA program. He is definitely worthy of our watchlists!