To Be Seen Clearly or Not at All: On Ama Codjoe’s “Bluest Nude”

AMA CODJOE’S recent collection of poems, Bluest Nude (Milkweed, 2022), opens with an epigraph from conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady: “To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves … So long unmirrored in our true selves we may have forgotten how we look.” O’Grady’s link between self-perception and representation, from her 1992 article “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity”,” opens the door for Bluest Nude‘s central poetic concerns: image-making, the body, and portraiture, all situated within a lineage of Black female artists.

Codjoe’s speaker has a fraught relationship with documentation. Bluest Nude‘s second poem, “On Seeing and Being Seen,” begins with a simple declaration: “I don’t like being photographed.” In the lines that follow, Codjoe intersperses a description of a romantic encounter with a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s widely taught 1922 poem “In the Waiting Room,” in which Bishop confesses to a childhood revulsion at a photo of “black, naked women with necks / wound round with wire” in National Geographic.

When Codjoe inserts Bishop’s language into a memory of a sexual experience, what results is a powerful poetic confrontation:

Right now, my breasts
are too tender to be touched. Their breasts
were horrifying, Elizabeth Bishop writes. Tell her
someone wanted to touch them.

Codjoe’s deft enjambment and echoing repetition of the word “breast” create a formally precise rejection of Bishop’s dehumanizing gaze. The poem concludes with Codjoe’s speaker recalling her lover’s mouth around her nipple, claiming that “[m]y body is a lens / I can look through with my mind.” Here, Codjoe’s dismissal of photography becomes an act of radical autonomy, a rejection of a tainted mode of preservation. She returns to this sentiment in the collection’s titular poem, writing, “I want to be seen clearly or not at all.”

This dicotomy drives the collection forward. Codjoe’s speaker is seen most clearly by those she is close to, and many poems touch on photographs exchanged between loved ones. As Codjoe describes them, these photographs are at once physical and ethereal, able to be held and yet attached to intangible memories. Reflecting such multiplicity, Codjoe’s poems move beautifully between observations of the external world and moments of deep interiority: in a poem entitled “At the Fish House,” also a nod to Bishop, Codjoe’s speaker moves from watching a pelican into a vulnerable reverie, claiming , “I can’t remember what it feels like to snare / my tongue in someone’s mouth or the date / my grandfather died.”

While Bishop and many of the most celebrated white poets of the early 20th century often refused the first-person, masking their own subjectivities through impersonal, nearly scientific language, Bluest Nude insists on the personal. Codjoe’s “I” is vibrant and alive, clear in its existence as an independent lens. Wonderfully, this foregrounding of the first-person does not prohibit a sense of a collective, but rather enforces it: Codjoe’s speaker exists within a constellation of family members and partners. We learn she is a daughter, a twin, an ex, an aunt. She is not, however, a mother, and the experience of childlessness is touched throughout the collection. In “A Family Woven Like Night Through Trees,” the speaker lists her relatives, and then adds, “Not children I’ve birthed, but dead / leaves raked into prickly hills made messy / with our falling.” Here, absence and negation also work to create the speaker’s subjectivity.

Black female artists also form a critical part of Codjoe’s interpersonal network, alongside biological family members or even as temporary stand-ins for them. In the poem “Heaven as Olympic Spa,” Codjoe imagines herself in a Koreatown sauna alongside poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Wanda Coleman, a tender ode to kinship and care. As she writes in the collection’s title poem, “It is impossible to draw / a self-portrait without the other women figured / onto my flesh.” To Codjoe, the creation of a lyric first-person is a communal act.

Because of her interest in photography, painting, and sculpture, Bluest Nude is deeply committed to the ekphrastic mode, a form of poetry grounded in vivid descriptions of art. Across the collection’s sections, Codjoe’s poems touch on the work of photographers Deana Lawson, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as painters Mickalene Thomas and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. A ceramic piece by sculptor Simone Leigh, who represented the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, graces the cover.

Of Codjoe’s ekphrastic work, a particular highlight is the poem “Posing Nude,” which draws upon Lawson’s Living Room, Brownsville, Brooklyn. The poem provides a description of the photo (a seated male figure, a woman posing topless behind him), and then complicates this image: “I know the composition is staged,” writes Codjoe. “The couple pictured are not/lovers.” To Codjoe, this staging does not undercut the intimacy between the models: instead, it allows her speaker to access her own memory of a romantic encounter, which she includes in the poem. Here, Codjoe subtly makes an argument against objectivism, highlighting the honest intimacy generated by Lawson’s staged portraiture. Lawson’s posed models and Codjoe’s descriptions of them convey far more truth than the fetishistic pseudoscience of National Geographic‘s documentary photography centered in Bishop’s “Waiting Room.”

Alongside moments of softness and romance, Bluest Nude also examines immense pain. Four untiled single-stanza poems are embedded throughout the collection, each of which describes the aftermath of an unnamed traumatic event, referred to only with a blank line. The first of the series begins, “After the _________, I yearned to be reckless. To smash / a glass brought first to my lips.” These poems read like chaotic diary entries, hauntingly mysterious without a known precursor.

Halfway through the collection, with the long poem “She Said,” we learn the speaker’s erasures may be references to sexual assault. The poem reads like a fractured courtroom transcription, and in this instance, Codjoe departs from the first-person voice she develops so keenly throughout her other pieces:

When considering this poem, I know the “I” is missing. Twelve
years ago, on one occasion, [   ] Was robbed, assaulted, and almost
raped by the same man, a stranger.

Codjoe’s startling use of redaction reminds the reader that “I” is not a poet’s obligations, but a tool that is at her own will. In “She Said,” first-person interiority is pushed away by a colder, more administrative tone, highlighting the emotional intensity of other poems in the collection. This decision places Codjoe within a group of contemporary poets concerned with the poetics of bureaucratic language, including Solmaz Sharif, Paul Tran, and Layli Long Soldier.

Raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Codjoe is also the author of a previous chapbook, Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020). Her honors include an NEA Fellowship and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Through her examination of specific subjectivities, of what it means to live as a Black female poet and to align oneself with other Black artists, Codjoe ultimately reiterates the connections between poetry and other representational forms of art. It is the instinct, perhaps, of some poets to separate themselves from other artists, to assume that visual images are an emblem of truth, indicative of a solidity our own form often lacks. (“Photography is not about honesty,” a friend had to remind me recently over the phone.)

Codjoe does not fall into this trap of reifying the visual: because Bluest Nude itself with the moments of perception that serve as a precursor to creation, Codjoe deftly links writing with painting, photography, and sculpture. She shows us that across these forms, the observation of the self and others is a practice to be honed, to be employed with compassion and rigor. Codjoe’s speaker considers whom she lets view her, and whom in turn she views, a necessary counter to a world filled with violent sight, in the form of surveillance and oppressive documentation experienced by Black Americans. As she writes in the poem “Aubade,” another instance in which she turns her lens on a lover: “[T]his is a portrait of work / not pleasure.” Such work is a privilege to read.

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Madeleine Cravens is from Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Max Ritvo Poetry Fellowship.

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