Chapbook Review: He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved by Kai Naima Williams

Chapbook Review: He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved by Kai Naima Williams


“i don’t know who got you mislead, but there’s a list to get into my mind and you just don’t have the clout. your name taste unfamiliar on my tongue. it gets crowded in there but somehow your name is never in my mouth, keep it that way”

-Kai Naima Williams, He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved

The power of this poet is packed within 16 fierce poems that made me want to read them aloud just because her message needs to be heard in the wider world. Kai Naima Williams is a conduit of strength. In “He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved” (Hyacinth Girl Press), Kai’s voice seeks to lift me from my own trauma and shows me the expanse of what is possible.

“he had told her to run from him or he would drag her
into the gaping, savage abyss
where no one can breathe for the vines
she giggled emptily
and raised her eyebrows in guileless challenge”
-Kai Naima Williams, He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved

As a poet, I’m always aware that my experience may not translate directly to a reader. In “allegory of a cave”, I’m not privy to the specific details of this sister’s situation. However, line and stanza trawl the depth of my own ocean and stir the floor of it until it is sandy and gritty enough that tears leak from my eyes. It makes me feel things that I’m tempted to bury because they are uncomfortable. Reading Williams is immersive; it is not simply enough to take in the words and analyze them from a distance. I have swallowed them and tasted them for my own.

The “guileless challenge” and the empty giggles in the stanza above remind me of a girl I used to be. It makes me consider the invincibility of youth and the idea that monsters were something imagined, until I found out that they were altogether too real.

“how could you know? how could you know he meant it
when he called himself a monster?
when you were taught to overlook?)

she is every woman.”
-Kai Naima Williams, He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved

This last line sticks in my throat. The line where Williams lets me know that I am not alone. I have felt the things of a thousand women before and after me, maybe even including her sister. I never wanted to believe the bad things, even when the bad things rose up and gave themselves life enough to push me down. Someone once told me that I approach others with the expectation that they will be as kind as I am. I haven’t decided if that is a gift or a flaw. Perhaps it is both.

“but god if she could just go back and listen when he said “run”
-Kai Naima Williams, He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved

I have used the gift of hindsight to imagine changing past decisions. I acknowledge that if I had done it differently, perhaps I would have been spared pain. This idea, though understandable, is not helpful in rewriting the past. It is only helpful in shaping future decisions, which the sister in this piece understands as she tells the poet she can’t go back, none of us can.

“A man who calls me a goddess speaks no more the truth than those who claim I’m not, you are both out of line. You both deign to tell me what I am, ungrateful men, blind men, you do not have the intuition to know of my being, only I can decide–”
-Kai Naima Williams, He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved

This fire rolling through the ocean that is Kai Naima Williams holds me with both hands until the very end. “the black woman is god/the black woman is not god” is a powerful statement about who and what we are and how we, as women, decide that. It is not up to the patriarch, no matter the race, to determine my worth or where I stand in the world.

This chapbook is empowerment personified, it glows from my collection of books, reminding me of the resilience inherent in the female spirit. I hope to read more from Williams and am grateful for the opportunity to experience her words.

“He Tried To Drown The Ocean, I Waved” is available for purchase at Hyacinth Girl Press.

About the Author

Kai Naima Williams is a poet, spoken word performer and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has been featured in Mask Magazine, DROME Magazine, For The Sonorous, The AmerAsia Journal and Literary Manhattan. She has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and the New York Times. She is also a co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit arts organization Eat At The Table Theatre Company.