Archives and alchemy

Side Notes from the Archivist, by Anastacia-Reneé

3 minute read
The book cover, with a black & white collage including Black body parts, typewriter, cassette, filing cabinet, deer & figs.

Award-winning poet Anastacia-Reneé’s Side Notes from the Archivist is a history textbook. It is a private diary. It is a public performance. It is freestyle and yet it is meticulously organized by dates and events. It is blaringly hot and cooked through and yet it is raw. The author’s trademark style of mixing and blending genres to create a crackling reactive substance makes her a chemist as much as an archivist.

Published last March, Side Notes from the Archivist is Anastacia-Reneé’s individualist, feminist-coded retelling of her journey growing up and into a Black woman who has learned to weaponize her own voice. Her journey begins in Philadelphia, where, from a young age, she was made painfully aware that she would have to claw her way out from under brutal disadvantages, and that the preservation of the safety and culture of people like herself was not her city’s priority.

She writes,

you have seen the helicopter swarming

over the forbidden house of africa.

& you know you are never able to tell

this tale or finish this poem.

it is a poem about philadelphia—

no it is a poem about the house of africa

no it is a poem about helicopters

no it is a poem about bombs

Her “side notes,” informative blurbs that accompany the poems, are straightforward pockets of lines that don’t sugarcoat the tragic circumstances that inspired her work. They hit like projectiles. They force you to learn uncomfortable lessons that make you squirm. Here, for instance, is the sidenote that accompanies the above excerpt:

as the smoke rose from 6221

osage avenue, philadelphia,

residents watched through

their windows or television

screens in a state of stunned

disbelief. their city had just

bombed its own people.

Beyond recording and transcribing real history, Anastacia-Reneé ventures into scathing cultural criticism. Perhaps the most powerful section of the collection is her satirical rough-draft scripting of a television show starring a Black woman. In a tone that is thoroughly fed up, she drags an imaginary main character through the various traumas that make up the old, overused storylines about women of color, just to prove a point.

The poet also invites the reader to accompany her to the doctor’s office, where she receives inadequate treatment for her chronic conditions, and to absorb and contemplate her spiritual musings, which are the collection’s gentler interludes. Yet, astonishingly, with all this pirouetting back and forth between subject matter, the voice remains consistent: that of an artist with a rock-solid character and unapologetic personality. She uses slang when the poem calls for it. She swears. She evokes beautiful, metaphysical imagery. She’s tired from fighting, yet carries on with warrior-like energy. By the end of the book, the reader feels as though they know her intimately as a person.

What readers must keep in mind throughout Anastacia-Reneé’s prose is that Side Notes from the Archivist is a highly personal, highly detailed account of racism, of sexism, of discrimination on all fronts, and of identity confusion, frustration, and acceptance. The author’s experiences may not be universal or easily recognizable to every reader. Readers, on their end, have a responsibility to take in her work as avid, sympathetic listeners, and not as challengers looking for reasons to argue with her or dispute her feelings or findings. Anastacia-Reneé is an archivist. Her facts are her facts. This is not your life nor is it your perspective of the world. Accept it as she—observer, historian, and translator—tells it.

What, When, Where

Side Notes from the Archivist. By Anastacia-Reneé. New York City: Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins), March 14, 2023. 144 pages, paperback; $16.99. Get it here.

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