American Sycamore is an exploration of racial identity and the natural world, rooted in the mythopoetics of wilderness and ancestry as sources of trauma, grief, wonder, and tremendous resource. In pursuit of understanding the nuances of belonging and displacement in a Black mixed-race feminine body, Lisbeth White travels through mythic, biological, and geological landscapes, attending to the body and its beautiful and terrifying questions. Her journey manifests in a poetic helix of recurring bridges, trees, myths, origins, and awakenings. From the bayou, to Belgium, to Barbados, these poems traverse global terrain while interrogating the dark past/present of America. In American Sycamore, the poet examines the Black diaspora, ancestral reparation, and the sacred feminine, inviting the reader into a deep conversation of seeking and recovery.
They think I am Dutch here: another caramel-something picturesque
in this Netherlands city park amidst the weaving bicycles and willows
weeping over the duck pond.
Because eventually diaspora relocates origin? Because mixed ancestry
mixes it up everywhere? I am addressed in Dutch as much as in
English. In French. In Spanish. No one can guess how to speak to me.
If I could speak all the languages, still I would always be most afraid
I would never be able to say how it is the world moves through me. I
learn to copy the voices of others and live within their masks.
The truth is I’m nostalgic for a beingness unmarkable. A bodyscape
un-delineated. A landscape unmapped. Unmappable. Recognized
simply, by tree, by evening light, by direction of wind in grasses.
A landscape intimate with secret monikers, known only by the one
who utters the calling. Precious as it sounds when I cup my palm
before my mouth, when I speak into my hands my own name.
Listen to “Swamp Cypress,” read by Lisbeth White:
Listen to “Origin of Air,” read by Lisbeth White:
Finalist for the 2023 First Horizon Book Award, Shortlist for 2023 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize, and received Honorable Mention for the 2023 Eric Hoffer Grand Prize in Poetry
“Early in her book American Sycamore, made of poems as formally adventurous and probing and searching as the questions she asks, questions that might never be answered—about family, history, empire, violence, love—Lisbeth White writes, almost as a kind of prayer: ’the bones the bones know who i am.’ The bones of course are the literal bones—of who came before us, of who loved us before we were born, of who were brutalized in the uncountable, unsayable ways. The bones are also the poems she has crafted. Which is to say, what music she’s grown from the sorrow.” —Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights
“This book with its forehead to the earth. A book of tears. A book of grief. A book of resource. How Lisbeth White listens for the messages of dirt and bones, reminding me that word is sound, breath, mark—gesture ’to make a sudden temple.’ I follow her into the gorgeous greenness of her questions—’how long can filament grow / in the memory of hands?’ and ’didn’t we live / as a forest…’—and find myself closer to my own life, reaching and reaching toward reunion.” —Aracelis Girmay, author of the black maria
“The poems in American Sycamore are talismans, and we need them for the long journey toward belonging somewhere and somehow. For White, a Black mixed-race poet, the body is a battleground for myth and action, her ’whole body / a cross-referenced wound.’ This is a book of travel and the restlessness of the human spirit to incorporate an inheritance of competing stories. What struck me was the need in this poet to take on the daunting task of healing a legacy of slavery and racism within herself, to find the right apology for all of us. We need to sit up and take notice here. American Sycamore is a fine book.” —Amber Flora Thomas, author of Eye of Water: Poems
“Lisbeth White’s debut poetry collection, American Sycamore, holds an enchanting power with its exploration of Black/multiracial culture, ancestors, and the mythic wild around and within us — its movement from California to the Southwestern desert to Europe. It is a journey toward and from, a letting loose of identity formed without consent, and the grief of lost family, of the past, of the self. Woven throughout are trees, holding stories both personal and collective, the brutal fist of a nation bent on white violence and avoiding its racial reckoning.” —Angela María Spring, Washington Independent Review of Books
“In Lisbeth White’s remarkable debut poetry collection, American Sycamore, the theme of recognition is central. Inside oppressive and violent societal structures that wield race and gender as weapons, White’s collection asks ... what does it mean to see and be seen as a Black person, a multiracial person, as a woman, as a human? The poems enact a deep, elemental longing to be recognized both within and beyond these societal constructs. As the speaker seeks connection, she often finds it at the source: the body, the water, the earth, the trees that are also our bones.” —Tamiko Beyer, The Georgia Review
“American Sycamore is a creation myth. In ’Myth, Seminal,’ the speaker renders her father the subject of this myth by equating him to Icarus. In ’Origin of Fire,’ through the lens of magical realism, White depicts the institution of slavery: ’the hands that touched torches to the chattel house were the same that came for herbs every Sunday…aunts and mothers who fled, or maybe grew wings, shapeshifted into owls…’ White ends the piece with a striking line: ’…black girl, they were more than willing to let me burn.’” —Lakshmi Sunder, “An Appointment with the Goddess: A Review,” Apogee
“Pulling these different themes of mother & child, and refugee & refuge, and element & myth, and multiplicities & the divine, and remembering & memory & grieving. And we’ve got the scholarly framing, origins, song, and sanctuary. There’s so much that’s vitally alive within the thematic threads of American Sycamore” —Raina J. León, “On Reclamation, Mythopoetics & Excavating Our Collective Eco-Memory,”EcoTheo Review