Build Yourself A Boat is more than just the title of Camonghne Felix’s first collection of poems. It’s also an imperative to her audience as much as to herself. Felix, now working for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, spent the last December in Chicago working as the communications director for Amara Enyia’s mayoral bid. This is her first full-length book; she previously published a chapbook, Yolk, in 2015. In Build Yourself A Boat, she grapples with trauma past and present, personal and societal, and fights to retain her sanity, dignity and self-identify. Felix’s writing is alternately brash and tender, sardonic and melancholy, but it retains her distinctive and powerful voice throughout.
The first lines of the opening poem set the stakes for what is to come. “The psych on duty in triage/Asks me if I want to die, and I say/Not at the moment, no, but stay/Tuned.” The causal web between trauma, mental health and self-destruction permeates the collection, but Felix doesn’t wallow in despair; the mission here is to recognize and overcome. “Stick to the project,” Felix reminds herself, “there are oceans and/oceans and I am just on querulous petulant fish glittering and/considering the upstream.”
Build Yourself A Boat weaves in and out of acerbic nihilism and cool reflection, building an uneasy compromise between self-actualization and self-destruction. “You don’t know the true success of survival ‘til you’ve/experienced the adrenaline of a too-close death. What is/there to fear when you’ve licked the edge?” Felix writes in “‘But there were times when you offered your consent with older man. You chose them & you were not afraid. Why not?’ – Freud.” The poem describes a teenage encounter with an older man, walking the uneasy line between discovering sexual agency and abuse. Felix ends in a calloused confidence “he looks down/at me & moans out ‘who the fuck are you?’/I say, and the answer remains the same thereafter:/‘nobody, who are you?”
The poetry shines when Felix steps back and contemplates the costs of survival itself. Self-creation is a wearying business and takes its toll, emotionally and physically. “I am overwhelmed with my own stiff bones with/the rigidity of being strong always handling always beyond my/years def dying faster than everyone else.”
Felix also reflects on the struggle to stay guarded, to keep in her pain, and to maintain. “I try not to tell about the stories/still bleeding,” she writes in “Contouring The Flattening.” “I only say what they/need to hear. If the they is an us/I make myself an example. I lie to/keep it all intact./But if I felt I could, I would unstitch/this plaque sewn over my/mouth.”
Felix came up in the world of slam poetry, competing in Brave New Voices, a national slam poetry festival, dedicated to empowering young poets, and even appearing in an HBO documentary about the competition. Her background in slam is apparent on the page. In poems like “Imagine??? My Sister an Astronaut???” and “Trap Queen,” she uses whitespace the way a slam poet uses air. The line breaks and shifting alignment perfectly capture the breaths and staggered delivery of her performance style. You can hear Felix’s vocal delivery as you read the page.
However, some of the best pieces in Build Yourself A Boat are the more experimental poems, which fully utilize the written form. The palindromic “Tonya Harding’s Fur Coats” is one such example. Like Harding’s triple-axle, the poem spins powerfully upwards before hitting its peak and unfurling back down—cutting a distinctly different path in each direction.
Build Yourself A Boat is an impressive first collection, highlighting Felix’s unmistakable voice and impressive talent. She proves that she is just as capable on the page as she is on stage. “I want to step out of my language/and light up,” Felix writes in “On Entropy”. And in this collection, she does just that.
Camonghne Felix, Build Yourself a Boat. $16. Haymarket Books. 72 pages.
Ian Hodgson is a contributing editor at the Weekly.