Roundup Poetry

March 15, 2009|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Baltimore Sun


By Lucille Clifton

BOA Editions / 59 pages / $22.95

Although National Book Award winner and former Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton is a woman of few words, she makes each of them count. Her latest book, Voices, continues Clifton's tradition of autobiographical Zenlike poems showcasing Clifton's instinct for the evocative image and the just-right ending.

Most of the poems personify inanimate things as well as plants, animals and deceased family members. Several poems concern growing up a black woman in a white culture. Two poems have religious connotations that under less-skilled hands could seem maudlin.

Divided into three sections, the book is a riff on the concept of voice. Each section explores the ways the poet relates to voices: from those spoken by inanimate objects to those remembered to those "overheard" in the titles of pictures. Serving as a medium, the poet speaks not only for those things that have no voice, but also for the feelings associated with them. All of this is rendered in Clifton's trademark sound of black colloquialisms. With no capitalization or punctuation, these poems get their message across through brevity, white space and line breaks as well as Clifton's genius for hypnotic rhythm.

I Heard God Talking to Me

By Elizabeth Spires

Farar, Straus & Giroux / 56 pages / $17.95

Elizabeth Spires' latest book of poems, I Heard God Talking to Me, offers short poetic characterizations of the primitive sculptures and tombstones by William Edmondson, an illiterate artist who heard and saw God speaking to him beginning in his early teens. The fascinating story these poems tell is not about the deceased so much as it is about the individual monuments and their relationship to the carver.

Born in 1874 in Nashville, Tenn., Edmondson was the second child of freed slaves. As Spires explains, when he was in his mid-50s, Edmondson saw a tombstone in the noon sky and heard God telling him to cut a similar figure.

Spires, an award-winning professor at Goucher College, quotes from Edmondson's descriptions of his work as she skillfully imagines what these carvings might say. Figures like "Adam and Eve," "Three Crows" and even an "Angel with a Pocketbook" speak plaintively as Spires subtly captures the essence of their profound yet simple existence.

Diane Scharper is co-editor of the anthology "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability," winner of the first Helen Keller international memoir competition. She teaches English at Towson University.

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