Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holly Bass Reviews Alice Walker

The following review was written by Holly Bass.

Gwendolyn Brooks famously said, “Poetry is life distilled.” Alice Walker’s newest book, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, reveals the evolution of an activist-writer who has distilled her own practice to its purest and simplest form. These are humble poems, composed of sparse lines, often only one or two words in length. But this brevity is not the absence of craft or attention to language. Rather, these poems represent an intentional choice on the part of a mature writer to set aside flourish and embellishment in favor of honesty.  These poems are mantras or prayers with meditative silences humming between their lines.

The work is about getting to a truth, often a very personal truth full of surprising rawness and intimacy. In “I Will Keep Broken Things,” she writes, “I will keep/ your/ wild/ free/ laughter/ though/ it is now/ missing/ its/ reassuring /and/ graceful/ hinge/ ...I will keep/ broken/ things./ I will keep / you: pilgrim / of/ sorrow./ I will keep/ myself.”

These are poems of personal pain and global distress, and love as a form of activism. Walker’s long history of activism is represented not only in the content of the book, but in form as well. Whereas previous recent collections were published by a major house, this newest book was released by an independent publisher, New World Library, that participates in the “Green Press Initiative” powering its offices with solar panels and printing books with 100% recycled paper. The poems themselves reside squarely in the space where the “personal is political.”

The title is a celebration of humanity and an acknowledgment of the fraught times in which we live. In her introduction, she speaks of the need to “dance our sorrows away, or at least integrate them more smoothly into our daily existence.” This theme carries throughout the book, balancing what might be termed an optimistic resignation—yes, our world continues to be marred with oppression and violence, but even if we cannot solve or fix it, we must continue to do the work of dismantling power, no matter how Sisyphean the task.

In the poem “Loving Humans,” written for Aung San Suu Kyi, she writes, “Loving humans/ is tricky/ sometimes/ a slap/ in the face/ is all you get/ for doing it/ just right.”  She continues, “Loving humans/ means/ writing poems & songs/ novels & plays, slogans, chants/ & protest signs...”

Like “Loving Humans,” many of the poems, composed over the course of one year, are written in first person and directed toward specific individuals or entities: activist friends, the grandson she has never met in person, deceased family members whose spirits she continues to carry, even to her decades-old BMW car and beloved animal companions.

At times they recall the spiritual sensibility of Persian poetry. Take, for example, “The Taste of Grudge,” the collection’s longest poem, written in thirteen parts:

I do not
I am

In each crack
there is
an orchid

This we know:
We were
not meant
to suffer
so much
& to learn

Ultimately, the book resounds with love-- for women, for the earth, for peacemakers and for humanity. The poems remind us of our own capacity to change ourselves and the world in which we live. To turn our sorrow into “beauty, form and beat.”

Even So by Alice Walker

Love, if it is love, never goes away.
It is embedded in us,
like seams of gold in the Earth,
waiting for light,
waiting to be struck.

Hard Times Require Furious Dancing
Alice Walker

A free review copy of this book was provided to Split This Rock by the publisher. 

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