Speaking of death
It hardly matters
Since both are on the
way, maybe –
to being daffodils.
excerpt from Exercises on Themes from Life in Once: Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968)
This celebration is a rain-drop next to the ocean of ongoing world-wide applause for Alice Walker (Alice Walker’s Garden). Her roots are in Putnam Country, Georgia where her family subsisted financially on earnings from sharecropping, dairy-farming and her mother’s part-time employment as a maid. Ms. Walker seems to come by her spunk and savvy honestly. When a white plantation owner told her mother that black people had “no need for education,” she replied …
“‘You might have some black children somewhere, but they don’t live in this house. Don’t you ever come around here again talking about how my children don’t need to learn how to read and write.’ Her mother enrolled Alice in first grade when the girl was four years old.” Evelyn C White in Alice Walker: A Life (W.W. Norton, 2004)
Alice Walker is perhaps most well-known to some for her fiction especially The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy (Open Road Media, 2012 – Kindle edition). The Color Purple won her the National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted for theater, both screen and as a musical stage play. The latter won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and the 2016 Drama League Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. Alice Walker was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction. (Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American woman to win it for poetry.)
Once:Poems was Alice Walker’s debut poetry collection, written during a 1965 trip to East Africa and her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College. The book established her as an A-list poet and Muriel Rukeyser (among many others) gave it a thumbs-up saying, “Brief slashing poems – Young, and in the sun.”
the young king
goes often to Church
the young girls here
excerpt from African Images, Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back in Once:Poems
Her other collections include:Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems (2013); The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (2013); Her Blue Body Everything We Know: earthling Poems 1965-1990 (2004); and Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth: New Poems (2004).
No celebration of Alice Walker’s work would be complete without acknowledging her ceaseless efforts on behalf of the poor and marginalized. She is an advocate for peace and understanding. She was initially inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and worked in the civil rights movement and by Howard Zin. She dedicated Once:Poems to Mr. Zin. Wherever people are oppressed in this world, you will find Alice Walker fighting the compassionate fight.
If you are viewing this from an email subscription, you’ll have to link through to the site to view this video of Alice Walker in Palestine in August 2010.
Ms. Walker regularly posts new poetry at her site Alice Walker’s Garden along with opinion pieces and updates on her own work and that of others. Her Amazon page is HERE.
Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, “a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.” Madeline was YES! Magazine‘s senior editor at the time of this writing. She is now an independent journalist and contributing editor to Yes! Magazine.
“I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope…”
I was 19 when I first read Adrienne Rich and these words from “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” which seemed to tear down the barriers between the poem and me, and let me in.
Like Rich, I grew up at a distance from true poverty: “reader reading under a summer tree in the landscape of the rural working poor,” she writes. But I knew how fractured and unstable the world around me was becoming. I was part of the first generation to grow up knowing about climate change, brought to world attention by James Hansen and to my school classroom by a forward-thinking science teacher. I was in high school when the Soviet Union collapsed; as a child, I had nightmares about nuclear war. Rich’s poetry gave me hope that stories could change things—could force us to confront and heal what is painful and give us hope, strength, and compassion.
Rich belonged to an activist strain of poetry; she believed words needed to be reclaimed by the people who have been left out of the history books.
When Rich died a profound loss at a time when we urgently need more storytelling that reaches across our fragmented, politically divided culture. “Atlas” is still one of the most searing and honest descriptions I’ve read about how broken and divisive the modern world is. It’s a 26-page poem that sweeps across the landscapes and histories of North America and elevates people and scenes that are ordinary, neglected, and counted out—farmworkers made sick from pesticides, a woman beaten by her partner, the wasting of our ecological landscapes, weedy fields of Jerusalem artichoke “that fed the hobos, could feed us all.”
Here is a map of our country …
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms …
This is the cemetery of the poor …
This is the sea-town of myth and story when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt … processing frozen fish sticks hourly wages and no shares
Occupy didn’t exist then, of course, but Rich was crafting poetry for the 99 percent: “a poetry older / than hatred. Poetry / in the workhouse, laying of the rails.”
Rich’s long, image-dense lines could seem of out-of-step with a world obsessed with rapid-fire information, Twitter, and text messages. But Rich knew that the marginalization of poets is always a detriment to civil society. In the early 1980s, she traveled to Nicaragua, where she felt the culture “manifested a belief in art, not as commodity, not as luxury, not as suspect activity, but … one necessity for the rebuilding of a scarred, impoverished, and still-bleeding country.”
Rich belonged to an activist strain of poetry; she believed words needed to be reclaimed by the people who have been disempowered and left out of the history books. Her own life is a testament to the power of story in creating cultural change. Rich started college in the late 1940s, when she says even Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing was radical for a university campus and certainly no one spoke of feminist ideas in the classroom.
Early in her career, Rich had to scrape together a new kind of language. She used poetry to utter ideas that were almost unspeakable at the time: her poetry pulled back the veil around women’s sexuality and lesbian love and exposed the power and politics that enable war and violence: “I felt driven—for my own sanity—to bring together in my poems the political world ‘out there’—the world of children dynamited or napalmed, of the urban ghetto and militaristic violence—and the supposedly private, lyrical world of male/female relationships,” she said. She published Snapshots of a Daughter in Law, which she calls her first book to overtly tackle sexual politics, in 1963. Decades later, her poetry is still radical, but it’s also a mainstay in college literature classrooms across the country. Her poetry has been a beacon to feminists and social justice activists for several generations, and is included a digital poetry anthology pieced together by organizers of Occupy Wall Street.
Rich never wanted her poetry to be a medium primarily for academe. And she never believed words alone could solve the abuses and inequalities that she wrote about. But reclaiming, decolonizing, and taking charge of language was for Rich the first step in become personally whole and politically powerful. “Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum,” she said in a 2006 speech at the National Book Awards, where she received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
We owe Rich a debt for unlocking the doors that barred the voices of women from art, academe, and the halls of influence for so long. And though she insisted on marking each poem with a date—so that it would stand in the historical context in which she wrote it—everything about her poetry still speaks with urgency and timeliness. Her work illuminates the dark, messy, often painful territory of sex, race, violence, and poverty in America but holds all of us responsible for taking power, ending suffering, and breaking apart social inequalities. In “Atlas,” she writes, “A patriot is one who wrestles for the / soul of her country / as she wrestles for the soul of her own being.” This is what Rich did her whole life, and her poetry enjoins the rest of us to do the same.
“Time had not teased me. I thought eternity was mine in which to live and in which to write. Thinking myself amazingly intelligent, I saw no reason to hide my light under a bushel basket. My youthful poetry paraded my stuff. I imitated Horace shamelessly; he still remains one of my favorite poets in the original Latin but I have grown up enough not to imitate him. Who could?
“Perhaps there will only be one Rita Mae. I’m not sure I could stand another one. Anyway, as I learned more and more about language and literature I also learned more and more about my own limitations. I wanted to write a perfect poem. I was soon humbled and wanted to write a great poem. I eventually became realistic: I wanted to write a good poem.”
. . . so says American novelist, screenwriter, POET and activist, Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) in the intro to Poems, poetry from her two published collections combined into one book. Who among us can’t sympathize with that ambition? Or perhaps you want to write the perfect short story, paint the perfect picture, or compose the perfect piece of music. It’s all in the same spirit.
Spare and elegant, Rita Mae Brown’s poems deal with war, human rights and feminist and lesbian themes. She’s always confident and often contemptuous.
A Short Note for Liberals
I’ve seen your kind before
Forty-plus and secure
Settling for a kiss from feeble winds
And calling it a storm
Many of the poems were written when she was eighteen and the introduction is written from the perspective of middle-age. She’s fierce, her imagery apt and sometimes breath-taking.
For Those of Us Working For a New World
The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.
Thumbs-up on this collection. It’s out of print, but used copies are available through Amazon and other book vendors.
Rita Mae Brown is also a New York Times bestselling author of the Mrs. Murphy mystery series, which is cowritten with her cat, Sneaky Pie. Other novels include In Her Day, The Sand Castle and Six of One. She’s written two memoirs and was nominated for an Emmy for her screenwriting. Writers might enjoy Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual.It’s savvy and full of sass, an enjoyable read.