Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Glenis Redmond's "Under the Sun" (Wild Goose, Winter 2008)

Review of Glenis Redmond’s Under the Sun (Main Street Rag, 128 pages, $14.95)

I’ve heard Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, and Evie Shockley read their wonderful work, and I’ve read the extraordinary prose of Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, and now there is another name to add to the pantheon of powerful black women writers. That name is Glenis Redmond. I’ve not yet heard Redmond “perform” her poetry, although her credentials as a finalist in the National Poetry Slam and her reputation as a performer speak highly of her stature in that regard. I have, however, just finished reading her new collection of poetry, Under the Sun, and found it brilliant and enjoyable throughout.
When I teach expository writing, I explain to my students that a thesis statement is a contract with the reader, a promise of what the essay will provide. Few books of poetry offer such a contract; far fewer deliver. Redmond’s collection begins with just such a promise, and does indeed deliver upon that promise. The promise comes in the opening poem, reprinted in its entirety here, my favorite from the collection.

Scripted Hope

Name every nighttime shadow.
Call them out
from every corner,
every crevice of the past.
Fill yourself with the power
named survival.
Your voice will flower silver
into a circle blooming
of compassionate witnesses,
burning trembling lights.
In the brightness
my voice becomes your voice,
your voice becomes mine.
Together, our voices form
a tight constellation of hope,
a calligraphy written in stars.

This poem of imperative the writer speaks to herself describes writing as a ritual of resurrection, a séance of sorts in which the absent and the dead speak through the living poet, giving her poems the voice, depth, and resonance of historical context as she gives them the same through personal and confessional context. It is a powerful and timely message for poets throughout the world to attend to.
Of course, such an imperative would only seem insincere if the poet were not ready to follow her own directive. In fact, however, the poems of Under the Sun do exactly what “Scripted Hope” scripts. The book consists largely of a series of portraits, some celebratory, some mourning. The portraits range from the historical to the personal, indicating how the two interpenetrate in the formation of an individual, a family, and a people. There are historical portraits of Zora Neale Hurston, Fanie Lou Hamer, and a slave named Patience, literary portraits of Celie from The Color Purple, family portraits of sisters, daughters, grandmothers, uncles, brothers, and fathers, and self-portraits of the speaker in love, the speaker in mourning, the speaker as teacher and student, daughter and mother.
It is a diverse and vital family album that shows the importance of love, resistance, revolution, faith and courage in the progress of African-Americans throughout history and still today. The fundamental vitality of these qualities is made clearest in one of the more epic poems in the collection, “Sacrum,” which forms a sort of “Middle Passage” on the family level as it traces the trials and tribulations of the speaker’s father, beginning with the “Ivory Coast” and a “Virginia Plantation,” proceeding through a “Jim Crow history” and “a malnourished man-child at the Air Force recruitment office,” continuing “down dark alleys into the pool-shark dens . . . . leading to his favorite amber liquids of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, “ and finally concluding with “Our familial bones breaking . . . . Our sergeant in charge leading the way, / a crooked man walking with wings.”
While the poems acknowledge the past lovingly, obligingly, and graciously, it is important to note that the final poem is written not in past tense, however, but in present. As the poem stirringly states:

Though we are raw to our bones
there is nothing an no one else left
to carry this fresh regret
so we hobble down life’s hollow corridor
and whisper with intent
we are not finished yet.
This chore takes more than triage
a simple labeling of things.
We must turn the sacred papers
of every holy book
touch each other like sacrament
give up apathy for Lent.
the vowels
I and u
‘til they become
u, me and we.
We do not get up from the table of our discontent
‘til all the bread is broken
and fish multiplied
every hungry mouth
fed and every heart, soul
Dearly beloved,
we are all gathered today,
amen has not been said because
we are not finished yet.

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