I took a very long time to read today's poetry title, not because it was hard to read or very long, but because I read several of the poems more than once. They were so beautifully crafted that I had to go back to get a second look. If you are interested in poems that tell stories then this is the book for you. The voices that speak to us from the pages are true and honest, and they give us pictures of a wide variety of people.
Walter Dean Myers
For ages 9 and up
Holiday House, 2004, 978-0-8234-2212-8
Author and poet Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, and after he read Edgar Lee Master’s book Spoon River Anthology, he was inspired to create a collection of poems that celebrate people from Harlem whom the author knew or “whose lives have touched” his own. Many of the people whom he admires greatly appear in these poems. Following the advice of poet E.B Yeats, Walter Dean Myers wrote about a community that he loved dearly, “whose people would gladden his heart.”
The first ‘voice’ we hear belongs to Mali Evans, a twelve-year-old girl. Mali hopes that when she is old she will be like Mrs. Purvis who walks like a monarch “Down the avenue, as if the streets / Were her queendom” and who is “an ancient lady / Tree-tough and deep-rooted.”
Later in the book we meet Milton Brooks, an undertaker who does his best to comfort those left behind. He tries to “ease the pain” of these people by telling them that the dearly departed will “wake up home.” The only time Mr. Brooks cannot help weeping is when a child dies, and he prays to the Lord that he will not have to watch more “old men shuffling children to / the grave.”
Later still we find ourselves keeping company with Delia Pierce, who is a hairdresser. Like hairdressers and barbers all over the world, Delia hears all the news in the community and she is not shy to share what she has heard. She tells us about Carla who is getting married for the third time and who “uses men like a Christmas tree uses tinsel.” She tells us about Darlene who is going south, Sister Smith whose husband chases women, Cindy Lou who sneaks out at night, Betty Mae who tells tales about her former glory, and Deacon Grier who would “sit home all day and sip champagne” with a “light-skinned” girl called Baby Jane. Of course, Delia tells us that she “ain’t the kind to talk behind / nobody’s back.”Every poem in this collection gives readers a beautiful portrait of a person, and together they capture the flavor of a unique community. Paired with beautiful black and white period photos, the poems are like gems that we can savor and delight in.