All the Blood Involved in Love: A Review of Maya Marshall’s Poetry Collection
By Corinne Shearer
I start Maya Marshall’s recent book, All the Blood Involved in Love out now with Haymarket Books, while riding the subway. There is the typical cacophony around me: the train shrieks its way downtown; a man proselytizes, aggressively; a lone mariachi guitarist sings. I’m not really a good subway-reader (any little thing will pull my attention) but I decide to give the book a go, doubtful though I am that I’ll actually be able to get into it.
I am surprised when the name of my stop is suddenly squawked over the train car’s speaker and I realize what has happened: Marshall’s poems dropped me into her world completely, I’ve read straight through my ride.
So, my first bit of praise for Marshall is that her work passes the subway test; she is capable of engrossing her reader despite all odds. Part of her success on this front, I suspect, is due to the private, low tone this collection has about it– these are poems confided, spoken close to the ear. Each poem, whether Marshall uses the confessional “I” or not, feels like it has a deeper resonance to the author’s own story, is enriched with the blood – shed and withheld – of which the title speaks.
The collection is divided into three parts, the third of which provides a kind of origin story for the recurring speaker of the first two. Though this is not to imply a lack of cohesion in the collection overall– Marshall’s poetic voice maintains its center of gravity even when it strays far into the past, taking on the characters of ancestral women. Familial myths, societal myths, and the myths we spin for ourselves – about ourselves – loom large in Marshall’s work. Part I seems most concerned with one’s place within such stories. Marshall doesn’t simply want to know what it is to be a daughter, a mother, a caretaker, a friend, a lover, an American woman, but what it is to be these things in all their messy complexities and negations – what it means, for example, to be a good daughter, a Black mother, a self-defensive caretaker, a fed-up American woman. Marshall throws these things and more into her big, poetic bucket and shakes. The result is sometimes piercingly clear, other times strange and jumbled– doing what poetry does best: speaking through abstraction. Throughout the collection Marshall inserts, for instance, a series of “Self-Portrait as…” poems, which defiantly refuse to offer up any obvious image of our author as the form suggests. The portraitist tries on several likenesses: a “Recurring Reflection Elongated like a Length of Vertebrae” or “an Atlas Moth at the Bar,” or “an octopus,” and, a persistent alter ego, “Lavender Menace.”
In her poems, Marshall allows the political to invade the private and tender– as I suppose it does in real life. Part II leans into this most heavily while remaining true to one of the more central themes of the collection: motherhood, to be or not be. Marshall is attuned to the public interest in and ambivalence about a woman’s body– particularly as “an incubator” for life. There is an eerie prescience to Marshall’s work today given that it was published just four days after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022. Marshall spends much of the collection answering the question that surely gets put to all women post-puberty:
Do you want to have kids?
And later: Are you thinking about having kids yet?
And still: Why didn’t you ever have kids?
Marshall’s responses will resonate with many, but prominent throughout are the particular dangers of being a Black mother, of having a Black child. In a different world, Blackness, like motherhood, would not be politicized, but Marshall accepts the world as she sees it and the challenge it poses. Incorporating the overtly political into one’s poems is not always easily done– though it is often necessary. If the great aim of poetry is, as so many of us believe, to represent with utmost clarity the human experience, then we must go there. In many ways, it is unavoidable; just as the race and gender of a dancer on a stage cannot readily be concealed, language and grammar will speak for itself. The task of any poet writing on any topic is to reconfigure the familiar so that it sings anew, but this can be even more important when dealing with politicized matters that tend to get collapsed into talking points, bloated beyond recognition after being run and rerun through the cycle of social media.
Marshall addresses this problem by leaning into strangeness, showing us the political through the lens of abstraction. This does not necessarily soften her point, but leads us to it in unusual ways. This brings a crucial freshness to ideas which are susceptible to becoming muted by their use in regular discourse. Racial injustice and the threat to Black lives posed by law enforcement are such things which Marshall tackles by sketching and re-sketching an image of an adopted Black boy. He is: confetti, a dragonfly, a lisp, a plum pit, an open window, the “softest avocado on the market,” among other things. With unusual imagery and rich textures, Marshall integrates the political into her poetry in a way that makes it newly accessible.
The drumbeat of the collection’s third and final section is much the same as the first two, but overlaying it are the melodies of childhood: actual memories as well as their emotional echoes– good and bad. Figuring large in this section is the mother with whom the poems’ speaker has a complicated relationship. This, it seems, is the author’s first experience with the necessary bloodletting that comes with loving someone. There is vaguely the sense that we have been working our way backward throughout the entire collection to this section, where the author’s first encounter with motherhood – as a daughter – play out in scenes which are equal parts tender and bitter.
As if in inspiration of this mother, the collection’s final turn is towards God who fills both a spiritual and paternal absence which has been evident, though not particularly prominent, throughout the book. These poems really only feel relevant to the rest of the work in the broader sense, the question of or an engagement with God being a natural part of one’s search for meaning and belonging, and the spiritual weight our love for one another can carry. The very last poem of the collection is really an epilogue; the speaker considers their smallness (and vulnerability) in the face of love and the inevitable grief that comes when we lose the person who inspires that love.
My primary nitpick for All the Blood Involved in Love? The strongest poems of the collection are the ones that restrict themselves in some way– whether by form or subject matter. Marshall, like most contemporary poets, could say less, be a bit tighter in delivery here and there, but overall this is a seasoned poet willing to take risks. Marshall allows each poem to unfold in whatever form and voice it seems to want, though none stray so far as to feel out of place. She strikes a similar balance in the visual play of her poems on the page: she is conscious of it yet never beholden to it; asterisks sometimes float through the poems, scattered across the page like a constellation. She can carry her reader, in capable hands, through the detailed and vibrant world of her poetry. And, perhaps most importantly, she can write those things which must be pried out of oneself.
Marshall is wisely guarded in her conclusion: “We’re all just telling stories.” Yet the collection belies something else. “To save my life, I undress this disarray,” she writes. Poetry, like love, demands we make ourselves vulnerable – to pain, to failure, to criticism – but write we must; love we must. All the blood is, ultimately, worth giving.
Corinne Shearer is OyeDrum Magazine’s Book Review Editor and an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She’s currently completing her MA in English Literature at The City College of New York. Corinne works predominantly in dance and theater as a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist. She’s been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival and named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies. She is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines. She is currently accepting published or soon-to-be published books for review in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.