Thursday, March 8, 2012

Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, by Nikki Giovanni

I feel unqualified to comment on poetry--perhaps because I can still remember the moment in tenth-grade English when Mrs. Stotmeister opened the poetry unit by saying, "You either love poetry or you're an idiot. Miss Richards, do you love poetry, or are you an idiot?" I was smart enough to realize lying about my love of poetry would be a mistake, but proud enough to be unwilling to say I was an idiot. . . I think I stuttered out an "I don't know."

At any rate, though unqualified, I have just finished a collection from the first 25 years of Nikki Giovanni's work as a poet (1968-1993 or thereabouts). The earliest of the poems reflect the anger and pain of the time in which they were written (titles include "The Detroit Conference of Unity and Art," "Black Separatism," and "The Great Pax Whitie"). Giovanni also published a moving poem about Angela Davis as a broadside. But the ripped post-it notes marking poems that I liked don't really start littering the book until we reach the work from her fourth collection, My House, where the poems become more accessible (at least for an older white woman with pitiful poetry-reading skills). Giovanni is still political (a wonderful poem entitled "We" says "we were seeing the revolution screeeeeeeeeeeing/to a halt/trying to find a clever way/to be empty), but she also writes about love, home, and gender relations. I was especially moved by a poem "The Life I Led," in which she reflects on flabby upper arms, varicose veins, menopause, and sagging breasts but concludes: "i hope i die/warmed/by the life that i tried/to live". In another poem, titled "Crutches," she talks about the many crutches that people use to hide their fears and weaknesses, again ending the poem with a wonderful stanza: "emotional falls always are/the wrost/and there are no crutches/to swing back on". While she focuses particularly on the lives and relationships of black women, her words resonate beyond racial boundaries.

In the works from a collection that she published in 1983, Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Giovanni adopts a style that I do not even have the vocabulary to describe. Here are a few lines from a poem entitled "Lorraine Hansbery: An Emotional View," just to give you a sense of the work she was doing in the early 80s:

It's intriguing to me that "bookmaker" is a gambling . . . an
underworld . . . term somehow associated with that which is
both illegal . . . and dirty . . . Bookmakers . . .who . . . and those who
play with them . . . are dreams . . . are betting on a break . . .

These are not my favorite poems, but it is interesting to consider why a poet who has been practicing her art with great success for more than a decade would choose to work with a new form.

I'm not sure there can be a poetry collection in which you would love every poem (unless you selected the poems yourself), but The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni rewards the reader with many provocative ideas and lovely images.

Favorite passages:

i would not reject
my strength
though its source
is not choice
but responsibility
(From "Boxes")

the sweet soft essence
of possibility
never quite maturing
(From "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day")

a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the era of the reader
(From "Poetry")

i always liked house cleaning
even as a child
i dug straightening
the cabinets
posting new paper on
the shelves
washing the refrigerator
inside out
and unfortunately this habit
has carried over and i find
i must remove you
from my life


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