Category Archives: African-American Writing

A Survival Guide: Smith Blue, by Camille Dungy

ImageSmith Blue, by Camille Dungy. Crab Orchard Series in Poetry/Open Competition Award. Crab Orchard Review, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2011. ISBN-13:978-0-8093-3031-7.

When you marry an ambitious poet with solid craft and intense passion, you almost invariably get a great book. Perhaps the most intriguing poetry to cross my desk this year is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue. I admire Dungy’s work not only for what she accomplished in this offering from the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, but for what she attempts, no less than to “Wizard a track through our own screaming weeds,” a quote found in her opening citation from Gwendolyn Brooks (“XV,” The Womanhood). Following Brooks’ admonition that there are “no magic or elves/Or timely godmothers to guide us. . . ” Dungy cobbles together an extraordinary view of modern life, it’s foibles and distractions (“At Costco, everything comes cheap”/A Massive Dying Off) and most of all, its harsh realities and tremendous losses.

Much of this work is elegy, whether societal (“I ate the last orange in Nebraska /Post-Modified Food) or personal (“The poet’s hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy”/Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another), but none of it is polemical in the least. Dungy accomplishes this with a breathtaking grasp of the details, large and small, of contemporary life weighed down by war, economic distress, political intransigence, and material envy, yet she avoids the merely partisan by turning every personal loss into an observation about a greater grief, and every social issue into a challenge to be lived out, worked out, in individual choices that cut to the bone.

“This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for knowing what to do,” she writes in the latter poem, which begins with the suffering of arthritic hands, and ends with the trenchant observation: “Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient/and her hands cause the least of her pain. ” In between, there is a cataloguing of ills–burning women in schoolyards…tarped bodies on runways and in restaurants…three ancient cities met their ruin…third and fourth tours–and a warning not to let one newsreel image slide into the next: “This is not one thing standing for another.”

See each moment, each disastrous occurrence; notice everything, the poet tells us, though it hurts to feel the weight of the world’s grief.

“…Shame fits comfortably/as my best skirt, and what can I do/but walk around in that habit? Turn the page (After opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write A Poem About Love).

Come back to the Earth itself, “to the rock, dissimulated by the rush but still/loved. …Before things are muddied/before/the turbulence recalled by walls that they have built” (How She Keeps Faith).

Change is inevitable, and not all of it is doom. Some of it is human spirit rising up, “to get to the places beyond the places we know. This is the way, /how we have always found more . . . . ” and, in case we missed the point, there are lessons from our elders’ wisdom:

“–and of course you won’t let me see you/ neglecting to serve,whatever that means/don’t let me catch you neglecting to serve.” (Prayer for P)

It was about here that I saw the thread of American poetry running clear, Robert Frost to Ms. Brooks to Lucille Clifton to Camille Dungy. I have said nothing yet about Dungy’s craft, but she does not remind one without cause of those American originals: Clear, concise, articulated lines of fierce imagery draw one in from the first page.

From a tiny, impossibly elegant butterfly, its founder and namesake tragically lost in the practice of his calling, comes a title that is appropriate to the huge scope and delicacy of this work. California in all its diverse beauties and unfathomable contrasts breaks into life on these pages; the whole of the human dilemma whispers through it’s lines. Camille Dungy is among the most accomplished of our poets, a treasure we must not let slip. Call her an antidote for the times.

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

By Georgia Ann Banks-Martin

Plain View Press

ISBN 978-10935514-64-0


An intrigue of a title, right? A sign that here is a poet who won’t let you down easy. Indeed, Georgia Banks-Martin states her purpose here in the introduction, to move beyond race as a signifier of identity, moving deep into the individual imagination and history to build a bridge with the reader.

Nothing is more admirable than a high reach. Mostly, Banks-Martin succeeds in pulling us along into her world through these ekphrastic poems, neither denying nor insisting on her African-American ethnicity for connections, so that when she chooses to write from a Jacob Lawrence painting, the poem “Railroad Station” chronicles people who are certainly African-American, but also immigrants from Southern cotton fields, traveling with uncertainty and nerves and dogged hope, and they might be understood anywhere. Deftly, Banks-Martin catches the wife’s whisper to her husband, the father weighed down by more than luggage, the children’s innocence focused elsewhere than the perils of the journey.

One of my favorite poems here is “The Floor-Scrapers,” after Gustave Caillebott, in which the poet merges the imagined instruction of the master to his apprentice with her own memories of each mark on the wooden floors of her childhood home, and brings forth from that combination issues of respect and aspiration.

Van Gogh is here; Monet, Renoir, and Vermeer, too, but also writers and visual artists from other canons, all engaged with skill: Romare Bearden, Natasha Trethaway, Anne Sexton, Robert Mapplethorpe, even the fairy artist Jasmine Beckett-Griffith. (A handy reference list in the rear identifies the inspirations for each poem.) This is a poet with many interests and, yes, a high reach. She perfectly captures the exhausted quality  of Anne Sexton in her own weary paean to colorism, and excels at describing the Southern landscape:

From “Evening Guitar”:

Someone loaned me a book

filled with images of Mississippi, of people washing clothes,

fishing, pressing hair.

. . .

The book smells of smoke

from the coal-burning stove,

sharing the table with the lady’s

porcelain tea service,

the pages repeatedly read,

savored between long sips.

And she does not shy away from race or class or gender issues; this is not a poet who leads with artifice. Instead, the work is grounded in, but not overwhelmed by, the poet’s identity. As a consequence, the reader’s eye darts everywhere the poems lead. Here are a classmate’s suicide, a religious man’s repressed daughter, a tired man on a bus, numerous glimpses of rural Alabama. Generally, she does not go for the obvious image, but scrapes for us the layers that obscure other possibilities:

From “On Highway 80”

. . .

I’ve seen the fog lift like a curtain

to reveal a flock of fat buzzards,

with heads tucked between wings,

sitting atop a half-circle fence,

like a string of pearls,

around a woman’s neck.

. . .

If there is a concept in common to all these poems, aside from their reference to other works of art, it is that pretense wounds in a hundred ways, and rejection makes everyone bleed. A girl being urged to walk like a lady and deny her sexuality, a sidewalk musician capturing the blues from passersby, New Orleans after the storm––all images of unconsoled heartache. But there is also joy, the intense Southern commitment to beauty, and, above all, a wide sensibility engaging the world.

I have re-read this collection three times, not because I had to in order to write this review, but because bits of it kept sticking in my head like a new favorite song.

What more does a reviewer need to say?

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