Neyat Yohannes on “i be, but i ain’t,” by Aziza Barnes

Aziza Barnes’ first full-length poetry collection feels like a study of interiors. The insides of insects, human mouths, burroughs, apartments, the center of a sweaty dance floor, the depths of intestinal lining, and of course, the self. These poems reveal what we do when the exteriors have gotten the best of us. Or what we do in spite of them. This is most readily manifested as a potential running concept in  “3. Crux the monk: A Meditation.” A third of the way into the collection, the narrator presents the many forms of assault she’s experienced in the places she’s traversed. She says in the final lines,

“In my own home I attempt nightly to eat my body alive,”

proving that we’re not even safe from ourselves.

Varying levels of decay and—the startling prevention of it—take place in i be, but i ain’t. There’s a stirring instance of this between a grandmother and grandchild in “over a plate of inferior greens.” Of their final moments together, the grandchild says:

I tried to part my grandmother’s hair into two even caliber pews couldn’t make it past the hairline kept undoing  &  doing my step coating it with ultra sheen this would be my embalming she died the next morning

This mention of embalming evokes more than just the daunting task of a mortician. It suggests that self-preservation in the wake of deterioration is a form of embalming. Maybe while embalming her grandmother with ultra sheen, the narrator is in fact embalming herself to survive this tragic reality of her grandmother dying.


The five sections of this collection are separated by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson quotes. As if to insinuate that America is still at war with its parts. Or more specifically, with the Black body. i be, but i ain’t visits Ghana, New York City, Los Angeles, and Mississippi–all guilty of reminding the Black individual that their mere presence is a radical act. The narrator says, “I never understood or trusted land. I was born during an earthquake & have a single interest in pressure.” The pressure of existing while Black, while queer, while an other, is what these poems boil down to.

In “we have no conception of bastard,” the piece that lends this collection its title, the narrator explores her options for relieving herself of some of this aforementioned pressure. She says:

i played michael jackson’s Beat It at Elmina & all the ghanaians broke into a chain of muscular events. swallow the chalky discharge jackson into the acid lining your intestines. sweat out your slave

This is one of many instances characterized by flailing Black bodies resisting pressure and attempting freedom. Yet whenever liberation appears to be tiptoeing nearer, our narrator reminds us that there will always be “…a white hand crawling up your esophagus to remind you of what you cannot digest.” And that may be true, but this collection? Easily digestible. In fact, it offers all the sustenance one needs to ward off the pressures of existence in order to keep their interiors in tact.



Aziza Barnes is from Los Angeles,  but is currently living in Oxford, Mississippi. She serves as a poetry and nonfiction editor at Kinfolks Quarterly. Aizia is also a Poets’ House fellow, a Callaloo fellow, and a candidate for her MFA in Poetry at University of Mississippi. She declares herself to be “blk & alive.” You can follow more of Aziza’s declarations on twitter. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and you can treat yourself to the e-book at Button Poetry.

NEYAT YOHANNES is an Eritrean-American writer who’s from LA, but just moved to the Bay. By day, she doles out ice packs to kids who don’t need it as an elementary school office lady turned unofficial nurse. She spends the rest of her waking hours writing, attempting to be more formidable like Whitley Gilbert, and trying to keep Drake lyrics from constantly spilling out of her mouth. You can read some of her published work here. She tweets as @rhymeswithcat and occasionally blogs here.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.