What We Ask of Flesh: Review

What We Ask of Flesh by Remica L. Bingham
Etruscan Press
Review by Nicole Sealey

Matthew 26:41 reads, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This may well be true, but let’s not mistake willingness for ability and weakness for inability. What We Ask of Flesh, Remica L. Bingham’s second collection of poems, quells such confusion—asking nothing of and relinquishing power over a rebel body that insists upon itself. What we ask of flesh lingers in relief of what fate demands of it. Despite our pleas (and please), we’re bound to its ruin. What We Ask of Flesh is similarly bound.

Less concerned with the narrator’s mother than the narrator’s inherent need to mother, the poem “Maieusiophobia” is the subconscious effort of a mind wrestling with the limitations of a body. While fear first prevents the reality of childbearing, the narrator’s failing body is currently to blame. Now that the decision is no longer hers to make, she longs for the opportunity. A longing, she believes, her mother intuits with an intuition the narrator can only imagine and, subsequently, envy.

My mother is unattainable
and I have come to accept this.
So when the doctor tells me—
my legs spread wide, the tiny head
of a probe invading my cervix—
There may be a problem
I am relieved, almost happy at the damage.

Happy is a hard word to render poetic when one is urged to show, not tell. The pairing of almost with happy, however, is so exceptionally tragic that it requires no illustration whatsoever. And, the uncertainty of cheer suggests unhappiness, if not devastation, to come. It is this repressed distress, this refusal to feel that is the most troubling. That this happens within fifteen lines, the book’s most compact poem, speaks to Bingham’s lyric sensibility. As Lucille Clifton once replied to someone asking why she wrote such short poems, “When I get to the end, I stop.” The same can be said of Bingham.

Another poem that applies such sensibility is “Will and Testament”. This isn’t the usual upon my death poem in which whatnots are willed to the survived. The narrator entrusts her most prized possession, her remains, to family. Preoccupied more with the happiness of the living than her life after death, the speaker’s homegoing is wholly dependent on her mother’s approval.

Cremate me. Do it quickly, without fanfare,
Unless this troubles my mother.

If she can’t stand the thought of not seeing me
Slick and stiff in a prettied-up box,

Give her what she wants;
Even in death there are sacrifices.

“Will and Testament” foreshadows “How I Crossed Over,” an elegy to Lucille Clifton, Ai, and Carolyn Rogers. By its placement as the penultimate poem, the former enacts the very thing the deceased in the poem desires: to be buried with Grandmama. The speaker is laid to rest with her literal grandmother, while Bingham kneels at the feet of her literary foremothers.

If there is marching down to the family plot,
I’d like to be with Grandmama,

near Granddaddy, at the edge
of the cemetery by the highway

off Grace Street, as good a place
as any to lie.

Winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award for her debut collection, Conversion, Bingham continues to blend the best of the tradition with her distinct vision. What We Ask of Flesh employs craft, but relies heavily on heart—and is the better for it. Remica L. Bingham’s voice, as Patricia Smith notes in the book’s introduction, “rises, sole and singular, above the fray as she conjures a soundtrack for the wife, the mother, the sister, the daughter…” Without music, a poem is but information. What We Ask of Flesh is a memorable score.