Tag Archives: Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

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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