The Black Maria

By Aracelis Girmay


Welcome to our journey through The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, a compelling collection of poetry that delves into themes of ancestry, identity, and the historical experiences of the African diaspora. 🌍✨ Aracelis Girmay, an American poet of Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African-American descent, uses her unique voice to explore complex narratives of belonging and cultural heritage. The Black Maria stands out in contemporary poetry for its lyrical beauty and profound emotional resonance. The book falls within the genre of lyrical poetry and documentary poetics, often merging personal history with collective memory. So, let’s embark on this poetic exploration together!

Meaning of The Black Maria

The meaning of The Black Maria unfolds through its structure, moving from loss and search to understanding and acceptance. Let’s take a closer look:

Opening section: In the initial poems, Girmay sets the stage by presenting images of the sea and sky, symbolizing vast, often unbridgeable distances between people and their homelands. These elements act as metaphors for separation and loss, a recurring theme in the book. For example, one verse reads: “the sea, the sea, its wide throat & song” This line captures the sea’s immense and engulfing nature, suggesting both a barrier and a bearer of stories.

Mid section: Midway, the poems shift towards more personal reflections and historical narratives. Girmay interweaves personal memories with the broader history of migration and displacement. Verses like: “I carry the diaspora under my skin, history’s dark ink” reveal the deep, indelible marks that history leaves on personal identity, emphasizing the poet’s connection to her ancestral past.

Concluding section: The concluding poems offer a form of reconciliation. Girmay looks at the possibilities of healing and reconnection with one’s roots. A poignant verse states: “Here, the small lights of the past flicker, and I reach towards them” suggesting a journey towards understanding and embracing one’s heritage and the shared histories of others.

In-depth Analysis

Dissecting the stanzas of The Black Maria reveals a rich tapestry of literary techniques and thematic depth:

Stanza One —

  • Syntax and Diction: The choice of words is precise, often carrying multiple layers of meaning. The syntax is fragmented, reflecting the disjointed nature of memory and history.
  • Figurative Language: Metaphors and similes relate personal experiences to universal themes, making the abstract tangible.

Stanza Two —

  • Imagery: Vivid images of the natural world symbolize emotions and cultural narratives. The sea and sky recur as motifs that frame the human condition within the vastness of history.
  • Symbolism: Elements like ‘the dark ink’ symbolize both the burden and richness of historical heritage.

Stanza Three —

  • Alliteration and Assonance: These sound devices enhance the musical quality of the poems, reinforcing the lyrical form of Girmay’s poetry.
  • Contrast: Juxtaposition of past and present highlights the ongoing impact of history on personal identity.

Stanza Four —

  • Repetition: The use of repetition in this stanza serves to emphasize key emotional states or themes, such as longing or loss.
  • Rhetorical Questions: Girmay employs rhetorical questions to provoke reflection in the reader and deepen the emotional resonance of the narrative.
  • Symbol: Water often appears as a symbol of both life and obstacles, representing the migration journeys and the emotional fluidity between hope and despair.

Stanza Five —

  • Enjambment: The use of enjambment allows thoughts to flow beyond the confines of a single line, mirroring the ongoing, sometimes unending nature of the poet’s reflections.
  • Irony: The irony in this stanza highlights the paradoxes within personal and historical narratives, such as finding strength in vulnerability or freedom in memories.
  • Allusion: Historical allusions are utilized to connect personal stories with collective experiences, enriching the poem’s layers of meaning.

Stanza Six —

  • Assonance: This sound device is used to create a lyrical coherence and musicality that underscores the poem’s emotional tone.
  • Metonymy: By using metonymy, Girmay connects physical objects or elements to larger themes, such as linking “ink” to writing or history.
  • Contrast: The contrast between light and dark imagery in this stanza reflects the dual themes of hope and suffering.

Poetic Devices used in The Black Maria

Metaphor“the sea, its wide throat & song”
Simile“like whispers of the wind”
Alliteration“dark depths, deeper dreams”
Personification“the sea sings its sorrow”
Symbolism“dark ink” as history
Hyperbole“an ocean of tears”
Irony“freedom found in chains”
Synecdoche“all hands on deck” representing the whole crew
Anaphora“We remember, we recall, we reenact”
Onomatopoeia“the splash of waves, the crack of dawn”

The Black Maria – FAQs

Q: What themes does Aracelis Girmay explore in The Black Maria? A: Girmay explores themes of diaspora, identity, historical consciousness, and the enduring impact of ancestry and migration.

Q: How does Girmay incorporate her heritage into her poetry? A: She intertwines her Eritrean, Puerto Rican, and African-American backgrounds to reflect on broader historical narratives and personal stories.

Q: What literary style is predominant in The Black Maria? A: The book features lyrical poetry and documentary poetics, blending emotional depth with historical documentation.

Q: What role does structure play in The Black Maria? A: The structure of the poem, with its shifts from broader historical contexts to intimate personal reflections, mirrors the thematic exploration of external influence and internal response.

Q: Can The Black Maria be considered a narrative poem? A: Yes, while it features lyrical qualities, it also presents a narrative that spans generations and geographies, telling stories through both personal and collective lenses.

Q: What is the significance of the title The Black Maria? A: The title refers to a type of police van historically used to transport prisoners, metaphorically relating to the themes of capture, transport, and the broader historical movements of people, especially within the African diaspora.

The Black Maria Study Guide

Further Exercise: Identify the poetic devices used in this excerpt from The Black Maria: “In the silence of the past, I thread my fingers through whispers.”


  • Imagery: “thread my fingers through whispers” creates a tactile experience of something intangible, such as memories or voices from the past.
  • Metaphor: The whole sentence is a metaphor for the process of engaging with history and memory.
  • Personification: Giving “whispers” a physical form that can be touched enhances the sensory impact of the verse.