Casual Conversation by Renia White. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd. 2022. 80 pages. $17.00. Paperback.
Although I usually don’t have much patience for poetic metaphysics, the abstraction common in Casual Conversation didn’t keep me from effortlessly gliding from poem to poem. I can recall very few collections I’ve enjoyed that passed through the same zip code as words like “epistemology,” but Renia White had me in a chokehold when, in the beginning of “I am not prepared for the inverse of this,” she observed, “how dangerous a logic we’ve made // proof is what happens afterward, to show us / the during was true.” The first half of this poem is completely abstract, yet White’s sharp, clean verse clears and composes such a vivid scene of concepts that it felt complete.
Imagery is scarce in Casual Conversation (with some stunning exceptions, such as “all over, but only here.”) Instead, the poetry sustains itself by the natural roll of thought through white space, line breaks, and stanzas. These are skillfully applied to incite rhythmic pauses in the reader for a steady momentum.
This is not to say that Casual Conversation exclusively generalizes. While the collection offers a bird’s eye view of racism, brutality, incarceration, it is punctuated by poignant specificity. In the final poem of the first section, “some plans should be thwarted,” the speaker requests, “I wanna live real quick.” She is immediately shown “the way to tilt toward unending” (another example of her killer abstract language) and this plea for life is fulfilled throughout the following section.
The middle section “lives” as an individual Black woman (and girl) anchored to the American landscape of flippant and brutal racism. Yet tender moments of kinship and joy pepper this chapter. I’m very fond of the connection forged in “in the name of half-sistering” ––“build a wedge called daddy and gulf us / in the name of your stolen thing,” she challenges a playground antagonist, “a sister ain’t a partial feeling. she so mine, we so sistered.”
The arguments in these poems are clear, weighty, and impactful, whether they are grandiose or personal. Again, I am not typically fond of its rhetorical delivery method, but Casual Conversation shines in its abstractions. It thrives not by flourishes of language so much as careful manipulations of it, by the clarity of its thought. While my feet barely touched the concrete on my trip through Casual Conversations, I was surprised to find that I did not miss it.
––Jamie Manias, Mid-American Review