My House, by Nikki Giovanni

My house

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?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2

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Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

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Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

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What a treat to reread Clifton’s poems, not to mention finding some new to me! I was thrilled when she was nominated as our poet of the month in my poetry discussion group. I’ve loved her work and been profoundly influenced by it since I first encountered it in the early 1970s.

What makes her work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion.

Many of her poems are sheer delight, simply celebrating being alive. These sing with jazz rhythms and the melodies of speech. Good examples are the well-known “homage to my hips” and the lesser-known “homage to my hair” that starts:

when i feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!

Another aspect of her work that astonishes me is how she holds her rage in check. It is there, in the poems about injustice and racism. But she finds ways to present it that enable us, even those of us with privilege, to participate in. There is, to me at least, always love in her poems as well, even the darkest ones.

Her sense of injustice may lurk under humor, as in this untitled poem that starts her first collection that begins:

in the inner city
or
like we call
it home

Another technique she uses is repetition. The lines quoted above are repeated at the end of that short poem, but by then we have a different slant on them. Or several different slants: as we discussed the poems, we found different meanings in them, sometimes because of the diverse life experiences we brought to them and often because Clifton’s lines are simply open to multiple interpretations.

She sometimes uses questions to enhance that openness and to invite the reader to participate in the poem. Sometime the questions even feel like a call-and-response, creating an unexpected resonance. For instance, each of the three stanzas in “the photograph: a lynching” is a question. Details, such as the woman who smiles and fingers a cross as she watches, arouse rage and a burning desire for justice but Clifton ends by asking:

is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album/ will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

Note the ambiguity in these lines as well. In our group we discussed various interpretations of “us” and “we” and “a gathering sky”. And if the latter portends a storm, what might that be? Also, the lynching itself is never described, only the audience’s reaction before the final question.

Her persona poems sometimes function as a container for rage or other complicated emotions. Another famous poem “jasper texas 1998” speaks from the point of view of a man’s head. Again, she does not describe the tragedy, leaving us the title and the dedication “for j. byrd” as sufficient clues. But speaking as the head in a voice that is measured and resigned gives us the opportunity to summon our own grief and outrage.

Many of the poems here are full of love and sometimes a wry understanding, especially those about her parents, husband, and children. This is also true of some addressed to all of us, such as her famous “blessing the boats” and this section from “the message from The Ones”:

the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes

they have learned to love you
and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings

Finally I am astounded by her prolific output. Parenting six children is no joke, even without the financial struggles. I know, too, from colleagues how generous Clifton always was with other poets, especially those just starting out.

As one person in my poetry discussion group said, holding this hefty volume—it is 720 pages—is like holding a life. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

What is your favorite Lucille Clifton poem?