Against Heaven by Nigerian-American writer of Yoruba descent Kemi Alabi is an exploration of the divine through a black, queer, feminist lens. The collection was published on April 5 by Graywolf, an indie press that has built an impressive catalogue of engaging and boundary pushing African books.
Alabi is a fresh, new voice reigniting old conversations around spirituality in illuminating ways. Against Heaven challenges common beliefs about God, heaven, or religion as a whole and calls for new tools for making sense of our world. They look at the deep foundation of our thinking in religions ideas and asks what it would take to expand beyond familiar binaries in order to imagine more lovingly. A new theology centered on the “body and the earth as sites of paradise defined by the pleasure and possibility of Black, queer fugitivity.” A mix of “tender love poems, righteous prayers, and vital provocations,” Against Heaven ask questions about religious thinking in a way that feels so needed today.
Alabi was born in Wisconsin in the US and lives in Chicago. Against Heaven is their first collection. They won the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their poems and essays have appeared in a wide range of places, including The Atlantic, Poetry, Boston Review, Catapult, Guernica, and elsewhere. Alabi has received Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Brittle Paper Award nominations. They are also deeply involved in activist work that centers race, the queer experience, and ecology.
In Against Heaven, questions about the divine intersect with the problems and possibilities in language. In a brilliant interview published on Atmos, Alabi talks about this relationship to language, which they see as being useful for unraveling ideas that bind us to binary thinking. Life, earth, experiences, the world are multiple. Revealing this multiplicity is one of the tasks of the poet. Poets can call to language to reveal things that escape us in our rush to label everything with stable identities. Poets can also channel the voices of others, even inanimate things and nonhuman life to enrich understanding, even making it more spiritually authentic. As they remark in the interview, the poet’s work centers “the power of building our shared imagination, and language’s role in helping us actually figure out what is possible.”
One of the recurring themes in Against Heaven is how to connect with nature using our bodies, feelings, senses. But then what is nature? How do the difficult conversations we have around climate change complicate ideas about nature? Alabi’s writing expands these debates around ecological crisis to black queer lives. But, ultimately, Alabi uses poetry to break through layers of reductive thinking and forge new pathways for imagining how to live fully, more inclusively, more beautifully.
Some of the poems in the collection have been published elsewhere, so you can take a peek into the collection by reading “44 Questions to Ask While Bingeing” published in American Poets, “A Financial Planner Asks About My Goals, or Golden Shovel with Cardi B’s Money” published in Poetry Magazine, and “Against Heaven [There’s Earth]” published in The Atlantic.
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Photo by Ally Almore via kemialabi.com.