Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Poetry Resource: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The subtitle of this book is telling: “How Poetry Can Teach Us about the Things in Life which Really Matter.” Joe Nutt’s book The Point of Poetry is not necessarily meant to be a textbook, but if it were, it is the textbook we all wish we had back when poetry was being taught–or so often assaulted or inflicted–back in high school or college.

 

Joe Nutt has taught poetry, and I hope he makes a second career teaching teachers how to teach poetry. He is not afraid to poke fun at poets and poetry. He says about William Blake’s “The Tyger,” “To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt.” I wish more of my poetry classes, books, and teachers had expressed that kind of self awareness.

 

Poetry should always be taken seriously–seriously enough that we should be able to laugh at it and with it. Nutt does just that. He can laugh at the thought of “tyger” being spelled with a “y,” and in the same chapter express the wonder captured by the author of the poem. Nutt may not share Blake’s faith or mysticism, but he does share Blake’s awe of the power of the large striped cat and his wonder at the forces–natural or divine–that brought both that creature and its prey into being. No matter how one spells the beastie’s name.

 

Ultimately it is that power behind the poems that Nutt loves, and he shares his love for this power in chapter after chapter of analysis of famous and not-so-famous poems. Nutt never takes himself too seriously. He never takes poets too seriously either. If “the Bard” cannot survive a few well-aimed barbs, he is not who we think he is. But Nutt takes poetry very seriously. The power of the words is in the power of the ideas they express: love, eternity, faith, endurance, the very ordinariness of life. When a poem succeeds in taking these grand themes of life and compressing them into a few words that encapsulate those ideas, it is a magical and sensual thing worth celebrating and sharing.

 

The book does what it seeks to do very well. It is fair to point out what it does not do. It is not intended to introduce a lot of modern or new poets. Most (not all) of the writers are fairly described as dead white English guys. There are a few dead white English gals as well. Rita Dove is a notable exception, and there are others, but it is predominately English poets, and a lot of the familiar names from the canon. No book can do everything, but I would love to see a follow-up book that addresses newer poetry from poets who are more representative of other races and cultures. If you are looking for a  book that addresses the subject of poetry and provides insight into the poems featured, though, this book does that extraordinarily well.

 

April in America is National Poetry Month, and I cannot think of a better way to introduce that month than with this book. If you don’t “get” the point of poetry, read this book. If you do get the point of poetry, you will also thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The format of the book lends itself to taking it a chapter at a time. If you wanted to skip around to see what he says about a favorite (or least favorite) poem, this is a good book for that. Reading the entire book will likely introduce you to poems and poets you’ve never known before, but even if they are all familiar Nutt’s insights will help you read them with fresh eyes. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry–and to anyone who hates poetry! Read a couple of chapters at random, and I dare anyone who has not seen the beauty of poetry before to tell me they still hate it. I am sure some still would, but anyone with a brain and a heart will see the power and beauty and humor that Nutt finds in The Point of Poetry.

Joe Nutt, Author
Joe Nutt, Author

I do want to thank Joe Nutt, his publisher, and Anne Cater for an advanced copy of The Point of Poetry. I am privileged to be part of the blog tour for the launch of the book, and the only request I was given for receiving the ARC was an honest review. Since I honestly loved the book, this was a treat and a pleasure for me.

2019 Blog Tour Poetry Poster
Check out our fellow bloggers on this tour.

 

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Poetry Collection: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

 

Whereas some words typically only appear in official government proclamations.

Whereas the US Government issued an official apology to the Native American peoples.

Whereas this happened quietly in 2010, without fanfare or participation by any tribal leaders.

Whereas this apology carries no weight of law or expectation for corrective action, and

Whereas Layli Long Soldier is a poet from the Oglala Lakota Nation,

Whereas she is exquisitely positioned and capable to reflect on language and its effects,

Whereas is an extraordinary work by a gifted artist.

 

Finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, Whereas is the debut collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier. The poems cover a range of themes: motherhood, language and meaning, relationships, nature, and especially Native Americans’ relationship to the United States. Those seemingly disparate themes have more connective tissue than is immediately apparent. Just as European descendants forced out the original inhabitants through means that included genocide, their language, English, forced its way into the lives of the survivors, killing native languages and corrupting meanings. For example, “apology” is a word with no direct translation into most tribal languages. Expressions of regret without making something right or undoing a wrong are simply not part of many cultures. Long Soldier compares it to the removal of a tooth–a procedure necessitated in the narrator’s life (presumably the author) by the failure of the US government to uphold funding for tribal health services. Regardless of how much one may regret the loss, the tooth will never be restored.

 

Long Soldier includes elements of American history that don’t always appear in historical biopics or even traditional history classes. Her poem “38” remembers the 38 Dakota men executed by order of Abraham Lincoln for the Sioux uprising. This was the largest “legal” execution in US history. Their execution came during the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their execution was on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1862.

 

Starvation motivated the Sioux uprising. After confiscating Sioux land in what is now called Minnesota, the government assigned them a miniscule stretch of land to support their population. They were not allowed to hunt this land, or beyond, and they were not given any other financial means for support. Rather than starve, the they fought. They lost. Another 1000 Sioux were jailed, and their remaining strip of land taken. The survivors were exiled to reservations in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska. One of the white men killed by the Sioux during the uprising had mocked the starving people by suggesting they eat grass. His body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass, an act Long Soldier describes as a poem.

 

Long Soldier dances with words. She questions the definition of “opaque,” suggesting that the word itself should mean the opposite of what it actually means. She physically divides her poems, one comprising a single line with the words rearranged as you follow the outline of a square. Others are divided by straight lines, or are two poems interwoven so reading the left column gives one poem, reading the right column gives a second, and reading the lines sequentially adds another layer. Some poems are taken from other passages that have words ellided. Others have words divided between lines, one letter followed by part of the word, concluding on a third line by the remainder of the word. The visual supports and upholds the lyrical, adding a different dimension to the art of the word.

 

Whereas is not a book for the faint of heart. It challenges and confronts, using history and heritage to forcefully speak out. Wrongs cannot be undone, but they deserve to be acknowledged and understood. Layli Long Soldier speaks for those who no longer can, and she does so with passion, eloquence, beauty, and fire.

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

 

 

Book Review: Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Short Story Collection: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

I’m not sure I have ever used the word “luscious” to describe a book before. I probably would not use it often. I will use it here. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is luscious. Beautifully illustrated, rich, poetic and surreal, it is a visual and lyrical journey into a series of imaginary realms exploring imagined relationships between humans and animals, relationships that don’t actually exist. Some of them we can be grateful are entirely imaginary. Others, it might be nice if they were real. Either way, the paintings Tan pairs with each story or poem are gorgeous and give a visual dimension to the words that makes them even more vivid.

 

It will be impossible in this review to do justice to the Tales from the Inner City. It is worth buying just for the pictures. Tan is known for his graphic novels and children’s books, and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. Clearly he is comfortable with visual communication, but don’t think for a moment that the visuals detract from the words. If this were just a collection of short stories and poems it would be worth getting. The fact that Tales from the Inner City has both gorgeous and (again) luscious paintings illustrating creative, poetic, and surreal stories is almost unfair to other books.

 

Tales from the Inner City starts with a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper. On the eighty-seventh floor. Most people do not know they are there, and the crocodiles themselves do not seem to know (or care) that they are in a skyscraper as opposed to a more traditional crocodilian location. Many of the stories follow this kind of strange, absurd premise. One of my favorite stories is of a family that goes fishing in the sky…and catches a moon fish. The painting illustrating this story is also on the dust jacket of the hardcover, a silhouette of a man holding a large silvery, glistening, light-filled fish with orange fins. Horses, unseen by adults but obvious to children, gallop across the skyline of a city. Pigeons live and raise their young in nests built in a flying bank. Owls wait with patients in hospital, assuring them of their constant care. These stories, some whimsical, some poignant, some eerie, some all of those together, tell of a world with magic and wilder than we usually imagine.

 

Most of the stories have just one painting illustrating them. An exception is his metaphor of wolves becoming dogs. More of a poem than a story, Tan writes,

One day I threw my stick at you.

You brought it back.

My hand touched your ear.

Your nose touched the back of my knee.

Then we were walking side by side

as if it had always been this way.

The poem follows the two, human and wolf/dog, together until they are separated by death. Death, though, is imagined as a road or path or river to cross…and the wolf/dog waits on the other side for their human to join them so they can walk together into the next adventure. Illustrating this is a series of paintings of different people and different dogs/wolves separated by different paths. The poses are the same, but everything else is different from one painting to the next. Then, finally, paintings reflect the reunion of the two as they walk together away from that place of separation. I know a lot of dog-lovers who would cry at this story.

 

Tales from the Inner City is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. Some will love the pictures, some will love the stories, but most will love the way the words give depth to the pictures and the way the pictures give life to the words. Shaun Tan has created something absolutely luscious.

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.

 

Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

 

Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?

 

Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.

 

An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!

 

(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)

 

This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Poetry: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

If you are on Twitter and not following Lin-Manuel Miranda, you are missing out. He regularly tweets short poems/phrases/words of encouragement to start the day (Gmorning) and then follows them up by echoing the sentiments later in the day (Gnight). He has collected many of those tweets into a book, GMorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, and frankly, you should buy a copy for yourself, your loved ones, your neighbors, random strangers you meet in the park, and anyone who has to keep working at this thing we call “life.”

 

Miranda is probably still best known for his musical Hamilton, but he is also starring in Mary Poppins Returns, wrote music and lyrics (and sang) for Disney’s Moana, and wrote and starred in the Tony winning musical In the Heights. He has won multiple Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, Grammys, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Oscar, among the many other prizes he has been nominated for or won. He also received a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This work probably will not get him his second Pulitzer, but it is pithy, heartfelt, and poignant.

 

Miranda encourages. His introduction (in rhyming couplets!) tells us:

Most often the greetings I wish you

Are the greetings I wish for myself.

 

So if I write “relax,” then I’m nervous,

Or if I write, “cheer up,” then I’m blue.

I’m writing what I wish somebody would say,

Then switching the pronoun to you.

 

This book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the human condition. It is meant to connect. And this is a good thing. We cannot always understand. We don’t always need to understand. Sometimes what we need to do is remember that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by people who have the same needs and feelings and desires and dreams and fears and disappointments that we do. Sometimes we just need to know that we are loved, that we are wanted, and that the world is survivable together. That’s why I say buy this book for everyone you love–even for everyone you just know. We all need this, and although Miranda wrote the words and Sun drew the pictures, if the book comes from you then the connection comes from you and that may be exactly what someone needs!

 

Good morning, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The sun is up, the day is new.

You’re just getting started.

 

Good night, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The stars are out, the night is warm.

You’re just getting started.

 

Jonny Sun’s illustrations are simple but profound. The basic line drawings put the words into images, sometimes whimsical, sometimes moving. In a powerful combination of word and drawing (written the day of the late Anthony Bourdain’s suicide), Miranda writes in all caps: “YOU ARE LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.” Those words are rendered into a picture of multiple hands holding onto ropes, with the knots in the ropes forming the words.

 

It’s not Hamilton. But Hamilton is not for everyone. Gmorning, Gnight is a book for everyone (though parents be warned that sometimes Manuel has a “potty mouth”). Seriously, buy one for yourself. You could use the encouragement!

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Poetry: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

A few years ago I found a courage I did not know I had. I began questioning things I had always assumed were true. I began exploring my assumptions, opening my mind to new approaches and no longer accepting things at face value. It was frightening, even terrifying, and I came out the other side of it a very different person in some ways.

 

In other ways, though, I remained unchanged. I decided that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. More committed to my wife, more in love with my children, and more true to myself, I found that asking the questions gave me greater confidence in the answers. I did not find all of the answers. Some I never will. But I found that I respected the person asking the questions much more than the person who refused to face the possibility that he had been wrong.

 

Poetry asks these brutal, core, fundamental questions in ways that other literature seldom does. That is not to say it never does: a great novel or even a short story can also ask questions. But usually stories try to give answers. Poetry asks questions. Who or what is God? Is there a God/god? What is death? What comes next? Sometimes poems will suggest answers. More often, though, they allow the reader to experience the quest of the questions. Come with me. Look with me. Ask with me. Be exposed with me. Let’s dare to examine what matters together.

 

There are not many who ask these questions more beautifully than Tracy K. Smith. Her collection of poems Life on Mars asks many of these questions. Some of the poems were written after the death of her father–one is specifically dedicated to him. They ask cosmic questions. Sometimes the topics are literally about the cosmos: dark matter, space, life on other planets. Sometimes the topics are inspired by a curiosity for both science and song–David Bowie makes an appearance in the poems. Sometimes they are about more spiritual matters: God, the afterlife, the spirit. Often, these disparate topics are woven together beautifully and skillfully, bringing both smiles and tears, gasps of recognition and gasps of shock.

 

Smith compares the connections between people to dark matter: invisible, immeasurable, yet a force that cannot be denied. No one really understands either. They are observable only in the sense that we see their effects. She compares God to the weather in space–is God the force we experience or the power behind that force? Smith concludes that poem with “we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–/Faces radiant with panic.” That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Somehow, I think that Smith and Dillard are traveling along similar paths, asking questions of the divine that we should all be asking–questions that we should all be afraid both of asking and of having answered.

 

Smith’s poem dedicated to her father is wrenching in its poignancy. Wrenching in a very different way, another painful poem is written as a series of letters from murder victims to their murderers. She also writes in reference to Abu Ghraib. Smith is willing to look deeply at the pain that we carry as individuals, as a culture, as a people, and cut into that pain in hopes of excising some of the rotting flesh that causes it. Whether that pain is simply the pain of loss of a loved one, the pain of a culture that accepts murder as a series of acceptable losses, or a culture that excuses torture when it’s done by “us,” Smith writes about it unflinchingly. Although loss will always be part of the human condition, I can only hope she has fewer opportunities to write about the darker aspects of America in the future. Sadly, I don’t think she will.

 

Life on Mars is beautiful, moving, and compelling. A master work that won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, Smith has captured the pulse of what makes us human, and captured the longing we have for something greater.

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

Poetry: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

“You think you’ve grown up in various ways

and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside

reaming out your nose”

 

I do not know whether any other US Poet Laureate has ever written a poem about being caught in an elevator with a booger on his finger. One may actually be enough, especially when the poem is as good as “Shame: An Aria,” the poet is as good as Robert Hass, and the collection is as good as Sun Under Wood.

 

Sun Under Wood is a deeply personal and intimate look into the poet’s life. Many of the poems examine what we must assume to be aspects of the writer’s own family and life. Several refer to his alcoholic mother, hospitalized against her will in hopes that treatment could help her overcome her addiction. Later poems seem to indicate that the treatment was never fully successful. Another poem refers to his brother in rehab for a drug addiction. Family secrets are bared, both boldly and timidly. His parents’ marriage in autumn, just before his brother’s birth in the same winter, discovered by the poet getting a copy of their marriage certificate and realizing his parents had lied about the year they were married. His own divorce and the pain of separation. Finding new love. Each of these personal journeys and tragedies finds their way into his poetry.

 

Reading Robert Hass is like getting to know a new friend. His poems open doors into his own thoughts and fears and discoveries and heartaches and joys. We walk together on the beach or in the mountains or sit in a hospital and he quietly shares his life. Sometimes we cry, seeing his mother taken away. Sometimes we shudder, hearing his lover (wife? ex-wife?) threaten to stab him if he leaves her for a younger woman. Sometimes we laugh, while he wipes the snot from his finger in his pocket, using the pocket lint to hide his embarrassing unhygienic faux pas. Sometimes we blush, listening to him tell of nights with his new love.

 

Through his words we see a life unveiled, no longer wrapped in the shrouds of dignity and mystery which we normally wear to cloak ourselves. He stands before us, naked and unashamed, and invites us to spend time looking through his eyes and listening through his ears and walking in his steps. And when we accept that invitation, we realize that our shared humanity allows us to share burdens and joys alike. Most of us, though, are not that brave.

 

Sun Under Wood was published in 1996, while Hass was Poet Laureate. It is his fourth collection of poems. Twenty years may have passed, but these poems remain fresh and dynamic and do not seem to have aged a day. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Praise, Robert Hass

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Poetry: PraiseRobert Hass

If you’ll join me in the “wayback” machine, we can travel way back to 1979. Bell bottoms and wide collars. Disco was not yet dead, but was clearly dying. The UN declared it to be the International Year of the Child. Phnom Penh fell and the Pol Pot regime was deposed. So was the Shah of Iran and the President of Nicaragua. The Camp David Accords were signed, and the Iran hostage crisis began. And Robert Hass published a short book of poetry: Praise.

 

I will freely admit my ignorance when it comes to poetry. Robert Hass is hardly an unknown. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-1997. He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He remains one of the preeminent voices in American literature, yet I was completely unfamiliar with him until hearing him speak with current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, in September, 2018.

 

I was absolutely entranced. I went because of Dr. Smith. She was amazing. Her stories, her poetry, her passion…she was everything I had hoped for. I am so glad I got to hear her speak, and I hope I will get to hear her again someday. But on the stage with her was Robert Hass. Tall, white-haired, a smile constantly playing on his lips, his eyes kind. And his poetry. I knew nothing about him, had never read a thing of his, and I was blown away. He was completely unexpected (admittedly because of my own shortcomings). I determined that I needed to read more from both of these wonderful voices. I am glad I did.

 

Praise is earthy and ethereal. Hass sees the real world, warts and snot and sex and dirt and all. He weaves that real world into his poems. He plays with his words, wanting to show the world as it is. Lusty and sweaty and passionate and somehow very California and entirely universal in a magical way that is hard to explain unless you’ve lived both in California and not in California. Then, in the next breath, the next stanza, the next word, he is quoting obscure literary characters or referencing books you know you should have read or dropping in words and phrases from other languages that make me just nod and say, “Obviously,” when I have no idea what he just did to me. Earthy and ethereal. Profane and divine. Hass dances back and forth with grace and delight and brings us along to enjoy the music which he allows us to hear.

 

In 1979, I thought poetry was stuffy and had to rhyme. I later came to love and appreciate Frost and Wordsworth and Dickinson and Donne and many others, but I did not know about Hass back then. Nor did I encounter him in my later academic years. I wonder whether my view of poetry might have been different had I read him 40 years ago. Who can say–maybe I was not ready for poetry to be something that didn’t rhyme and had no predictable metre and was about life and sex and being. I am certainly glad to have it now.

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

1555978134

Poetry: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her 2018 collection of poems Wade in the Water  is her first collection since earning that distinction. The title poem of Wade in the Water tells a story:

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her

……………………….

I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in.

 

This may be a reference to the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which repeats the chorus,

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.

 

Like the spiritual, the poems of Wade in the Water speak to the longing and pain of a people familiar with oppression. Smith’s mother was a devoutly Christian woman, very religious in her practice. Smith’s father worked on Hubble space telescope. With one foot in the sciences, one foot in faith, and firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Smith’s poems expose a world of hurt and longing, a world of hope tempered by experience with regret. The woman who greeted her with “I love you” appeared to mean it. The speaker believed it. Yet it goes on to say that this greeting’s result was “a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest…she continued/Down the hall past other strangers,/Each feeling pierced suddenly/By pillars of heavy light.” Love, real love, unconditional, freely given love, warmly and openly gifted, yet opening a wound in the recipient who knows that the vulnerability love requires exposes a lifetime of hurt.

 

Wade in the Water is separated into four sections. The first set (which include the titular poem) have a strong spiritual and cosmological bent to them. Poems titled “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Realm of Shades” hint at the deeper perspective. These poems talk about God, about “the holy,” about angels, not in a sense necessarily recognized (or likely approved) by any specific denomination, but more about the acknowledgment of a world beyond the visible. These are not church-lady poems, intended to celebrate faith or reinforce commitment. These poems acknowledge ugliness in this world and see God more as a curious but ultimately disinterested observer of the earth and the human condition, mildly appalled and disgusted sometimes but not involved or willing to participate in the squalor he sees.

 

The second set are historically based “erasure poems.” These poems take historical American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and several letters from black Civil War soldiers and veterans, and “erase” parts of them to put them into poetic form. In some ways, these poems seemed to be the most personal. Highlighting phrases from Jefferson’s declaration gives them new visibility and power, and in this context reminds us that although those words speak eloquently to the plight of all oppressed peoples, they were written by a man who owned slaves and sold his own children borne by the slave he repeatedly raped.

 

The third set is more contemporary and overtly political, giving voice to ongoing pain experienced by people today. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” opens with the powerful lines, “Our bodies run with ink dark blood./ Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” “Watershed” looks like it may be a hybrid poem including erasures from DuPont Chemical memos and legal briefs, telling the effects of corporate indifference to the poisoning of people and animals by their products. I suspect the lawyers and corporate officials who wrote those messages did not realize how poetic or how prophetic their words would become.

 

The final set seems more personal, including a beautiful tribute called “4 ½” to a child who reminds me of many other 4 ½ year olds I’ve met. Delightful, exasperating, whimsical and serious, this child clearly brings delight and mirth simply by being. These poems do not avoid broader themes, but they bring those themes home to the experience of the individual.

 

Smith’s poems are beautiful. They reflect a world that is not always beautiful, that is often ugly and cruel and capricious and evil. The reflect a failure of institutions, of governments, of corporations, and of the supernatural to protect the defenseless. Indeed, far too often they oppress the very people they claim to serve. But in revealing these scars on our history and on our society, Smith gives voice and meaning to those who’ve endured them. Her topics may not be beautiful, but her poetry is. Wade in the Water troubles the waters, revealing depths in both the subject matter and the poet.

1555978134

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Border Crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

B07B2FJGYK

Poetry Collection: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Border crossings are fraught with tension. Some, like India and Pakistan, or the Koreas, have standing armies. One stray move could start a war. Others are peaceful, but full of reminders that you are going from one country to another. Signs in multiple languages, customs inspectors checking your bags, sounds and smells of the exotic (to you) new stuff waiting once you get there. But the crossing itself has its own heartbeat, its own rhythm, its own combination of appeal and trepidation.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski was raised in central, largely rural, Pennsylvania (Hublersburg, near Bellefonte). He now lives in Manhattan. His parents were Chinese and Polish Americans. His life has been filled with crossing borders: between rural and urban, between brown Americans and white Americans. And his poetry speaks beautifully to that tension between nations that expresses itself on the border, whether those nations are visible on a map or whether they are resident in the heart.

 

Rutkowski toys with language, playing with it, using metaphors and molding words masterfully. He has a fun, though sometimes dark, sense of humor. He invites the reader to play with him. Imagine skipping work and running amok through a restaurant, playing the bongos, and drawing a crowd together. Imagine going to the beach before a hurricane and riding the undertow. Look, as we paddle our canoe, it’s a pig…No, it’s a bear! He takes us on a trip to Hong Kong, choosing a bus, contemplating eating fried scorpions, surprising a vendor with his English. “‘English! I wondered what language,’ / and I wonder, what language was he guessing? / Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French?” And suddenly, like that, we remember that he, the poet, is always crossing borders, with a face that is both Chinese and Polish and is neither one fully, an accent that is American, and a heritage that brings countries together into one person and yet still seems to feel a bit separated from them all.

 

Border Crossings is a delight. You always cross a border at your own risk, but this is a risk worth taking. Travel broadens you, and traveling with these poems is carrying a passport to a wide new world–or perhaps a passport to see home in a fresh way.

B07B2FJGYK

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski