Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era
(Duke University Press, 2012)
The civil rights movement was a uniquely momentous undertaking—as tragic as it was noble. The poems in this extensive survey echo timeless concerns. It’s all about justice, dignity, and the beauty of expression.
Organized into 14 cogent sections with insightful introductions, the work represents a wide-angle view. It captures history as editor Jeffrey Lamar Coleman set out to.
Many poems are direct responses to events such as the deaths of Emmett Till, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Others, like Barbara Guest’s 1964 elegy, are effusive. In imagining an epitaph for a fallen hero she writes, “the inscription / must / include / our names / Who lived in this time.” We’re bonded to those who share our convictions.
Coleman has put together a delightfully diverse who’s who of mid-century literary lights. Galway Kinnell’s penchant for the trenchant, Gwendolyn Brooks’s slender pendulums, Allen Ginsberg’s site-specific rant howls—many greats are already firm in their form early on.
Many of the poems were written to be read at meetings. In the spirit of reaching the masses, Dudley Randall started Broadside Press in 1965. Broadsides by Huey P. Newton and Etheridge Knight’s “Portrait of Malcolm X (for Charles Baxter)” circulated in a new, underground way, as handouts and posters.
A half-century on, these poems are still grail. Coleman chose well in orchestrating this indispensable read.
A Map Predetermined and Chance
(Fence Books, 2011)
“The title is a reference to the dual or multiple qualities of her work: complex, expressive, playful, funny, somber, obscure, and always sensuous.” Confession. This is part of a press release I wanted to steal outright.
But it’s true—A Map Predetermined and Chance fits the bill to a T. And as Laura Wetherington writes, “Memory becomes a tribute to stealing.” Let me add to her qualities—humble, folksy, romantic, tough, inventive, and not over-programmed. She takes chances.
Vaginas are summoned. Hymens too. Orgasms and “sound waves are reverberating in the chambers of our skin.” So is World War II in part three. (Taken from transcripts and rich in ghosts, this project could be separate.)
In the compelling title poem, Wetherington states the challenge and makes it a method. “We cannot get away from the way our minds solidify.” A semi-flush right-hand margin starts the fluidization. Things change. “Wood becomes lightning which turns back into wood.”
Following a provident conductor, Wetherington rolls key words back and forth until they rise into light. In this new phase, “everyone is hello and everyone a wave.” Brava.
Into the Snow
The poet should drag you down and put a stone on your heart. Likewise, the poet should infuse you with the giddiest exultation of inflamed passion. True to form, Gennady Aygi will blow you away.
Addressing the “noiseless wind” and the “silent wind” he has excavated blocks of purest song from wordless places. A true star of the Soviet Union, he blended the avant and the corporeal. Writing joyfully with “the juices of time,” his hunger is “hard and free in thought.”
Hospitals, prisons, and swaying halls limn these meditations. Aygi’s crystal sketch of an urban twilight bites with wintry truth. The cold is “clear / high / worthy.” So are the solitary poems of Into the Snow. The translations by Sarah Valentine are transportive.
A final section of adapted Chuvash and Udmurt folk songs reinforces the timeless quality of Aygi—a sense of ageless vastness that we enjoy in great Russian poetry—“visible— delicate—wide!—.” Opals cast in snow.
The Disinformation Phase
(Publishing Genius Press, 2011)
Part avant gumshoe and part sonic doom, Chris Toll of Baltimore uses glittering texture to propel a personal proposal. Toeing the line between gritty detail and offhand romance, he buys his wedding rings in the pawnshop. The right amount of dross balances the gold. He mines the cultural argot to forge standout images, replete with equal doses of hope and pathos. “Dust bunnies attend a webinar.”
Surreal, post-Beat, persona-driven, vaguely Creeley-esque, and sporting a dash of Rene Char, Toll works them all into his close-to-the-cuff style. You won’t get swamped in mirage waves. His is a sure hand as he tillers through the steampunk channels of an “Irregular Galaxy.”
Noir narratives are sandwiched seamlessly between bon mots and faux tautologies. With an idiom that approximates a blur between the pledge of allegiance, a witty malapropism, and a gemlike sob, Toll taps into an authentic space to craft lines that are taut and supple.