Poetry

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA— A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “...only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister. Words from the books curl around each other make little sense until I read them again and again, the story settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says. Read Faster. Too babyish, the teacher says. Read older. But I don't want to read faster or older or any way else that might make the story disappear too quickly from where it's settling inside my brain, slowly becoming a part of me. A story I will remember long after I've read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City we don’t know to be sad, the weight of our grandparents’ love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses to show off their fast-moving feet, the men clapping and yelling, Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.

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An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light. It's early enough in the year—we're still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I'm ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I've got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, "Look outside, look at the light!" But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun's fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday's light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O'Sullivan's collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It's like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland's story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O'Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound, only the sight of you --the mouthing space the absence of language; only to watch you turn through the shimmering coils of light, the river siding around me, describing to me the dark that would be cast over the body, violent, liquid, salt and calm -- the darkness that would be cast between the moment when I could destroy and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O'Sullivan's blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest's moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon on the oval-line of light, the sun low, its fire like liquid over the ocean where the wading gulls hunt. I toed the foam and smooth sand as a rattle of salt rushed against my skin, the pebbles, the water's joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play...

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Poetry in motion

Once upon a few lifetimes ago, we owned many, many books. Our library spilled from bookshelves to boxes, nightstands to nooks. Then we moved one too many times, finally traveling across a vast ocean, and we let go of our library. We gave away, donated or sold thousands of words, images, tales and dreams. The millions of commas, periods, exclamation points and the letter "e" that used to belong to us now live in other libraries and other homes, hopefully opening windows on the same worlds of wonder as they did for us. But of course, we never really owned any of these words that were spun together to create stories, poems, and plays. We just rented their ink and paper.

I've lost that lust for owning bound pages. I have a fear of collecting more than I have space for and clutter makes me shudder. I'm also insufferably picky about what I spend my time reading; so many of the books I pick up from the library's "Holds" shelf I snap shut after the first twenty pages and return them to fill some other reader's queue.

So, I rarely buy a new book unless it's a favorite author or a classic I know I will reread (Jane and I have a once-yearly date: "Emma" is on tap for 2011) or it's on the bargain table for $6.99. Every so often we cull our bookshelves and take a stack to Ophelia's in Fremont or Third Place Books in Ravenna, trade them in for store credit and replenish with used books from the stacks or bargains on display.  But mostly I just wait for the hot titles to filter their way down from the library wait list.

But bookstores, God help me,  I love them. I'm blessed to live in a city that still celebrates and supports independent bookstores, so I never need set foot in big box chain store to find exactly what I didn't know I was looking for.  And what could be more soulless than browsing the mind-numbing pages of Amazon.com? I need to hold a book in my hands, caress its cover, feel its weight and the cut of its pages, inhale its ink, view the swirl of its font, read the author's bio and skim the first chapters to know if it's worth my time and maybe, just maybe my cash.

I have explored the wonders in Queen Anne Bookstore; Elliott Bay Book Company; World Wide Books and Maps; Secret Garden Bookshop; Fremont Place Books Ravenna Third Place; Edmonds Bookshop; Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island; University Bookstore; Santoro's on Greenwood; Pegasus in West Seattle; Ophelia's...and I have left them all with a piece of my heart and, often, pieces from my wallet.

But mostly I just snoop. I linger in the cookbooks section, flipping through Nigella, Jamie, Marcella, Alice, Claudia, Thomas, Rick, dreaming of the time and money to cook my way through the recipes of the River Café and The French Laundry,  of exploring culinary Provence, Mexico, and Italy from tip to toe. I pore over the "Staff Picks" cards, trying not to make gagging sounds at rapturous praise for The Lacuna or Room. I squeeze past the ubiquitous "The Girl Who Pays for the Lease on Our Building" display; I too think Lisbeth Sanders kicks some brutal ass but I wouldn't pay for the pleasure.  I check to see if there is a travel guide to the Languedoc we don't yet own. I look through the fiction stacks, overwhelmed by all that I have not read, knowing the forty-five or so years left to me on this planet aren't enough to get through them.  I console myself with the knowledge that most wouldn't be worth my while. But there could be that hidden gem, that Shadow of the Wind, that Unbearable Lightness of BeingCrossing to Safety, The Suitable Boy, The Catcher in the Rye, The Secret Garden or Persuasion that turns my world around, that enchants me with the beauty of its language and images, that makes me crave to live inside its words.  So I peruse, I jot down titles, I leave clutching the store's newsletter to update my library request list.

A couple of rainy Saturdays ago I stopped in at the Elliott Bay Book Company -  perhaps the Queen of Seattle's indie bookstore empire - and enjoyed a bowl of Pumpkin Soup in the café. Belly full, I wandered onto the sales floor. I scanned the fiction aisles, but I was uninspired and bored by the titles therein. Nothing spoke to me.  It seemed I'd either read the novels I espied or had no interest in what waited beyond the front cover.

Heading for the door, I knocked against one of the low stacks containing poetry. I was surrounded suddenly by the ghosts and glimmers of Neruda, Rumi, Codrescu, Ryokan and Rilke; of Nietzsche, Frost, Dickinson, Sappho, Eliot, Plath, and Poe; of Ginsberg, Goethe, Whitman, Harrison, Milosz, and Millay. I could go no farther. I pulled out volume after volume, scanned their stanzas, whispered their meters, stumbled into enjambments, crashed into caesuras. I felt like a tourist wandering through a souk in Marrakech; my senses were overwhelmed by colors and visions, and by voices calling to me in a Babel of languages I did not understand.

Then images began to take shape as I let go of the literal, of paragraph, of theme, and of conclusion.  Words coalesced into shapes of beauty, sorrow, anger, sensual passion, of longing, of Ireland, Argentina, Montana, of Death, of war, of every emotion and physical sensation felt by man and some that defy conventional expression.

The velvet cadence of a Shakespeare sonnet, the whimsy of e.e. cummings, the beloved clarity of Frost, the baroque melancholy of Apollinaire, the elation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning- I was intoxicated by so many words strung together in astonishing and devastating ways.

I didn't know where to start or where to stop. I walked to the counter with loaded arms, my face flushed and heart pounding. I felt as if I had discovered a new world and was bursting with my secret- undecided whether to share my news or to keep the treasure to myself.

As my purchases were being rung up, another bookseller looked through my selections. He paused at The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin and patted the volume lovingly. "Ah, the bible." He sighed. "I read a poem every morning; I've memorized seventy-five of her poems so far."  Hard to think of a more beautiful and fulfilling way to begin one's day. Maybe there's an Emily podcast I can listen to while I run...

And my bookcase is full to bursting again.