Swept Away by a Search for Thresholds and Beginnings: A Review of Room Swept Home by Remica Bingham-Risher

Review by Sara Everett

“I want to find my people.”1 This desire is an origin and benediction for Remica Bingham-Risher’s newest poetry collection Room Swept Home. The tenderly borrowed words appear in the first poem, “Lost Friends,” which Bingham-Risher lays at readers’ feet with beautifully understated ceremony. She offers this first poem as a soft, but solid, place to pause before entering the collection’s five distinct sections of poetry. As only one of two epistolary poems and the only poem that stands alone, “Lost Friends” is faintly on the outskirts of the collection but designed to usher readers into the expansive and personal family saga to come. In this way, “Lost Friends” is the collection’s first threshold (thresholds being one of Room Swept Home's most important motifs).

From a bird’s eye view, Room Swept Home is a family saga, a story of the poet’s grandmothers, everyday life, history, joy and light, Black motherhood and mental health, and self-discovery. It highlights and blends three points of view (Minnie’s, Mary’s, and Remica’s) and spans 1859 to the present day. Five sections organize the poems, and each section has its own highly visual, linear, and creative storyline with its poems reading like chapters. Bingham-Risher is not afraid to genre-bend and mix media. Because of this, her oeuvre has the air of a multi-sensory museum experience. Its seventy poems stand alongside artifacts (or are designed after artifacts themselves), photos, lyrics, primary source materials, extensive notes, and a bibliography. In the audiobook, Bingham-Risher reads and sings the lines with musical intent. “Mary perfects the Charleston, recalling it for the next eighty years;” Tweedle Dee, LaVern Baker;” and “Dear Doll” are three poems meant to be experienced aloud. The visual reading experience is best described as undulating. The shapes of the poems sway and ripple. There are prose poems, contrapuntals, epistolaries, ghazals, list poems, sonnets, and a Jericho Brown-style duplex poem. A steady current of recurring themes and imagery, italicized text, and long descriptive titles runs through them all.

Names are the seed from which everything in this collection grows and, with this in mind, “Lost Friends” deserves another moment in the review spotlight. It is hard not to equate the speaker with Bingham-Risher, who writes to a newspaper, hoping that the editor and the paper’s collective readership will know of her family’s whereabouts. The poem brims with the names of the speaker’s people, and she distinctively provides two versions of them. The first names shared read with a mythological air, like kennings or Homeric epithets. They are spiritual, personal, dream-like names and the kind of titles people receive throughout a storied life:

“I am called Still Becoming. My parents’ names are Here, Holding. Uncles names are Sprightly, Long Gone, Whisper and Roadbed; Aunts Hunger, Child-free, Childmany, Want and Wanting.” 2

The second set of names shared are last names, the ones on record. As a poet, historian, and storyteller, Bingham-Risher is constantly balancing two disparate categories of information: the facts, like nicknames, that originate from memory (including dreams and spiritual memory) and the facts, like last names, that are more easily searchable in archives. Names are just the first of many powerful intersections of academic research and memory to be presented in the collection.

“The poet’s job (i.e. the poet as historian, as opposed to other undertakings such as poet as soothsayer, poet as family arbiter, poet as line dancer and the like) is to make the dead become the living.” 3

Remica Bingham-Risher fully embodies the role of “poet as historian,” a mantle claimed and described in the collection’s introductory essay “In the Corridor.” A standalone essay and the only one in the book, “In the Corridor,” draws from Bingham-Risher’s 2017 memories at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which she visited while crafting Room Swept Home. Bingham-Risher’s emotional connection with the Paradox of Liberty exhibit emerges in “ In the Corridor” and, later in the collection, her lasting artistic connection with it comes through in a gentle repetition of brick imagery. The exhibit contains six hundred and twelve bricks, each inscribed with a name. They form a wall behind a statue of Thomas Jefferson and represent every person Jefferson enslaved at Monticello.

Bingham-Risher places the brick motif in the collection because she is a careful historian of her own artistic lineage. She wants to leave breadcrumb trails in Room Swept Home, like an open invitation for readers to detour into the works that inspired her. Digging deeper into the storytelling relationships between her poems and alluded-to works is often powerful and fruitful. For example, the Paradox of Liberty exhibit and Room Swept Home share the same origin point. Like the Smithsonian’s curators, Bingham-Risher carried the tiniest kernel of information—a name—into the archives, then buried herself in research work to grow family stories to fruition. Bingham-Risher’s first seed in the archives was her paternal three times great grandmother’s name, Minnie Lee Folkes. Her life story is consecrated in the first section of poetry. The Smithsonian’s artists and historians began with the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, and the Hubbard brothers4. Their research work became The Paradox of Liberty.

Bingham-Risher sculpts three poems with brick imagery. In these three, she examines a different paradox of liberty in detail. The first poem containing brick images has two bricks, one in its title and one in the body. This 38-word title forms a brick shape:

“RIOTING BREAKS OUT AT NORFOLK, VIRGINIA—Six persons were shot during a clash between whites and blacks in the negro sections of the city tonight. Four of the wounded are negroes, of whom two are expected to die.”

Inside the poem, the brick image marks the paradox of Red Summer in 1919, when white Americans violently persecuted Black veterans returning home from World War I instead of welcoming them as heroes. A brick does not appear again until 1937. Minnie, the speaker in “Night Class, Peabody High School,” explains that her night school’s “brick walls hold secrets / most won’t write down.” The year of this poem is the same year she was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narrative Project. From those records and the secrets her granddaughter (Bingham-Risher’s grandmother) held onto, Minnie will unknowingly have her story written down. In the last poem with direct brick imagery, “X. say your name softly…people will think you are pleading for help,” the speaker is Bingham-Risher. She speaks of bricks that pave “a winding road” of fate and lineage with a possible allusion to the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz—a story full of paradoxes.

To show how thorough and creative Bingham-Risher is with allusive details, there is likely a bit more brick imagery to consider. Bingham-Risher, who clearly revels in different poetic forms, includes five prose poems in Room Swept Home: “Catching Babies,” “Ars Poetic #214,” “Commemorative Headdress For Her Journey Beyond Heaven,” "25 days after I am born,” and “XIV. Nostalgia or regret could kill you in a place like America.” The solid, brick-like shape of these poems and their life and death subject matter puts them all in conversation with the previous three poems mentioned and the Paradox of Liberty.5

“Who could imagine the crisscrossed path, the women who make me
a winding road. Yellow-brick or dirt-slick, who am I not tending?” 6

The life stories of Bingham-Risher’s grandmothers, Minnie Lee Folkes and Mary Etta Knight, are the foundation of this collection. The women belonged to two different eras, but, in a twist of fate while they were both living, their paths crossed in 1941 in Petersburg, Virginia for two months and thirteen days. Minnie was in her eighties and Mary just nineteen years old. Their future poet-granddaughter, Bingham-Risher, learned the details of this convergence while pouring over archival records seventy-five years later. She unfurls their intertwining story in Room Swept Home, first in a heartbreaking and heartwarming what-if scenario in the last poem of Minnie’s section: “Perhaps Minnie Sees Mary and Prays for Her Safekeeping.” Later, in “What Survived,” a poetry section that stands out for themes of imagining, possibilities, and joy, a contrapuntal poem will place Minnie and Mary in conversation with each other. Bingham-Risher reads this one beautifully (in all three possible ways) in the audiobook version of Room Swept Home.

To know Bingham-Risher and her work is to know that questions are an integral part of her writing. At the beginning of Room Swept Home, in Minnie’s section of poetry, questions appear at a roiling boil, most prominently in two poems. The first is "Wanderlust,” a Reconstruction-era poem about longing, comprising thirteen questions and answers (this is about the same number of years Reconstruction spanned). The second is “Questions that Still Need Answering,” a cascading list of fifty unanswered questions. The number of questions in Minnie’s section, plus the steady simmer of questions in the other four sections, is best examined through Bingham Risher's powerful statement in her 2023 essay collection, Soul Culture Black Poets, Books, and Questions that Grew Me Up. Questions are essential to her art-making.

“Writing rarely gives me answers, but it helps me articulate questions I have about the world and my own longing. It’s a safe space, with many rooms, a house Black women have tended for me.” 7

Of note, Room Swept Home’s questions exemplify both a core tenet of Bingham-Risher’s art and something entirely unique to this collection: as stated before, one of Bingham-Risher’s primary sources was her grandmother’s 1937 interview with the WPA Project. Minnie, born in 1859, recorded a very candid conversation with one of the only Black female interviewers working for the WPA. Those asked and answered questions are foundational to Room Swept Home.

“I just know I could if I knowed how to write, and had a little learning
I could put off a book on this here situation.

Bingham-Risher longingly searches for Minnie’s and Mary’s beginnings in Room Swept Home. The very first poem in Minnie’s section, “Birth Story,” immediately reveals birth as a primary vehicle for exploring their beginnings. Birth will sweep through the entire collection, emerging in thirty-eight out of seventy poems—both directly and metaphorically. Bingham-Risher’s poetics around birth imagery is a wonder: she carefully tends three images from birth—water, string, and light—until they form a complex, three-part motif for the whole collection. The three images are usually together but shift into different forms. Water, however, always harkens back to birthing water (amniotic fluid and blood); string, to the umbilical cord; and light, to the sudden brightness a child experiences emerging from the birth canal. In various forms, this trio appears in fourteen poems, mostly prominently in “because the scale of our breathing is planetary, at the very least” and “There is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous.” The motif even faintly emerges in the last poem “Room Swept Home,” suggesting that the very end of the collection is a beginning—a moment of birthing, not an ending. In this final poem, the speaker calls forth images of the Chesapeake Bay (water), sewing (string), and “Godstruck” earth (which ties into earlier images of birth and light in the form of lightning). Bingham-Risher keeps the images of birth grounded in the human body but launches the concepts of birth into the skies and beyond with this motif. She calls us to consider fate, power, nature, God, memory, and motherhood all together.

Maps are a small, powerful lens to use while reading Room Swept Home. Scouring the collection for its map imagery brings over a dozen poems unexpectedly together. The first map appears in “Commemorative Headdress For Her Journey Beyond Heaven,” a poem about the start of a spiritual journey where the speaker’s route is braided into her hair. Bingham-Risher’s inspiration for this poem is creative and intriguing:

“I imagine a woman who is having the route she must travel to escape the plantation braided into her hair. (I haven’t found evidence of this tactic being used in the U.S.; this is just hope and imagining—though I am fascinated by the legacy of Colombia’s Benkos Biho, as braiding maps into the hair of women has been reported as a tactic used to help others escape.)” 9

The braiding and mapping found in “Commemorative Headdress For Her Journey Beyond Heaven” is inherited by the “Lose Your Mother Suite.” The first clue for this is in the first sonnet, which ends with the speaker deciphering a map. The second clue is the eleventh sonnet. It ends with the speaker fearing a map not yet made. Three out of sixteen sonnets include images of braiding, too. Stunningly, the imagery of maps and braiding goes deeper than repeated subjects and images. The sonnets in the “Lose Your Mother Suite” are textually braided together by Bingham-Risher because the section’s poetic form is sonnet redoublé. Bingham-Risher holds the final line of each sonnet, like a strand of hair, and pulls it over to the beginning of the next sonnet. She braids a route of text across sixteen poems. Thematically, the “Lose Your Mother Suite” is Bingham-Risher’s way of recording her own path on a spiritual journey through loss and memory. Interesting wordplay is in Bingham-Risher’s deft hands, too: the other name for sonnet redoublé is a crown of sonnets. Bingham-Risher’s “Lose Your Mother Suite” is also meant to be seen as a braided commemorative headdress.

A traditional crown of sonnets has fifteen total sonnets, but Bingham-Risher adorns her crown with one extra. The sixteenth sonnet “XVI. Saidiya’s Cento” is a grand finale, emerging with the most intricate textual braiding of the whole section. Each line is the title of a previous sonnet, quilted together in a new nonnumerical order. This sixteenth sonnet deeply emphasizes the importance of names and artistic lineage in Room Swept Home. “XVI. Saidiya’s Cento” is named for Saidiya Hartman, and the “Lose Your Mother Suite” is named for Saidiya Hartman’s memoir Lose Your Mother. Bingham-Risher, in this last sonnet, braids together all the conceptual strands of naming that shine in Room Swept Home.

“Their suffering wasn’t everything.” 10

“What Survived,” the final section of poems, brings the collection full circle. It is a bright, triumphant burst of seven poems. Minnie’s and Mary’s voices meet in a beautiful contrapuntal poem. There is music, water, dreams, and abundance in this section—plus a joyful photo. Between the poems “Where did you come from/how did you arrive?” and “There Is Nothing In Your Story That Says You Should Be Here,” a photo of the author poignantly rests. She is four years old and smiling in the picture, looking beyond the camera, toward the future, perhaps. Her finger is lifted slightly, like she knows where to go next. The collection’s titular poem, “Room Swept Home,” comes last, delivering the reader to a perfect end, maybe the very thing the young Bingham-Risher in the photo is about to point to: a threshold.

“Sweep porch steps, no steps, dirt path—pristine;
any small patch of earth we’re given: Godstruck, bare, but so clean.”11

Bingham-Risher has swept us all away to a new place, a home that is a blank slate. When you turn the final pages, there is sweetness. The extensive after materials read like a celebration. The acknowledgments; the detailed notes section for dozens of poems; and the selected bibliography are a complete, bustling gathering of all the people, art, and scholarship that has touched Bingham-Risher on this journey. The final joyful note comes from the intentional and impeccable book design. The richness of the golden-yellow endpapers is no accident. It reflects the golden sky from the cover art, all the gold and yellow hues in the poems themselves, and the dozens of lights that flash in the poems. The endpaper color is bottled lightning, sunlight, “innerlight,"12 and “mother-light”13 that warms us before we leave Room Swept Home.

“How can something so far be so bright?
           I know it seems I’ve dreamed this
                      but my grandmothers are with me as sure as there is light”14




1 from “Lost Friends” page 12
2 from the poem “Lost Friends” in Room Swept Home (page 12)
3 from the introductory essay In the Corridor (page 18)
4 This information came from: www.si.edu/exhibitions/slavery-jeffersons-monticello-paradox-liberty
5 Of final note, and for completeness’s sake, Bingham-Risher has another long poem title that resembles a brick shape. The title is sixty-three words long: “victims killed in 1922 were burned at the stake in a form of torture that most people today associate with the so-called Dark Ages. These horrific acts happened in modern [enter the name of the state where you were born] just a few generations ago. And white people caught the events on film and put the photos in their own family albums”
6 from “X. say your name softly…people will think you are pleading for help”
7 Quote by Remica Bingham-Risher from “Intimate Tending” page 56 of Soul Culture Black Poets, Books, and Questions that Grew Me Up
8 from the Epigraph of Room Swept Home on Page 6.
9 from “In the Corridor” page 16
10 from “I am trying to carve out a world where people are not the sum total of their disaster” (page 173)
11 from “Room Swept Home” (page 175)
12 from “I am trying to carve out a world where people are not the sum total of their disaster” (page 173)
13 from “because the scale of our breathing is planetary, at the very least” (page 134)
14 from “because the scale of our breathing is planetary, at the very least” (page 132)<>