Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Baldwin)

It came as something of a relief to find that Baldwin’s poetry is not at the same level as his fiction, plays and essays. Many of these pieces seem like exercises, often featuring far too much concern with rhyme. There are moments of the kind of surgical observation I’ve come to expect from Baldwin in other genres. This, from “Staggerlee wonders” –

This flag has been planted on the moon:

it will be interesting to see

what steps the moon will take to be revenged

for this quite breathtaking presumption.

I could hear Baldwin’s voice in these lines.

I enjoyed the seemingly Langston Hughes influenced, “Song (for Skip)” and “Inventory / On Being 52” and bits and pieces of other poems, but generally, this collection didn’t grab me.


American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of an Underclass (Massey & Dento

When Massey’s name appeared on the City Club site, I decided it was time to pick up this book. Plus, I’m intrigued by Rothstein’s new book, The Color of Law, and he’s coming to the City Club also, but his book is still in hardback.

In American Apartheid, Massey and Denton make a very convincing case residential segregation is the root cause of a range of problems, problems that are increasingly become the norm as the generations pass. They also argue that this segregation, though informed by class, is largely race-based, and its creation and maintenance (to this day) is very much deliberate.

I could not always follow the statistical pieces, but I tended to get the gist of them. If there are any flaws here, it is that this book can, at times, sound like a dissertation. Perhaps it’s the product of it being a collaboration, but it felt like there was too much repetition. A minor complaint. When I hit those sections, I tended to skim.

The Shape of Home (Chilcote)

It can be a lot of fun to be at least roughly the same age as an author. The allusions and experiences can resonate so deeply that they prompt the painful laughter of recognition. Such was the case with Chilcote’s  “Rock ‘n’ Rollers,” a gently mocking recollection of the first time the author, or at least the persona, heard Johnny Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” on a boom box. I was right there.

There’s a freshness in this collection, much of it celebrating the small moments that come up with being “sudden occupants of the life we’ve planned” as a married couple which leads to this insightful conclusion (in “Another Country”):

Perhaps marriage / is not a home, but a home-leaving – an imperfect residence in / another’s soul.

And then there are the children, forever ravenous (and very familiar), who, in “Veni Vidi Vici,”

Climb in the fridge, pull down yogurt, / scale the cabinets and topple teddy grahams, / Eat right off the floor.

Reputations (Vasquez)

I admire the way Vasquez unpacks his stories, his sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. Big things happen, but they do not occupy much space. Instead, he is more engaged by the way we respond, the intimate details of choice made and not made. Here, he explores the idea of reputation, how one is cultivated and how one, often quite easily, is destroyed. He seems to suggest that we at times become metaphors for ourselves, our whole lives spent trying to live up to our reputation.

Storming Heaven (Giardina)

I used to go to West Virginia once a year to visit my grandmother, but I haven’t been there since she died. I’ve always been curious about the place, and maybe the recent election renewed my interest. After I read James Green’s book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, a friend recommended this one and, as usual, her recommendation was solid.

I admit it took a little while to warm to the book. I knew Giardina was casting her net wide by introducing the time, the place, the people, and the issues. The dialect can, at times, seem a bit hokey. But once the plot gets going, this story of The Battle of Blair Mountain becomes a riveting tale on both a personal and political level.

And with the LaborFest coming this weekend and everything. . .

Map to the Stars (Matejka)

Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smokea book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.

Together, these poems tell a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”

Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:

We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.

Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes

& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.

Shopping Mall (Newton)

Bloomsbury has started an interesting series called Object Lessons. It is intended to be a “series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Some of the topics include dust, hair, bread and a sock. I chose this one because of my general feelings about malls, in particular, the Mall of America. When I told the bookseller that I looked forward to the criticism of the mall, she said she thought it was more of an homage. And she was right. There are some sweet vignettes about the author’s family waiting for the mother to emerge from the mall where she worked.

The argumentative side of the piece is, however, fundamentally wrong. Newton laments the loss of mall culture and says that times have changed since the days of Victor Gruen’s utopian vision for the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota. The mall was supposed to be the Main Street of the suburbs, and not only did that fail to work, it was never going to work.

The suburbs, created out of a love for the car, a desire for more space, and the need to get away from those who couldn’t get away from the city (the poor, the black, the brown) served to cement – and I use that word deliberately – the divisions among people. A mall could never have been a suburban version of a city center because anyone can access a city center or public square. Not everyone can get to a mall in the suburbs. And those who can’t get there probably can’t afford much even if they could find their way there.

And despite noble attempts to dress it up, a mall is, at its heart, a capitalist enterprise, one that cannot and will not co-exist from the democratic (or even worse!) principles of a public square.

Newton, who writes well and possesses a heavy dose of nostalgia says that “[n]o mall is forever; their lifespan, like our own, is finite” (126). Beautifully put, but in the end, wrong. As the son of an architect, it has been my experience that no one creates a building without expecting it to last. Yes, we’re finite; that’s part of the deal and we know it from the very beginning. Malls are monuments; they’re not supposed to have an expiration date.

I agree with the woman who is quoted as being sad that the Rolling Acres Mall was the “landscape of [her] childhood” (122). Children may spend time in malls, but it is no place to grow up. Newton shouldn’t be so surprised by her reaction.

Newton regrets the recent run of mall-based violence. He reports the unsubstantiated claims that the violence was planned over social media. He and others are probably right. It probably was organized. And those teens chose their target wisely and, I think, knowingly. You can protest downtown all you want, but disrupt our temples of capitalism with violence or even a non-violent protest? It is, for some, truly the end of days. Let’s hope it’s the end of malls.