Free Food

Screenshot_2020-09-27 Resources – Edible Brattleboro

Today I’m giving away food.

I volunteer with a local nonprofit, Edible Brattleboro, to plant help-yourself gardens around town and, from July through October, operate a weekly Share the Harvest stand where we give away vegetables donated by farmers at the end of the farmers’ market, harvested from our gardens, and donated by local gardeners. This COVID year, when so many are struggling, we’re also part of the town’s Everyone Eats program that funds restaurants to make meals to give away.

Trying to get by on food stamps back when I was on welfare opened my eyes to the hunger in this prosperous country, now broadened to food insecurity. That first winter I quickly realised that most fresh vegetables were too expensive for my tiny food stamp allotment, so I relied on the cheapest things I could find, like carrots, cabbage and turnips. I also put the tops of the root vegetables in a saucer of water and used the fresh greens that sprouted.

Luckily we were not in a food desert; there was always an expensive spa a few blocks away and a cheaper grocery store within a couple of miles. However, when I didn’t have a car, walking to the grocery could take all morning, and I could only carry what would fit in the stroller basket and my backpack. In summer, there was no way to keep frozen food safe on the walk home.

What saved me was being able to cook.

The summer I was 12, my mother boycotted the kitchen and assigned me the job of cooking dinner for our family of eight. My culinary skills were limited—I could make a sandwich, pour a bowl of cold cereal, heat up a can of soup, and make toast—but she promised to teach me. That didn’t happen. Sometimes she’d answer a question or offer a suggestion, but mostly I relied on her battered Good Housekeeping Cook Book.

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Thus I not only learned the basics of cooking but also the astounding truth that I could learn whatever I needed to know from a book.

So years later, when I realised I couldn’t afford fresh vegetables, I turned to books for the new skills I needed. They taught me how to turn a vacant lot into a vegetable garden and how to can the excess tomatoes it produced. They taught me how to make jam from the wild blueberries I gathered and applesauce from seconds at nearby orchards.

Before I moved away from Maryland, I volunteered with Maryland Hunger Solutions whose motto is “Ending Hunger in Maryland”. They work with state and community partners to help Maryland residents get nutritious foods. As a former food stamp recipient I helped bring a real-life perspective.

One thing that was quickly brought home to me was how lucky I had been to be able to cook meals from scratch. Many people living in poverty either don’t have cooking facilities or never learned to cook. One food bank organiser told me she often couldn’t even give away pasta because people didn’t know how to cook it. Many people rely on expensive and less nutritious packaged foods they can simply heat up.

The founders of Edible Brattleboro—”Grow Food Everywhere for Everyone”—were inspired by a Ted talk by Pam Warhurst, explaining how the tiny village of Todmorden in England turned plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens. We have also been inspired by Ron Finley’s work creating gardens in open land in South Central LA. He says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

We’ve also been following Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm, which defines itself as “a BIPOC*-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. . . *BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, and People of Color”. I am especially drawn to their commitment to the ancestors. “With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.” Penniman’s book is called Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

Back when I was gardening in the vacant lot, I also got involved with a group starting a land trust, a fairly new concept in the 1970s, in the hopes of eventually renting a farm through them.

Over the years I’ve heard of land trusts for conservation purposes, but was excited to learn recently of the BIPOC Land and Food Sovereignty Fund organized by The SUSU Healing Collective, whose purpose is to help BIPOC farmers here in Vermont. There is also the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. Both are worthy of our support.

Let us look for a moment at what we have in common rather than what divides us. We all need food. We all want to feed our families the best food possible and to support good causes. So I’m off to give away free food to anyone who comes by the stand.

Note: While I call this a book blog, it is essentially about stories. This post is full of them: Pam Warburton’s, Ron Finley’s, Leah Penniman’s, my own.

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 1

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Books are my primary focus on this blog, with an occasional foray into magazines and music. Today it’s a website. While pretty familiar with the more well-known writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to delve into the work of other, less familiar poets. The Poetry Foundation website is a great place to start.

The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of creative and cultural life in the early 20th century, loosely dated from 1916-1935. Partly a result of WWI, a huge wave of southern Blacks moved to northern cities to take advantage of job opportunities and a seemingly less oppressive society. Known as the Great Migration, this influx brought together a significant number of Black artists and writers as a group for the first time. Harlem alone saw over 175,00 new Black residents. This new sense of social and creative community was fertile ground where the arts could thrive.

Claude McKay, born in Jamaica and committed to social justice, is the author of “If We Must Die”, an enduring trumpet call for freedom which begins: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”. But it is his poem “America” that moves me to tears and stays with me week after week as we ride the current wave of potential change. It begins:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

His love for this country despite its failures is front and center in this poem. Grateful for its gifts, he comes as a rebel but one without malice. Change is coming, he says. It may take time; it may take a lot of time, but it is inexorable.

Like a number of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Anne Spencer never lived there, but was close to several key figures and worked with them to establish the Lynchburg, Virginia chapter of the NAACP. Her tribute to Paul Dunbar, a forerunner and model for the Harlem Renaissance poets, is brief but wrenching. And her poems such as “Lines to a Nasturtium” are a master class in how to use nature to explore the human heart.

Poet, playwright, and novelist Jean Toomer brings his background to his calls for racial unity. Of both White and Black heritage and having attended both all-White and all-Black schools, his poems combine elements of both cultures. In “Banking Coal” he uses the extended image of banking the coals of a fire with ashes overnight, working it first one way and then another before the shocking but perfect middle:

I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up

He continues to add nuances and layers of meaning without leaving his image, until the stirring end.

Georgia Douglas Johnson lived in Washington, D.C., but her salon became an important meeting place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems more than any others I read evoke the despair that comes from constantly having your dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes put it. Being a woman in a male-dominated society is hard enough, but is magnified exponentially by the intersection with race and class. Here is her poem “The Heart of a Woman”:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

The ambivalence introduced by the last two words—that bars not only confine but also shelter—harkens back to McKay’s difficult love for “this cultured hell”. They, along with my memories of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s), remind me that times of great change may involve destruction but are fueled and formed by love.

Go to the website and explore their work. More next time.

What poets of the Harlem Renaissance have you read?

Passing, by Nella Larsen

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There is much to be unpacked in this brief novel, first published in 1929. As it opens, Irene is reading a letter from Clare, someone she knew as a child, asking to see her. For some reason this letter angers Irene.

It turns out that while visiting her father in Chicago two years earlier, Irene had run into Clare by accident at a Whites-only hotel. Irene had been feeling faint and the kind taxi driver who’d taken her there hadn’t realised that the light-skinned Irene was Black. Needing to rest, Irene was confident she could pass at the hotel restaurant.

Unlike Irene who lives in Harlem and is married to a dark-skinned man, Clare has been living as a White person ever since she’d left Chicago after her father died, when the two lost touch, and is married to a wealthy White man who does not know she is Black. Clare presses Irene to visit her, seeming desperate to reignite the friendship, but the visit doesn’t go well, as Clare’s husband appears and, taking Irene to be White, launches into racial invective.

Now, two years later, Clare has turned up at Irene’s home in Harlem and, when Irene pretended to be out, sent this letter begging to see her, saying that she needs a break from her husband’s racism. Irene agrees but continues to be wary of the beautiful and charismatic Clare, who rapidly inserts herself into Irene’s private and social lives, winning over Irene’s husband and sons, attending parties and dances whether she’s invited or not.

Irene is afraid of what might happen if, seeing her at Harlem events, Clare’s husband were to learn she was Black. Irene is also afraid for her own marriage, as her husband spends more and more time with Clare when Irene is absent. Although unspoken, there seems to be a fear as well for herself. Irene’s awareness of Clare’s sensuous beauty and her own inability to say no to the woman signal a deeper attraction.

The story revolves around this issue of pretending to be someone you are not. We see Clare’s frustration and weariness at the pretense she must maintain and her yearning to explore the Black life she might have lived. We see Irene’s attempts to maintain her façade of perfect wife, mother, hostess and civic volunteer, knowing she must do more than any White woman if she is to live up to these ideals.

I was reminded of Du Bois’ idea of the double consciousness Black people must maintain, always seeing yourself not just as you but also as Whites see you, and modulating your behavior accordingly. A White friend pointed out that we all do this to some extent, for example, behaving differently at work than at home. This particular example was brought home to me some years ago when I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, once at work and once at home for a class. My results were diametrically opposite. As a result, I began consciously bringing the two closer together.

However, these mild experiences don’t begin to compare to the soul-crushing constancy of the watchfulness Black people must maintain in navigating a world designed for and controlled by White people. The stakes are higher; the potential consequences more dangerous: handcuffs, a gunshot, a noose.

There is so much in this seemingly simple story of two women: the questions around identity, the effects of secrets and lies, the tradeoff between freedom and safety, the absurdity of racial categorisation and the appeal of racial belonging. Larsen offers no easy answers, instead leaving room for the reader to ponder these ideas, indeed to be haunted by them for a long time after closing the book.

Have you read a book by a Harlem Renaissance author that provides insight into today’s issues?

Jimmy’s Blues, by James Baldwin

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I’d read fiction and nonfiction by Baldwin but not his poetry, so I welcomed this chance to delve into it. This collection actually includes some of his later poems as well as the ones from the original Jimmy’s Blues.

Some of the poems have the fire that I expected, the anger held in check that powers his stories. In his long poem “Staggerlee wonders”, he doesn’t pull his punches, as in this timely excerpt.

Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
are original?

There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.

Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?

Some are witty and sharp like “Guilt, Desire and Love” where he personifies the three as a nighttime encounter on a street corner that ends up causing “a mighty traffic problem”. Others prompt philosophical musings about time and change and memory, such as these lines from “The Giver”: “The giver is no less adrift / than those who are clamouring for the gift.”

His diction can move from high-brow to street slang and back without missing a beat. Many of the poems use repetition and rhythm to summon energy that drives the poems forward, some so jazz-infused they almost seem like scat singing.

Others speak of love, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pain, but also with tenderness, as in these lines from “Song For The Shepherd Boy”:

Hey. The rags of my life are few.
Abandoned priceless gems are scattered
here and there
I don’t know where—
never expected to have them,
much less need them,
but, now, an ache, like the beginning
of the rain,
makes me wonder where they are.

If I knew, I would go there,
traveling far and far
and find them
to give them to you.

His generous line breaks lend weight to even the simplest words, making us pause and recognise their significance. While almost never using a formal rhyme scheme, Baldwin deploys rhyme to spice up a subtle passage or to playfully undercut a solemn theme.

There’s outrage here, and bitter anger. There’s existential despair and heartbreak. But there’s also a recognition of what keeps a people going, as in this last stanza of “Munich, Winter 1973”:

Just as the birds above our heads
circling
are singing,
knowing
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
Listen.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
whirring,
stirring
love occurring
in the middle of the terrifying air.

Have you read any of Baldwin’s work recently?

My House, by Nikki Giovanni

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This month my poetry discussion group read and discussed the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my first favorite poets. It was a joy for me to reread her work, including this collection from 1975. We all were delighted by her sly sense of humor and her true-to-life portraits of people and places. We appreciated the way she sometimes uses these gifts to open up political and social issues in a down-to-earth way.

Some of the poems we particularly liked take an everyday occurrence, use vivid language to draw us in, and then at the end open up into something larger. An example is “Legacies” where a grandmother calls a girl in from the playground to teach her to make rolls. The girl can’t express her reasons, which have to do with foreseeing the old woman’s death, so she says:

“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Giovanni captures family dynamics with subtle accuracy. In “Mothers” she describes going home to visit her mother and how they “kissed / exchanged pleasantries / and unpleasantries . . .” and the encounter calls up a memory from childhood:

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

We were fascinated by this and talked at some length about consciously seeing your mother, about the moment when a child recognises and acknowledges another as a person, when, as Sartre describes, she realises that what she saw as another object (which he calls “being-in-itself”) in the world is actually a subject (or “being-for-itself”).

The poem goes on to describe her mother sitting in the darkened room.

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by

I couldn’t help but think of Faith Wilding’s amazing poem “Waiting”, first performed in 1973. But Giovanni goes in a different direction. Her mother calls her over and teaches her a little poem about the moon, and Giovanni ends with an intriguing and profound reversal:

i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Giovanni has written many children’s and young adult books, so it’s not surprising that some of her poems speak in a child’s voice, capturing so well a child’s outlook. One in this collection is the short but lovely “Winter Poem”.

Once a snowflake fell
On my brow and I loved
It so much and I kissed
It and it was happy and called its cousins
And brothers and a web
Of snow engulfed me then
I reached to love them all
And I squeezed them and they became
A spring rain and I stood perfectly
Still and was a flower.

I’m reminded of this poem whenever the two-year-old I care for squeezes the cat because he loves her, not remembering that she is fragile and could melt like the snow.

Do you have a favorite poem by Nikki Giovanni?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

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I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?

“The Tower”, by Andrew O’Hagan

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I subscribed to the London Review of Books for the book reviews. I liked that they were longer than the couple of paragraphs usually allotted to a book review, and that they often placed the book in the context of the author’s oeuvre. Sometimes the long-form reviews told too much of the story, but that wasn’t a deterrence if I was truly interested in the book. I also became adept at skipping over those parts.

Over the couple of decades I’ve been reading the LRB, I’ve been a little dismayed at the increasing number of political essays they’ve been including. Sometimes I skip over them, but others have been useful in delivering in-depth portraits and histories of what is going on in the rest of the world, sadly neglected these days in U.S. news sources.

Still, I was surprised to find that an entire issue (Volume 40, Number 11, 7 June 2018) was devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’d heard of the fire, of course. Managed by the local council, London’s Grenfell Tower provided high-rise low-income housing. On 14 June 2017, safety measures intended to isolate fire failed, and a fire in one apartment quickly spread through the 24-story tower. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze, and 72 people died.

Accusations came thick and fast. Most people blamed the council, saying that they only cared about the predominantly wealthy neighborhood and not the poorer people, especially those in the tower. Some residents had been complaining for years about various problems and, as a result, the council had conducted a major renovation, completed the previous year, 2016, that among other things installed new windows and a new composite cladding on the exterior of the building.

In England, local councils provide some of the functions of local government. Elected councilors are responsible for overseeing things like education, libraries, social services, waste collection, and housing; but hire contractors to actually perform the work.

O’Hagan’s piece, researched intensively for a year, tells the story of some of the people who lived there. With six flats on 23 of the floors, you would think people would be strangers to each other, but as resident Alison Moses says, “‘It’s a funny little community . . . Everybody knows everybody, at least by sight.’” It was also a remarkably multicultural community. O’Hagan says, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”

I found the individual stories which make up the bulk of the article fascinating: their backgrounds, their joy and pride in their homes in Grenfell. But what really struck me about this piece was the political fallout.

Activist groups immediately blamed the council, claiming that they had cut costs by having defective cladding installed; they hadn’t responded to tenant complaints, and they did nothing to help tenants during and after the fire. These cries were taken up by the media swarming the site and quickly became the dominant story about the fire. However, when O’Hagan interviewed these activists, they provided pages of accusations, but no actual proof.

When he interviewed council members, he found that they were on the ground immediately and in force, setting up shelters and getting people there. As one council officer said,

We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything.

The problem was that they hadn’t identified themselves as council, their philosophy being to just get the job done and not make a fuss about it. As a result, no one realised who they were. A senior council officer said,

The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”

And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”

Similarly, the issue of the cladding—the culprit in the spread of the fire—was hardly the council’s fault. It is not their job to verify it met safety standards; that had been privatised to a company that “both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing.” The blame lies with the lack of industry regulations, the lack of independent testing, and the contractor’s omission of a fire safety inspection—it turns out the cladding had been tested “on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” Also, this cladding was already in common use, installed on many other low-income housing around the country.

The government, eager to distance themselves from the catastrophe, put the blame on the council as well. They made things worse by promising the public things that they knew the council couldn’t deliver.

I could go on, but the chilling thing for me, in this era of fake news and hollowed-out journalism, is how quickly a false story can become “the truth”, not just among the chanting crowds who ignore right-wing politicians’ lies, but among progressives as well. We need responsible journalism more than ever. And we need to attend to our social reputation, the only thing the council neglected. Your reputation is everything, as my mother used to say.

How can we best manage our reputation in this age of social media and devolved journalism?

The Change Chronicles, by Paula Friedman

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Friedman has written a thought-provoking novel set in and near San Francisco during the tumultuous years 1965-9. Subtitled A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, it is narrated by young Nora Seikh. At 22, she is still uncertain about who she is and what she will do with her life.

Her head is filled with the voices of others—an abusive former lover, another would-be lover, a pair of strict and conservative parents—all telling her who she is and what she should do. As she struggles to navigate the negative voices and figure out these things for herself, she becomes involved with the nascent Antiwar Movement.

Nora takes a job reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb which sends her to local actions. She also gets involved with a couple of activists and through them with the Port Chicago demonstrations and nonviolent vigil, trying to stop the shipment of weapons—including napalm—to Vietnam.

This is also when the Second Wave Women’s Movement was taking shape. Having a female narrator enables us to experience the intersection of the two movements, the way the men in the Antiwar Movement downplayed the women’s contributions and discounted women’s issues as unimportant.

Although I was on the East Coast during those years, I certainly could identify with Nora’s journey and attest to its accuracy. For instance, when Nora distributed leaflets to returning sailors, she found—as I always did—that they wanted the same thing: End the war. Bring them home. Everyone I met who was involved in the Antiwar Movement was intensely on the side of the men sent to fight and die in an unjust war. We were against the politicians, not the men.

Another thing that people who came of age later might not understand is that we had no role models. Especially for women: we were in uncharted territory. We wanted more than the homemaker destinies of our parents. The pill had opened up possibilities of love outside of marriage. But in those pre-internet days, before Women’s History courses, we had no easy access to examples of how to navigate this new world. As my friend Jill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. We all were.”

We learned to talk with women living in poverty or near-poverty, women of color, women who had always worked. We read novels and poems by women. We read biographies of women artists and writers.

In this novel, Nora has turned to philosophy but, dissatisfied by the men she’s been studying, she tries to puzzle out her own.

Having left the uncertainties of the early twenties behind long ago, I was less interested in the first part of the book which was heavy with Nora’s descriptions of her feelings and attempts to work out a philosophy that would give structure to the world and her own identity. My interest perked up in the second half when the balance shifts more to the actions against the war.

The characters are well-drawn and there’s plenty of action, especially in the second part when things get worse and worse for Nora, keeping the tension high. Nora’s emerging understanding of herself and her world continues to be tested right up to the end.

Have you read a story that accurately captured a time you lived through?

Timeout: 1968

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I’ve been thinking a lot about 1968. For one thing, I’m on the campus where I landed that year. Remembering what it felt like: all our dreams, all our resolves. Life was different back then. Rules on top of rules: no going barefoot, 10:15 curfews, sororities and fraternities, in loco parentis.

All that was a long time ago. Hard to believe I could be such a long way from 18.

There were drugs then, sure. My kids, when we had the drug talk said, “Your generation was so naïve about drugs.” and they were right. We never thought about adulteration, at least the people I knew. Or even about addiction. We wanted not oblivion, but the universe. We hoped we’d come to understand infinity. That’s what I hoped, anyway. I don’t know about the others, but I began to take myself apart and see where strength lay and vulnerability and love.

But we also lost so much that year. Martin. Robert. My heart still aches over the possibilities that were gunned down that spring.

This world could have been so different.

And on this campus too. We lost Hiro who might have pushed us further into the light. And me, I lost the place I loved more than anything, the only place where I felt I could be myself. When the call came I walked out into the darkness. I fetched up against a tree before I made it to the highway and learned something new about how to go on.

I know some people, like my parents, thought the country teetered on the edge of destruction in 1968, as our boomer-energy pushed for more than anyone wanted to grant us. I can sympathise now, but back then it seemed so obvious. Peace. Love your neighbor as yourself. Help those around you. Tread gently on our mother earth. Have a care for the future.

It was a rare time, fine as a beeswing.

People say we sold out, but the reality is that we still believe these things. We have kept faith with the vision.

We are still here. And we know how to speak out.

Punishment, by Nancy Miller Gomez

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Gomez’s book, part of the Rattle Chapbook Series, grew out of her experiences teaching poetry in Salina Valley State Prison. These are strong poems, often with a twist at the end that pierces your preconceptions.

I was blown away by the title poem, which describes an incident she must have heard about. She enters into it, using strong verbs to detail the happenings and poignant images to rend the heart.

Some poems seem based on observation, such as “Growing Apples” where inmates are excited about a volunteer: a seedling that sprouted “in a crack of damp concrete”. They transplant it to a paper cup and visit it throughout the day, stunned by this small miracle. There is no need to articulate what this struggling new life means to them, what promise of grace it holds; we can tell. What a beautiful moment to capture!

Other poems draw power from her imaginative entry into the inmates’ lives. In one poem, she describes Lorenzo weaving dream catchers for his fellow inmates out of pillow feathers, paper napkins, dental floss, memories and sounds. The specifics, such as his memory of waking to the sound of his grandmother’s canary, draw us in and help us feel the satisfaction of being absorbed in creative work.

The first of two prose pieces, “How Poetry Saved My Life: Part One”, describes arriving at the prison and the humiliating scrutiny by the guards at the checkpoints. This is perhaps my strongest memory of teaching in a prison myself, and she captures it both vividly and accurately. She goes on to recount poignant moments when men in the safe space afforded by her class are able to drop their prison machismo and show tenderness and concern for each other.

In Part Two, Gomez tells further stories of the changes wrought by poetry in the lives of these men and their appreciation. One man, Manuel, says, “‘I want to share this with my children.’”

Unfortunately, these prose pieces are also the least successful part of the book. It seems to me presumptuous to talk of poetry saving your life because it helped you heal from the shame of participating in reality television, when at the same time you are working with men who know firsthand and experience every day many very real threats to their emotional and physical lives.

Still, given its slender size, this collection is powerful, its images ones I will not soon forget. It is important, too, for the way it helps those who have not been inside a prison recognise the humanity and potential of those behind bars. And Gomez makes a strong case for the uses of poetry, not just for prisoners but for all of us.

What book have you read that smashes stereotypes?