Poetry, Read This Book

Read This Book for Black History Month: The 100 Best African American Poems

For 80 days, I’ve opened up The 100 Best African American Poems and read one poem a day.  With 20 days to go, I’ve got a few weeks of reading left. What a perfect way to start the day during Black History Month, reading our most prolific Black poets in this beautiful collection edited by Nikki Giovanni. 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests, I read several books about racism and was struck by the concept of”othering” as explained by Toni Morrison, in The Origin of Others. I had experienced that “othering” regard when I lived in France, but it had never prevented me from getting a job, or a place to live, or eating in a restaurant, or staying in a hotel. What if it had? What if that were my experience here, at home, in my own country? The fact is, this is the experience of many BIPOC Americans and residents in the US, an ugly truth I can no longer ignore.

When 100 Poems arrived at my local book store, I was overfull with new thoughts and concepts from the many books I had read. I surrendered myself to poetry where I could immerse myself in the familiar realm of feelings and I trusted Nikki Giovanni to guide me. Nikki had been my first poet. Her book Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day was the first book of poetry I ever owned, a gift from my mother after I placed in a poetry contest at 17.  As a teen, I had copied whole stanzas of her poems into my journals to express what I had no words for yet.  

The 100 Best African American Poems includes some of America’s finest poets, including Langston HughesGwendolyn BrooksNatasha TretheweyKwame Alexander ( her former student) and Kwame Dawes of Pacific University, where I work. 

If listening to Amanda Gorman’s inspiring reading on Inauguration Day gave you a thirst to hear more from Black poets, you will love The 100 Best African American Poems

Read it all at once, listen to the CD that comes with the book, or do what I am doing: linger over one poem a day. Let it sink in that every person loves, strives, suffers and aims to stand up again. We will stand taller as a nation when we stop seeing each other as an “other” and help everyone to stand up and thrive.

P.S. And yet this is not an after-thought, but an after-discovery: here is another poem written on the occasion of the Biden/Harris Inauguration, by Jericho Brown, one of the poets in The 100 Best African American Poems and a winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Try reading this without tears Go on. Try.

Read This Book

Books I Recommend: Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

The cover of Underland is from the painting “Nether.” While it appears to be roots dangling over a cave entrance, it was meant by the painter to be the last thing you’d see after a nuclear explosion. (Stanley Donwood)

Okay, I cheated. 

As soon as I bought this 488-page book, I flipped to Chapter Five: Invisible Cities. The “cities” referred to Paris and its underground counterpart, 200 miles of quarry voids and catacombs, where cataphiles– lovers of the catacombs – secretly and illegally wander, travel and party.

I needed Robert MacFarlane’s first-hand account of his foray for a story I am drafting. Then, at the end of Chapter Five, I turned back to page one and devoured the rest of this gorgeous book. 

In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, MacFarlane provides a perspective on the world beneath our feet by traveling to eleven places on the planet where the Earth yields, shelters or hides something. In nearly all instances, he is accompanied by a friend, an expert or a guide, his own mythological Charon ferrying him to the underworld. 

The narrative is rich with references from mythology, history, literature, geology, and the world of nature. (Macfarlane also cowrote an award-winning children’s book called Lost Words, with descriptions of terms used in nature.) Throughout Underland, he explores the significance of each location while simultaneously describing his real life adventure in it . Often, his exploits contain moments of gripping fear, amazement, sadness, or ecstatic discovery. At one point under Paris, he turns his skull sideways to squeeze through an impossibly narrow passage when a Metro train roars overhead. On a remote northern archipelago in Norway, he backpacks through hail, sleet, rain, hail again, and up five sharp peaks to a sea cave high on a cliff where dwellers 2000-3000 years ago left their mark on the walls, and mysterious red dancers have been sighted.

Reading Underland was a feast on so many levels: for its exacting botanical and geological description framed in a generous, tender and literary point of view; for its eyewitness account of places with historical and planetary significance; for its radical inquiry into “deep time,” a time before history and a time when we, my friends, will be long, long gone. I will likely never experience the chilling reality of the last place he visited but I’m glad I had a Charon like Macfarlane to ferry me there – and back again.

Extra bits:

  • If I were going to read this book with a glass of wine by my side, I’d suggest this one: ShoneTal Cellars Meredith Mitchell Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir. I know this is a really weird suggestion, but here me out: like the “deep time” theme of this book, this is one of few wines that are “own-rooted” meaning they aren’t grafted onto rootstock, like most grapevines in the US and Europe. Plus, the vineyard is located on ancient volcano soil in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That’s what I call “deep time” wine.