Day 19

25 Days Read 19

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

If I told you that Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in poetry, would that make you feel uneasy? If I said that it’s the story of a black girl growing up in the era of Civil Rights, would you feel that you’ve read it before? If I mentioned that it falls within the Young Adult category, would that turn off those of you who prefer mature reads?

Whatever your assumptions about this book, put them aside. This is far and away one of the best books of 2014, a fact that has been proclaimed by everyone from the National Book Award judges to the bloggers at Book Riot. With Brown Girl Dreaming, you’re in for an entirely new reading experience. And I promise it’s one you—along with the young people in your life—will enjoy and appreciate.

Within the first page or two, you’ll forget you’re reading verse. As you take in Woodson’s childhood, her close-knit relationship with her grandparents, her difficult move from South Carolina to New York, her first-hand experiences with the Civil Rights movement, her development as a writer, and her search for herself, you’ll lose yourself in the elegant, easygoing lines. Her writing is utterly smooth and accessible and yet artfully loaded with meaning and style:

New York, my mother says.
Soon, I’ll find us a place there. Come back
and bring you all home.

. . .

And I imagine her standing
in the middle of a road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South.

I want to ask: Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
between home

and home?

Her renderings of racial prejudice are especially powerful:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Though she’s confronting serious issues and exploring profound ideas, Woodson manages to speak in a voice that plausibly belongs to a young girl. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and it’s what gives Brown Girl Dreaming its broad appeal. This is a book I want my 13-year-old son to read and maybe my 10-year-old daughter. If we can read it in tandem, it will be an ideal conversation starter about history, race, self-discovery, writing, and literature.

If you’re open to the idea, this gorgeous book begs to be read aloud. Not only will Brown Girl Dreaming make you view poetry in a whole new light; it might just make you love it.

Spring Poetry for the Allergic at Heart

Blooming fruit orchard in spring

The month of April always brings the potential for wild weather, whether in the form of storms, tornados, or floods. But for allergy sufferers, April offers another brand of cruelty every day. For those of us who think of pollen like poison, April can indeed be the “cruelest month,” as T. S. Eliot tells us in The Wasteland. These opening lines seem directed straight at the allergically challenged:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So, before we officially kiss April goodbye, let’s pay homage to the allergy season with a few other poems to make you sneeze, sniffle, and drip with joy.

 

daffodil
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
          — “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth

 

Beautiful spring trees in bloom

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
               — “Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

TreeSorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
               — “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” William Carlos Williams

 

 

purple lilacs
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

               — “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman

 

white blossom in spring

 

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
          — “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,” A. E. Housman

 

 

Blooming Lily of the valley in spring garden

I should have known,
     though I did not,
          that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
          who whiff it.

               — “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams

 

Head to Book Riot for a St. Paddy’s Day Treat

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Used under Creative Commons from John Stephen Dwyer

Céad míle fáilte, as they say in the Emerald Isle—or, a hundred thousand welcomes! Today I’m delighted to be a guest on Book Riot, one of my favorite book blogs on the Web. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m treating lit lovers to an Irish Poetry Crawl. You read that correctly—it’s a poetry crawl, though it has many of the same things you love in a pub crawl: lots to drink, plenty o’ fun, and perhaps even a little debauchery. Grab a Guinness (if you’ve got any Irish in you, it’s never too early), and head on over to Book Riot to check it out. Thanks, Book Riot, and cheers!

A Poem for Lovers . . . and Lazy People

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Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! This week, Winter Storm Pax hit my neck of the woods, which meant three glorious days of vacation and pure laziness. So today, as the snow started to thaw, Valentine’s Day arrived with more than just the proverbial Cupid’s arrow. It announced itself with a sounding of the alarm clock, as we all had to wake in time to actually get up, put on real clothes, and head back to the routine of school and work.

Today’s love poem from 17th-century poet John Donne captures my feelings in a particular way. I read it as a poem not just for lovers, but also for lazy people. Shaking his fist at the sun shining in on his bed, Donne’s lover asks, “Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains call on us?” Indeed, why, oh why, must we throw back our warm, cozy covers and go participate in the real world?

Perhaps this poem puts you more in mind of love than laziness. I sincerely hope it does, since Donne is describing the kind of love that overshadows everything else in the world, from work to money to power (“compared to this, All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy”)If only a love that strong could live out of time and escape the commitments of real life.

That’s wishful thinking, as we well know. So, for the rest of us—the real people who have to get out of bed this Valentine’s Day—go grab a card and some chocolates, and make sure to let someone know you love them.

“The Sun Rising,” by John Donne

             Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that theking will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether bothth’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
               She’s all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world’s contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
(1633)

“More Stately Mansions”: The Chambered Nautilus

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Nautilus pompilius

Since Virginia Woolf’s humble snail inspired this blog and gave it its name, every once in a while I like to look to other snails for inspiration. Today, I honor a somewhat distant relative to the snail, but one of the most captivating examples in the very large mollusk phylum: the chambered nautilus. This nautilus continues to stir the imaginations of poets and artists, and for good reason. Never content with its present lot in life, the chambered nautilus is a forward-thinking (though “thinking” must be used loosely here) species that continues to grow, expand, and create an ever better space in which to live. Once it outgrows an old chamber, it seals off that past, leaves it behind, and moves on to a new phase of potential. In the end, we can see exactly who and what it’s been, in the beautiful spiral that depicts all the stages of its life.

Victorian writer Oliver Wendell Holmes uses the nautilus as a life lesson for humankind, in his poem “The Chambered Nautilus.” This “frail tenant” has a “heavenly message” for us, Holmes says, in the way that it toils year after year but still manages to strive for something better, a higher form of existence. It continually leaves its “low-vaulted past” to build ever “more stately mansions,” until at last it breaks free from its mortal shell and achieves a completely spiritual perfection:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
   As the swift seasons roll!
   Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
   Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
“The Chambered Nautilus” has long been a special poem for me, and I hope you find some inspiration in it as well.

To read the poem in its entirety, visit The Poetry Foundation here.