Book Review: Swimming Home (Publisher: Unlikely Books, 2019) by Kayla Rodney

I’ve known Kayla Rodney since we were in the MFA program at San Diego State University together. Since we were in Ilya Kaminsky’s translation class in 2014, I have admired her use of vocabulary and diction to elevate the poetic aesthetic of a work. Take her translation of the beginning of Azzurra D’Agostino’s first untitled poem from Canti di un luogo abbandonato (Songs of a World Abandoned):

Here, a field flanked farmhouse
with chameleon colors is still
thought lifeless by those who never heard
the sounds that proved otherwise:
the dog in the yard, scampering mice,
a song,
a motley ravenous crowd of men and beasts
things that are all phantom now.

Her talent with diction, music, and the lyric is apparent in her first collection of poems, Swimming Home, which begins with a grocery list (“Making Groceries,” p 1), which very quickly becomes much more than a grocery list, transforming seamlessly into a list of home, which for Rodney is New Orleans, and all the ingredients that make it home. She recalls the ingredients like an incantation to the magic of memory:

-two day old French bread for pudding

-gumbo boils over tops of pots, splashes onto stoves with roux dark as Mississippi water

-the Creole queen whose blood is the history of the victor, mama, passé, daddy, paper bag brown

-black bodies bump like logs in the flood water

-bullets fall down like ash on Pompeii

-the bom bom bom of open palms on congo drums in Congo Square, dirty chained feet dance in the Africa of their psyches

Tender moments, family, and voices recorded straight—in dialect—breathe life, beauty, and truth into her collection, which becomes an ode to who she is and all who have aided her on her own hero’s or heroine’s journey.

Black mamas and daughters on their porches.

Mama that hurts!
Hair yanked up and brushed flat into barrettes
then twirled around fingers making perfect water curls.

from “Tenderheaded,” p 3

Among these sweet moments, interrupted unjustly by fear and violence threatened and carried out against her community, Rodney uses her authority to speak on injustice against Black communities, historical and current:

Little white boys play with toys
that little black boys…can’t.

Black mamas stand on porches
like lifeguards presiding over the sea.

from “Musing from the Condohood:” p 5

The richocet of raindrops hitting car tops
echoes through the projects.
Children play in puddles and potholes
while mamas yell about getting out
of the rain.

I look towards the sun
wondering why the devil beats his wife.

from “Raindrop Symphony,” p 20

In “Black Holocaust,” she weaves current, historical, and literary (Langston Hughes, no less) allusions and strings a symphony with anaphora and alliteration to give the poem its full and necessary emotional weight worthy of its title. The potentially controversial title is successfully argued with undeniable and horrific evidence of a time-and-again targeted people:


hung by the neck I can’t breath, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.
Kerosene rains and ignites fire beneath my feet.

Black bodies piled up in prisons.
Black bodies piled in projects like rats.
Black bodies piled on street corners like crumpled coal.
Black bodies wading through the waters of your consciousness.
Black bodies trying to figure out how we too can sing America.

p 22

But one cannot grieve loss without having experienced love. As much as the book mourns historic and current loss within Black American communities, it also honors love and celebrates Black bodies:

Coffee skin glows in the dark
I drink it like I need to wake up.

from “Tangled,” p 11

Rodney is a big fan of Greek mythology, and her book explores Homer’s tale of The Odyssey and her own unique characterizations of the goddess Calypso in particular. She ties this mythic story and her versions and retellings with the natural disasters, the hurricanes, she’s lived through while living in New Orleans, as well as watched with held breath while studying in other states.

I
from the dry land of Texas
a glass of water in my hand,
watched my city drown away
as if the debris filled commemorative globe
in the gift shop
reading 8/29/2005-8/29/2015
was given a shake.

from “Snow Globe,” p 29

In her collection, God is as He is in the first testament, and as the Greek gods were—foreboding, destructive, and to be feared:

I am paralyzed by the eye of the storm
hovering above me like God’s mouth.

Open so wide as to swallow me whole.

from “Mouth of God,” p 8

This God is insane
doesn’t he know that flooding
the earth expecting
different results makes him a
mad man, obsessed with the rain.

Untitled, p 27

Even God in the collection, however, can’t resist the gifts of New Orleans:

God likes his gumbo
full of music notes and Fleurs de Lis
cobble stone streets clacking
with the sound of hooves,
Mardi Gras bead filé to
thicken the rue.

from “You Can’t Crawl out of a Bowl,” p 31

And through it all, Rodney is prepared to love, sing, laugh. She tells her story with humor and wit.

At the front door,
the hurricane is knocking,
screaming about our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ, with some informationals
for me to mull over.

from “Witness,” p 39

She creates her own myths in which she demands more for herself:

Because I stick one foot in the Atlantic and the other
in the swamps on an alligator’s shoulder blades.

Because I turn the moon in its socket and leave it there,
seeing as no one has space for both the moon and the sun
in their bedroom, I am asking for a raise.

from “Why I Deserve a Raise from Apollo Who Has Decided That He Wants to Go on Vacation in the Poconos,” p 51

Along with her own voice, she includes voices of those who also want and would demand better for themselves and their community.

I’dda said
da world is worse na dan it was den
before dah storm.

Untitled, p 54

Her brilliant interweaving of mythic, cultural, as well as biblical references build to allegorical questions about the importance of home. First, she addresses the seduction of leaving home, of exploration, of the excitement of discovery that Odysseus felt with Calypso, and in doing, brings in the nuance of desire and fate, or what is beyond our control, what compels us on a certain path, in all our journeys:

smell your ocean hair
with its clicking shells
and baby starfish barrettes

I would have stayed a million more years
but restless feet
and an incomplete journey home
drove me to the water.

from “Odysseus to Calypso,” p 12

What does it mean to return home changed? After a period of time? What does it mean if your only means of returning home is via the imagination, however much you desire it?

This theme of home is particularly resonant in our current national and international climate, during a pandemic and quarantine. It is a theme that drives the author, drives Odysseus home, drives the writing, and drives each of us, ultimately, as we chose, or are forced to chose, to create places, homes, and homes away from home, where we will return or stay or eventually, say goodbye to forever, including this earth. Many submissions for Issue 2 of HHR were focused on home, family, and longings for places and people we have lost, including our origins and ancestral roots, themes which Rodney explores in depth.

I left the south for the west
and browned, a sugar-sprinkled pecan.

I rub my skin and it’s like touching mousse.
I ask Africa to take me back
and she tells me I’m too far gone
but I can always visit.

from “Passé Blanc,” p 48

It is an important time for reflection, for revolution, for self-discovery and for coming back to what is most important.

Thank you, Kayla Rodney, for taking us home with you, even if just for a visit. As with the best tour guides and writers, you also introduced us to your heart, desires, fears, and to the people of your community. We will carry them with us always, in our hearts.

Janel Spencer

Janel Spencer is a poet and teacher from Tucson, Arizona. She graduated from San Diego State University with her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry and currently teaches at high school English. Her poetry and translations have appeared in Poetry International, ​riverbabble, Madwoman Etc, TSPJ, and the San Diego Poetry Annual.