Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg #TBR2022RBR

Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems has been absolute stunner.

I’m going to start by admitting that I had only read one or two Sandburg poems prior to this collection, the popular ones that are often found in class texts or major anthologies. I also didn’t (and still don’t) know much about Sandburg himself. If the poems are any indication, he was one interesting dude.

For example, while I was repeatedly irritated by Sandburg’s poem speakers’ using racist terms to describe a variety of non-white people (you can imagine the words), I was simultaneously impressed by his pro-worker, anti-war poems. Sandburg was of course a man of his times, and it’s even possible he was using derogatory terms intentionally but not maliciously. I really don’t know (I would like to believe it’s a kind of Mark Twain situation, but I just don’t have the background, yet, to make that determination. I’ll surely investigate.)

Anyway, I found those contradictions immediately interesting, and they make me want to know more about Sandburg and his experiences. But it’s the poems themselves that blew me away. He reads to me very much like a later-Whitman, like a Whitman of the Midwest. His poems have similar styles and themes, though some are much more biting than Whitman’s ever are.

Although the collection is titled Chicago Poems, there are in fact excerpts from other collections included in my edition (Dover Thrift 1994). These included poems from Handfuls, War Poems (1914-1915), The Road and the End, Fogs and Fires, Shadows, and Other Days (1900-1910). For any new or aspiring poets struggling to learn how to put a poetry collection together, how to theme their poems, this little book is extraordinarily helpful. The selection of poems for each collection beautifully illustrates the theme of each and help to clarify how collections work, and why. I found the poems not just powerful and affecting reads, but the collection itself edifying from a writer’s perspective.

Despite loving the Chicago poems themselves, probably because I’m from Chicago, I think my two favorite collections from this edition are War Poems and Fogs and Fires. To be clear, I marked poems from every section of the book, so I didn’t dislike any of it. War Poems, however, was deeply moving and convincing. Its poems are clearly anti-war, but in surprising and moving ways. Reading these during the current crisis in Ukraine was particularly jarring. On the other hand, Fogs and Fires is filled with atmospheric poems of varying poems about nature, locations, and even holidays. There’s one new-to-me poem in this one, “Theme in Yellow,” that is a delightful engagement with Halloween. I absolutely loved it.

I think the fact that I’ve added this slim edition to my small collection of books I keep to study the craft of poetry (which includes a volume each from Sharon Olds, Thomas James, Ocean Vuong, and Mary Oliver) is testament to how valuable and strong the work is.   

“The dead say nothing / And the dead know much /

And the dead hold under their tongues / A locked-up story.”

Chicago Poems is Book 6 completed for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson #TBR2022RBR

According to my Goodreads account, I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste on December 30, 2020. I searched my blog for a review, but I had the same trouble with that one as I’m having with The Warmth of Other Suns, which is that it’s hard to do truly great, important books any justice.

The full title of the book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. In it, Wilkerson tells the personal case studies and field research (interview series) of three individuals who migrated from the American South to three of the most popular flight points in the country, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.  These personal accounts are interwoven into a thoroughly researched history of the Great Migration, and this approach is successful because it provides the reader with two of the most important features of historical record: first-hand accounts and broader context.

One of the more affecting parts of the work are details about the individual experiences of these three migrants after they moved to Northern cities. There’s a tendency to believe that everything was bad in the South, and everything was good in the North, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As many historians have noted, while racism might be more overt in some places in the United States, it is no less present and influential in the supposedly more liberal and “free” cities. This was demonstrated with brutal clarity in the story of Dr. Robert Foster whose migration was a bit different from the others in this book. While Ida Mae Gladney and George Starling fled by train, Foster drove himself from the Southeast to Los Angeles. It’s heartbreaking to hear his account of trying to search for a safe place to stay along his journey only to be repeatedly rebuffed and forced to continue driving (even in “free” states) when he was well-beyond the point of exhaustion. Foster, incidentally, would eventually exceed anyone’s expectations for success when he became a wildly popular and revered medical doctor in California, including personal physician to the singer Ray Charles, but even this success and stature didn’t shield him, decades later, from the racism of certain patients and the impotence of a system unwilling to stand up for one of its best.

The stories of Ida Mae Gladney, who ended up in Chicago, and George Sterling, who settled in Harlem, were equally revealing in explaining how the North really treated Southern black migrants and in the resulting “white flight” in cities across the country after black migrants started to buy homes in Northern cities and suburbs. Alongside these personal stories, Wilkerson incorporates historical evidence about red lining, city officials’ and residents’ responses, and the forced creation of “ghetto” neighborhoods due to white intolerance and white legislators’ indifference (or worse, active antagonism) to black neighborhoods.

Wilkerson’s study helps to explain the cause for the great migration of black Southerners to Northern cities but also the complex and complicated responses of both Northerners and Southerners to this migration. The book counters long-held assumptions about the supposed failures of black migrants (in work, family, and education) by integrating secondary comparative evidence that demonstrates migrants (as we know from any reputable study of immigration) tended to be more highly educated, more successfully employed, and more stable in marriage/family settings.)

Overall, this is an important and eloquent study that illuminates the depths of migratory history, its causes and effects, and it’s a notable precursor to Wilkerson’s stunning follow-up, Caste.

The Warmth of Other Suns is Book 5 for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

March Checkpoint! #TBR2022RBR

Stack of books with text: "The 2022 TBR Pile Challenge Hosted by RoofBeamReader.com"

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Welcome to our third checkpoint for this year’s TBR Pile Challenge! We already have more than 70 reviews/checkpoints linked up on our Mr. Linky, which is excellent! Well done to all of you. I hope you continue to read and share and discuss all your favorites (or least favorites) from this challenge.

As for me, I’ve made more progress since last month, which is that I actually managed to read and write down thoughts for two more challenge books!

Progress: 4 of 12 Completed

I think this is the best pace I’ve had in any reading challenge since I started this one way back in 2011. (Yes, 2011!) I’m also about two-thirds of the way into my fifth selection from this list, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m pleased to report that, so far, I’ve had a 4 or 5-star experience with all of these, and it’s been a nice diversity of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. I do think my next selection from the list will have to be a poetry collection, because I’ve got five more of those on my challenge list for the year.

Books read:

How are you doing?

index

Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

MINI-CHALLENGE #2 is coming next month! 

LINK UP YOUR REVIEWS!

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones has been on my radar since its publication over a decade ago, but somehow this one, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was the first of her novels that I bought, and thus it has been on my actual (physical) TBR pile for more than long enough to qualify for this year’s TBR Pile Challenge.

What I didn’t know about either of these novels is that they both won the National Book Award (2011 and 2017, respectively), and have cemented her place among the contemporary American literary masters. My reading of Sing, Unburied, Sing, for what its worth, confirms this. I’ve been skeptical of this trend toward magical realism in contemporary Black American fiction, especially when historical figures are involved. Ward’s approach, though, is delicate on the magical part, and it deals with everyday persons rather than reimagining the lives of remarkable people from our literal history.

Although I’ve found myself less and less interested in folk literature or magical realism that uses the supernatural as deux ex machina, I appreciate where Ward is coming from in crafting her tale the way she does. Much of the supernatural, which is a kind of side element anyway, is metaphor, and I find this much more interesting and effective, personally, when I’m not reading fantasy intentionally.  

Ward’s characters, living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are realistic in formidable ways. Present here is tradition and intergenerational folk wisdom, but this is put into direct conflict with modern traditions and failings. The tension between embracing and curating generations of family and community knowledge with the onslaught of contemporary realities, including police violence, racist systems, and drug addiction, is a rubber band stretched to snapping.

This tension is expressed through the competing narratives of Jojo, an interracial teenager coming into his manhood, including the powers and challenges this brings, and his mother, Leonie, a woman who lost her brother tragically to racial violence, who married a white man despite that, and who has been unable to reconcile any of it. This lack is most evident in her inability to see and hear beyond the veil—beyond the senses’ true abilities—the way that her dying mother can, and the way that Jojo can, too.

A subplot whose climax is revealed only at the very end exists in the mystery of a relationship that formed between Jojo’s grandfather and a boy, Richie, both of whom were incarcerated together many years before Jojo’s story takes place. All of these characters and relationships are indicative of larger concerns while being at the same time very real and affecting to the people carrying the weight of America’s shames on their shoulders. It’s heartbreaking to see just how personal these grand errors can become, and how much damage they can do.

The question, in the end, seems to be whether we as persons and as a people can become something better than our histories. Ward’s answer is found in Kayla, Jojo’s younger sister who clings to him throughout, who rejects their mother, and whose final command, “Go home,” seems not so much an entreaty to another character in the end, but a command for us all.

Home, they say. Home.”

This is book four completed for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

A People’s History of the United States

Cover image of Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States'. White background with blue font.

I have long wanted to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; in fact, I think I’ve owned my copy for at least a decade. Many things kept me from picking it up, from its length to the fact that it’s a general history book (I usually read only targeted histories, such as histories of a particular war or a specific topic, but less often something that covers a nation’s or people’s entire history). I also worried, based on the excerpts I’d already read plus reviews from friends, that the book would make me terribly sad and incredibly enraged. As it turns out, I wasn’t giving that premonition enough credit.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History is, by the author’s own admission, a biased view, as all views are. It is, however, a more honest one, in my opinion, because it considers the lived experiences of the masses, not the few (something quite different from most histories) and because it recounts so much of what is traditionally left out of popular and educational history texts. Zinn presents us with major and minor historical events, movements, figures, and places as it would have been viewed by those most affected and with an attempt at creating immediate and longitudinal contexts. Even though I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time without risking personal injury due to rising blood pressure and lockjaw, I felt like I was able to speed through the text, to comprehend and digest it well, and to gain an even deeper appreciation for my already skeptical view of the adage, “American exceptionalism.”

The history is bound to make an objective and conscientious reader feel monumentally disappointed in the American experiment, from its pre-colonial founding to the Clinton administration. When modern day conservatives rave about “woke” culture and anti-American sentiment (read: addressing cisgender white heterosexual privilege), it’s not hard to understand why a book like this one might frighten them (and why the less intellectually honest or less equipped might want to “ban” it). Ideas can be disruptive, and disruption can feel unsettling, even dangerous.

I too experienced this feeling while reading A People’s History. Many figures I have long admired are now under re-assessment, which is a painful but not unnecessary process. I think it would be easy to finish this one and walk away utterly disillusioned by the power and corruption, and great deception, of the American government and its economic system. And while there’s every reason to be angered by much, Zinn also highlights just how often the people have stepped in to say when enough was enough, to demand and create change, and to stand together and support one another in the most impossible of times and under the most extraordinary of pressures and disadvantages.

I won’t say A People’s History is uplifting or even very promising, because it’s not, but I think that if one is of a mind—or heart—to seek the good in a perpetually bad system and to believe that, ultimately, power really will rest in the people, then it’s enough that this book is edifying, challenging, and actionable. They call this “revisionist” history, but as I tell my students, revision is what we do when we have new information and when we have strengthened our ability to process that information. When we revise thoughtfully, we almost always produce something better.

If you’re an American and haven’t yet read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I hope you will do so. I’m going to list some other recommendations below.

This one is Book 3 for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

Recommendations for Similar Reading:

  • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The 1619 Project edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
  • A Queer People’s History of the United States by Michael Bronski
  • An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  • An African- American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
  • A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Berry and Kali Gross
  • A Disability History of the United States by Kim Nielsen
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander