on Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe

Carrie Mae Weems’s 1997 photograph series Not Manet’s Type presents a series of nude self-portraits accompanied by text. The fourth image in the sequence shows Weems’s reflection in a round mirror sitting up in bed, partially covered in black lace with a square mirror behind her; the text that follows the photograph states, “I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live.” In the series, Weems directly addresses white male visual artists such as Édouard Manet, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso, as well as art history and visual culture as a whole and their disservice to the images of Black women and their bodies in the nude art form. Weems critiques their gaze from her bed while seeing her reflection in the mirror. Weems’s photographic transformation of the bedroom into a camera whereby the form and the space can both see and make something else seen or heard is what Ama Codjoe does with poetry in her collection Bluest Nude. Bluest Nude critiques and articulates this “other model” through poetry that thinks with the works of artists Betye Saar, Lorraine O’Grady, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Deanna Lawson. Codjoe engages in an ekphrastic poetics that draws on art and artists while making critical gestures that not only confront the subjugation of Blackness but also make bodies of art with language of resistance and refusal. This shift allows us to see the nude self as whole and beautiful in a way that is veiled or goes amiss when looking at Black art with a gaze that centers white Euro-American beauty standards and norms. 

The poems in the collection are underpinned by visual artworks across different genres. The cover bears a sculpture by Simon Leigh, titled Martinique, named after the Caribbean Island colonized by the French and still a French territory to this day. Leigh’s Martinique is a sculpture that bears bare breasts but not a head or arms. Without a head, Leigh’s sculpture refuses eye contact. This turning or averting of self to make another self known, one that is not captured, is what the opening poem of the collection, “Blueprint,” shapes into a form: 

seeped out of me, but I wanted to forge it myself. 
I was obsessed with making. 

In an interview for 32 Poems, Cate Lycurgus asks Codjoe about her choice of blue and its function in the collection. Codjoe points out that “ ‘Blue’ is a multi-valent: inherent in its languaging (read ‘the blues’) is mood, music, tone, idiom, emotionality, double meanings, chemistry, color—and—in a kind of bounce or reverberation—whatever the color blue evokes in a more personal symbology.” This multivalence resounds in the opening poem in the way that blue transforms: it is needed, blue is a habit, and blue is a river. The capaciousness of Blue is a quality that Codjoe wants to exploit in her collection.

One of the ways she does this is by applying artistic techniques such as photography and using language to go beyond the technique of the apparatus. For instance, in the poem “On Seeing and Being Seen,” Codjoe develops an image of the speaker’s own making through negation. The poem opens with a refusal: “I don’t like being photographed.” In analog photography, film is loaded into a camera and exposed to light, which creates a reverse image, where light areas look dark and dark areas look light. The poem develops from the singular “I” to a plural “we” by the end of the opening line. This multiplication of pronouns further emphasizes contact between the photographic apparatus (camera) and poet, but also between the speaker and a lover. The poem then gives two citations, the first from Susan Sontag’s On Photography and the second from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” The Sontag quote is about seeing, while the Bishop quote is about being seen. Bishop’s poem describes the breasts in a photograph of “black, naked women” in National Geographic. A difference is invoked here between who is looking at the naked body of Black women and how they respond. As the speaker in Codjoe’s poem responds to Bishop: “Tell her / someone wanted to touch them. I am touching . . .” The speaker changes the gaze but becomes the apparatus that can respond in a way that the photograph can’t. The naked Black breasts are described by the white gaze as “horrifying,” but the body in the poem transforms this gaze through self-making and self-seeing. This body uses the same mechanisms as a camera, such as a mirror, and eyes like a shutter open and shut and instead develop the image into beauty. The poem closes on the body as becoming the site of remembering and making something beautiful: “I remember thinking. My body is a lens / I can look through with my mind.” This claiming of the mind is a knowledge known by Black women; recall Toni Morrison’s character, Sula, who says, “Show? To who? I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” 

The ideas and transformations of what reclaiming self looks like or can be are staged in a dialogue in Codjoe’s “Poem After Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt
.” In the 1972 artwork, Saar arms a Mammy figure with a rifle and hand grenade, liberating her into an armed revolutionary. Yet the poem questions if there is another way of liberating Aunt Jemima and Black women like her: 

What if, Betye, instead of a rifle or hand 
grenade—I mean, what if after 
the loaded gun that takes two hands 
to fire, I lay down the splintered broom

After activists and scholars such as Riché Richardson called for the retirement of Aunt Jemima, Quaker Oats announced in 2020 that they would rebrand and move away from the racist stereotype. Codjoe asks what would happen if Aunt Jemima is no longer laboring, no longer holding anything but her whole self. The pronoun I and the transitive verb lay down action another way of being, as the verb lay down is the only verb that gets repeated twice in the poem. The poem, while addressing Saar, also adds another layer, mainly the repetition of the contraction Gonna, which, along with “lay down,” comes from the spiritual “Down by the Riverside.” The poem makes a marvelous assemblage of Saar’s art piece, the spiritual, static sounds of the past, and a litany of verbs. Codjoe engages in what Douglas Kearney calls a pre-emptive ekphrasis, which is defined as a work that goes beyond a dialogue between poet and artistic object and instead participates in a collaboration. The poem incorporates the sound of Saar’s gun; however, via the spiritual it alchemizes the word to the contraction gonna. Contractions are a combination of words that are brought together to collaborate in action. The poem does not dismiss the hopes of liberation that were necessary in the 1970s when the artwork was made; instead, the poem holds all the tones of another dream of liberation for Black women to consider: the possibility of resting. Rest as a way to disrupt the exploitative terms of white supremacy and capitalism that have affected Black women in horrific ways is shared in the frameworks of Tricia Hersey, the “nap minister,” who founded the Nap Ministry, a manifesto that facilitates communal spaces for rest and liberation dreaming. “Gonna lay down, by the riverside, sticky and braless in the / golden sand,” Codjoe writes.

Codjoe hopes for the liberation of all the manifestations of Aunt Jemima, a hope where she can lay down, and lay to rest everything that is put onto her through a violent fantasy that strips her of her autonomy. In a conversation with David Naimon about the poem, Codjoe emphasizes “to kind of have this figure that is stripped of their sexuality and then also hypersexualized, it’s just maddening when I think about that. What I would hope for her and for me, it’s like this release from all of that and even from the kind of waging that is our movement building, even from the kind of waging of freedom fighting, I just . . . yeah . . . I want her to lay down.”

Similar to a museum or gallery, Bluest Nude asks the reader to look slowly, to step back, to come closer, to return to a page, and to recognize motifs and references that may have been missed in the first walk around. This movement occurs, for example, in the recurring sequence of poems titled “After the _________,” which appear in different arrangements throughout the collection. Initially, the sequence was published as “After the Apocalypse,” but the word apocalypse is omitted in Bluest Nude. The blank lines give the reader a chance to fill the gaps after reading the poem. The word apocalypse is derived from uncovering but has its main root in to cover. This motion of covering and uncovering, seeing and unseeing, telling and untelling is something that the poems in this collection can hold. Balancing these different modes requires making some precise incisions with language, which Codjoe does skillfully like Romare Bearden did with scraps of paper and other materials. Codjoe does not just engage with visual artworks as a space of questioning and making language, but she also engages with texts. The second section of the collection, titled “She Said,” reads as part cento as well as an erasure using language from the transcript of the “Testimony of the Rape Trial of 1612” from Mary D. Garrard’s book on the painter Artemisia Gentileschi along with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s written testimony of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice. Using language from the testimonies of both Gentileschi and Ford tells the untellable. Codjoe uses this by including footnotes from the testimonies that read as follows: “FOOTNOTE 58: Hole in the page, one or two words missing. / FOOTNOTE 51: Hole in the page; three words missing. 

The form of the erasure allows for a mode of evaluation and re-evaluation that can collapse time and shape a sense of seeing a landscape of violence and sexual assault that is ongoing. But also drawing attention to what is not said, the erasure deals with different gradients of opacity as the final line of the sequence reads: 


FOOTNOTE 70: Page is torn; a final line not legible.    


Be it dance, as in the poem “Le Sacre du Printemps that is written after choreographer Pina Bausch, or painting, as in “Poem after and Iteration of a Painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, destroyed by the Artist Herself,” Bluest Nude engages in spectatorship and the embodied resonances that result from the viewing of wide-ranging art forms. The collection invites readers to learn how to look and engage with art by applying the techniques and praxis of the art form through language. For instance, the poem “Posing Nude,” after Deanna Lawson’s photograph Living Room, Brownsville, Brooklyn, dialogues Lawson’s photographic process. Lawson’s photographs are known for depicting staged intimate images of Black subjects. The poem begins by imagining the prompt that Lawson gave to the couple in her photo:

If I were to choose a man to pose nude
with, it would be the ex whose hand
in mine, I couldn’t distinguish
from my own

In the second stanza of the poem the speaker goes further to say:

This particular ex anticipated
my needs like a photographer considers
sources of light. 

By the third stanza, the poem turns, and we now get a detailed description of Lawson’s photograph and how the couple is depicted: “In Living Room, a male figure bares / a tattooed chest, cuffed jeans . . .” 

Beginning with an internal dialogue with the prompt that made the artwork, and then describing the artwork, equips the reader with a way of seeing and questioning/imagining when encountering Lawson’s photography. The speaker in the poem goes beyond thinking about the displayed finished artwork and asks us to think about the process of art making, which can be an entry point for a viewer into the art piece but also a space for personal imagination and remembering.

Ama Codjoe’s Bluest Nude bares artworks nude and with that transforms them in a way that only great poetry can. By telling of the looking I, the knowing I, and the naked I, Codjoe’s poems undress a collective We. In the poems you can—if you listen—hear a We that is part of a long tradition of Black poets and artists that have imagined and are imagining other ways of seeing art and making it, using all the canvases, be they page, stage, film, etc. that make possible collective and other ways of being and seeing.


*This publication is a collaboration between The Georgia Review and the Ledbury Poetry Critics program (UK).

Bluest Nude. By Ama Codjoe. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022. 91 pp. $16.00, paper.


Esther Kondo Heller is a poet, literary critic, and experimental sound- and filmmaker. They are a Barbican Young Poet, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, a Ledbury Critic, and an Image Text Ithaca Junior Fellow. They have an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University and are a first-year PhD student in comparative literature at Harvard University, where they are working on transnational Black poetics and translating the poetry of Black German poet Raja Lubinetzki.