The word “mortgage” comes from old French and means, literally, “dead pledge”: an arrangement that “dies” if a promised payment fails. The figure of death is etymologically built in to a very common kind of American debt that belongs to those lucky enough to own property. It’s the death pledge that gives us the right to our homes, the places that nurture and sustain our livelihoods and lives.
Poet Nikki Wallschlaeger is keen on the complex relationship between debt and domestic life. Her new book Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017), a series of sonnets that consciously disrupt their own formal limits, discovers the violence embedded in our most familiar structures: mortgages, meals, rooms, houses, family relationships, and language itself. Wallschlaeger’s poems feel timely, as the links between property ownership, alienated labor, and the history of black slavery in the United States (“Greasy gangrene hamburger wrapper of a country,” in her words) become clearer by the day. She deploys a new vocabulary for talking about the legacies of slavery and white supremacy as they manifest in daily life — a vocabulary that is as damning as it is lush, as rich with sound as it is bright with image.
The sonnets in Crawlspace begin in standard, contained 14-line form, and gradually lengthen and widen themselves to fill pages. Like the domestic spaces her language evokes, these pieces become unruly, revealing the mess behind polished exteriors. A whole world emerges as the pages progress, populated by hyperbolized pieces of reality, such as “fresh Klonopin ribbons,” “King Cotton Casseroles,” “unlikable women,” and “drool rot and toxic sprayed tongues.” Wallschlaeger’s sentences flow and twist, moving between description and history: “George Washington’s mouth comin at you/yappin some bullshit about honesty or was/that Abe Lincoln I dunno they start to fade/into the same knockoff appropriated war/bonnet or kente cloth bathing suit worn on/Cinco de Mayo in Daytona on college break.” She warps old truisms, like “it takes a village to raise a/ child in nude-colored handy cuffs.” Throughout these pieces, there’s a pervading sense that language itself is one of the structures that maintains racism, or “misogynoir grimcrack.” In breaking language’s formal rules, Wallschlaeger appears to also break the rules of systemic oppression.
Many of the lines in Crawlspace appear in Wallschlaeger’s I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, a graphic chapbook published by Bloof Books in 2016. This book presents portraits of Mattel’s “Julia” Barbie doll (produced 1969–70 and modeled after TV star Diahann Carroll), bracketed by meme-style language. It’s a good visual companion to Crawlspace. The poet’s weariness with white male supremacy and female labor comes through perfectly in the wry face of Julia: “I wish you were a beer/ instead of a colorblind mansplainer,” reads one meme. In these pieces, as in Crawlspace, Wallschlaeger hits a delicious pitch somewhere between tragedy and humor; her singular first-person voice persists throughout the work, narrating the energy she draws, like a phoenix, from her own exhaustion.
With Crawlspace, Wallschlaeger enters the tradition of poets and artists who illuminate black female subjectivity — Wanda Coleman, Carrie Mae Weems, Lucille Clifton, Lorna Simpson. The domestic scenes she makes in her poems complicate clichés of who black women in America are “supposed” to be. The fraught splendor of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” comes to mind when Wallschlaeger speaks of “Writing under the constraints of your oppressors, whoever they are. / You start to articulate through the gold hippo lick of their loving war.” Hers is a poetry that is attentive to the nefariousness of American debt, that searches out what she as a black woman is owed, and what she is made to pay. She calls out the blood-ties between debt, cruelty, and this place we call home — and she has a great time doing it. Wallschlaeger’s voice is transformative in its capacity to articulate her lived experience. “We, as marked women transform/ ourselves,” she writes. “We are the wood violets & roses stretching in the rain.”