Yona Harvey’s second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, offers a dazzling lyric journey through time and space that spans both the celestial and the personal. This is a book that bursts with energy and defies attempts at simple summary or categorization. Echoing The Odyssey it references, the poems create a winding voyage that touches on districts (The Dream District, The Frog District, The Sonnet District), elegies, and songs. Although heartbreak and grief weave in and out of its pages, the lingering emotion in my reading of this collection was wonder. Through Harvey’s eyes, we see a narrative rooted in the Black female experience that examines the limitations of relationships, language, and even our own imagination. At the same time, the poet invites us to marvel as she introduces us to whimsical Afro-futuristic possibilities, both utilizing and shattering familiar poetic forms, and teaching us to see “the most beautiful/ dark that hosts the most private sorrows/ and feeds the hungriest ghosts” (9).
Harvey’s poetry is fierce, noting that “An Apology—/ is not an eraser” (14-15) and “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” (5). In addition to social critique, it is haunted by a nearly apocalyptic understanding of climate change, glancing at “the unmistakable absence of the Great Barrier Reef” (65) and envisioning “when the glaciers get to melting” (68). But these poems are also comforting in their glittering beauty, their willingness to leap in form across the page, managing to surprise with each repetition. New meaning is created out of familiar words such as, “okay,” “&,” “yo,” and even “that.” Wordplay, and a deep attention to sound, permeate the poems, such as in the conclusion of “Subject of Retreat”:
Then what? The snow
on the other side. The sound
of what I know & your, no, inside it.
The use of form here is playful and endlessly inventive, becoming more experimental as the book progresses and taking on a flexibility and musical quality reminiscent of the blues. The poem “The Dream District/ Origins” comes to mind, where three columns can be read independently or intertwined to create multiple interpretations. Where “Sonnet for a Tall Flower Blooming at Dinnertime” is composed as a haunting ode-like American sonnet, a later poem in the manuscript, “The Sonnet District,” challenges our understanding of this poetic structure. Through the use of subversive couplets that maneuver through humorous turns from an ex’s careless words to Shakespeare—the bard himself—the poem overflows what might have been fourteen stanzas into a fragmented and defiant conclusion: “I peeped the conveniently placed escape hatch in the shape of a narrow couplet/ from where I sat.// It didn’t take a telescope to find that.”
“Cutthroat/ The Rising Cost of Fuel” experiments further with em dashes positioned before and after words, making the appearance that the poem is “glitching” on the page as if the words were slashes or pixels. Even the paper feels the wounds of loss.
Cumulatively, Harvey manages to balance a kind of Afro-futuristic surrealism that feels mythic, sci-fi, and slippery. But it is grounded by strong emotions of siblinghood, marriage, and parenthood that encompass an expansive capacity for feelings of love, grief, and betrayal. The poet is not alone on this journey; the collection builds upon a chorus of new and reoccurring voices and invokes such muses as Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Erykah Badu, Madonna, Denzel Washington, and even fantastical frogs to name only a few.
In the same chiaroscuro way that stars shine more brightly against a dark sky, humor and beauty illuminate even the most solemn sections. Nowhere is this felt as strongly as in her unforgettable twenty-eight-part title poem, which reads like a transmission with frequent punctuation and travels the stars as a marriage collapses:
Any launch. changes. everything.
The ultimate outcome.
is love. or hate. Is success. or failure.
Is life. or death.
This is an easy poem to obsess over: it manages to hold freedom and playfulness in the same stanzas that traverse the stages of grief, wielding transmission-like punctuation to emphasize the fragmentation of emotions. The culmination overlaps with the title, offering generously, “You don’t have to go. to Mars for love. / For you to be willing. is more than enough.”You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love achieves inspiring emotional breadth: it devastated me and made me laugh out loud, often on the same page. Harvey reminds us that our journey is not linear. As the penultimate poem declares again and again, “there is no center of the universe” (66). Like the vastness of space, this repetition is simultaneously comforting and frightening. These works urge us not to flinch away from experiences of loss, anger, and sorrow as a sense of freedom and the awe of discovery await on the other side. This is a rich, sparkling collection that you will want to explore more than once.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO MARS FOR LOVE can be purchased from Four Way Books for $16.95.