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.
i would not reject
though its source
is not choice
the sweet soft essence
never quite maturing
(From "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day")
a poem is pure energy
between the mind
of the poet and the era of the reader
i always liked house cleaning
even as a child
i dug straightening
posting new paper on
washing the refrigerator
and unfortunately this habit
has carried over and i find
i must remove you
from my life