In a scene from the movie Roxanne which of course I cannot find on YouTube right now, Steve Martin has a delightfully mocking scene in which he celebrates being present at a moment of genius. I was reminded of that scene (minus the mocking) when I picked up and read Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead. In her acknowledgments, Biderman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, says she drew inspiration from a 1960 gloss on a museum’s holdings, a translation of the Papyrus of Ani and a book called The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt. First of all, who reads those things? And who reads those things and comes up with this? Like Steve Martin in that scene I wish I could find, I wish I was there at that moment. Because what she’s come up with is brilliant.
Having never been a fan of genres, I love the visible struggle to define what this is. It’s referred to as a “series of librettos,” “a darkly comic incantation” and it won an award given to vignette collections. When I went to pick it up at a bookstore, I quickly realized that I had no idea where to look. It turns out it was in the Poetry section.
I can’t claim I understood every incantation or vignette, but the ones I did find my way into were funny and pointed and true. I relished the thought of Walmart executives meeting to discuss the book. Granted, I have my own opinions of Walmart and everything it seems to embody, so maybe I celebrated parts of this for that reason, but mostly I celebrated the genius of the idea and the wonderful execution of it. I absolutely guarantee you’ve read nothing like it. So go pick it up. But if you’re in a hurry, ask about where to find it. Who knows where it’ll be shelved?
The title has to be ironic. Aside from some throwaway and, at times, icky poems, about women, these poems represent a mind that is anything but tranquil. Here, Amichai (here translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt) grapples with how, both personally and politically, we can balance history and memory with the need to move forward in life. In “In the Old City,” the battle seems lost. He writes, “We are weepers at feasts, carvers of names on every stone, / Smitten by hope, hostages of rulers and history.” The ‘we’ here is almost certainly Israel. In “Since Then,” he says, “I march against my memories / Like a man against the wind.” On the other hand, or, as he puts it in “People in the dark always see, “between darkness and light real life goes on.” This tension is represented most effectively in his poem, “Jerusalem is full of used Jews.” There are a handful to just skip here (and make me wonder what Amichai pays his editor for), but three quarters of the collection is incredibly compelling. Amichai seems to genuinely ask (in “An Attempt to Hold Back History”), “Do you think you can hold back history?”
My only objection to this wonderful collection is that it’s a collection and not, in my view, a book. Freeman has traveled a great deal. Thus, the more literal definition of maps. But for reasons I could not pick up on, unless it’s to present us with an anti-map approach, he alternated these poems with some deeply more personal ones, maps dare I say, of the human heart. So poems like “Barbers” and “Maps” and “Bomb Shelters of the Oligarchs” are all amazing, but the collection never develops the momentum it deserves.
Smith’s well-titled (play with that second word a while) is, like his poems, compact, powerful, and purposeful. I will also add versatile as Smith ranges over a variety of forms and topics, from current events (with attention to a topic that he covers in one of his TED Talks – “How to Raise a Black Son in America,to New Orleans (his hometown), to language, to love.
There are too many favorites to list here. Here’s one –
“what the cicada said to the brown boy”
Here’s his site – Clint Smith’s site. Go ahead and get his book for yourself.
I always regret it when I don’t write reviews right away. Life’s been a bit busy, but I remember enough to say that I loved this collection – everything from its Kehinde Wiley cover and absolutely loaded (pun intended) title to the poems inside. “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television” is an early favorite. “Watch Us Elocute” packs a punch. “Film Noir at Gallup Park, On the Edge,” “Animal Farm” and “Prayer on the Subdivision” are other favorites. Wicker’s voice just leaps off the page – sometimes to punch you, sometimes to prod you, always to make you think.
Marcus Wicker’s site
I’ve been a fan of Smith’s ever since I read his Dinosaurs in the Hood in Poetry Magazine. And his work spoke to our students as well, so we found what we could online and waited for this book, this National Book Award-nominated book to arrive. And it did. And wow. His poems, ranging from the personal to the political, will absolutely rock you back in your seat. The only thing better than reading them is hearing Smith himself read them. Second is the delight in my students’ faces when they hear someone who makes sense to them.
This one is mandatory – Dear White America
The running motif of the “bloodcell” absolutely haunts me.
The first thing that struck me when I picked this book up at the excellent Guide to Kulchur bookstore was the apparent contradiction in the title. “The Big Book of” sounds like the beginning of a children’s title. “Exit Strategies,” as far as I know it, is a military term. And May teases this contradiction out throughout the collection, turning often to a motif of journeys and his hometown of Detroit as he provides the kind of poems that make you both laugh and think. I had too many favorites to list them all here, so let me see what’s available online.
Ah, here’s one.
There Are Birds Here (for Detroit)
And another. . .
A Brief History of Hostility
At least read its ending –
Aren’t graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken
into account, and shouldn’t we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We’ll come back to you. Peace will come to you
as a rosewood-colored road paver
in your grandmother’s town, as a trench
scraped into canvas, as a violin bow, a shovel,
an easel, a brushstroke that covers
burial mounds in grass. And love, you say,
is a constant blade, a trowel that plants
and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,
straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.
Heck, here’s his site –
Jamaal May’s site