Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Kwame Dawes: WISTERIA

After accepting a position in the English Department at the University of South Carolina in 1992, Kwame Dawes began to realize that, despite his self-identity as a black man, he did not hold a full understanding of the emotional depth with which those in the African-American communities around the university still responded to the area’s history of racism and segregation. Born in Ghana and raised mostly in Jamaica, Dawes had lived in Canada during the six years prior to his relocating in South Carolina. In an attempt to comprehend the deep-seated feelings of his new neighbors, in 1995 Dawes interviewed senior members of Sumter County, South Carolina, about their memories of segregation and experiences with racism, as well as other aspects of growing up black in the South during much of the twentieth century. The anecdotal history they told in their taped testimonies provides the basis for the story lines behind the poems in Dawes’s collection, Wisteria.

In the acknowledgments for the volume, subtitled “Twilight Poems from the Swamp Country,” Dawes expresses his appreciation to seven named elders who shared narratives of their lives with him and from whom he drew information to render poetic versions so lyrical that they have since been accompanied by music composed for their theatrical presentation. As Dawes explains, and as the poems themselves show, the pieces in this book are not intended to be read as transcriptions of oral history; instead, the poetry in Wisteria exists as an artistic adaptation of those original monologues spoken to him more than a decade ago.

The title poem of the collection describes an atmosphere in which the subjects recorded their stories. A woman’s “scent of wisteria, / thick with the nausea of nostalgia / fills the closed-in room” as she begins to “lean into the microphone, / smile at the turning tape.” In this poem and elsewhere throughout the volume, Dawes detects long-suppressed anger just beneath the surface of the individuals’ reports, “almost unspoken, / just a steady heat.” In “Dreaming” one speaker remembers an incident in which a black boy is savagely beaten by a drunken white couple for playing “wrestling games with their white son.” By the end of the poem, the persona confides: “I thought I had forgotten the pulse of hate.” Another poem, “Long Memory,” includes a speaker recalling when she heard “news / of a lynched family friend.” Readers are informed: “The sheriff does not suspect / hate in the stringing-up / of a nine year old.” But the narrator wonders what emotional state could lead anyone to such actions: “And if it is not hate / it must be something / more insidious than hate.”

An underlying anger arises in another poem ("Poems in Everyday Places") during which the speaker tells of a childhood confrontation with a white man who told her that as long as he lived he would “see no colored child // riding a school bus.” When the schools eventually are integrated, “colored children // climbing onto the yellow bus,” the speaker informs readers that the bigoted man got his wish not to see the event, but she got her wish that he be struck blind (as "Vengeance" later reports), and “someone whispered it in his ear / while he stared into the black.” The speaker confesses: “My mother said never rejoice / in the infirmities of others; // sometimes I let my mother down / and commit sins of the soul.”

“Train Ride” portrays one speaker offering impressions concerning the infamous Scottsboro Boys episode in American history, involving nine black youths whose convictions and death sentences in 1931 resulted from the false testimony of two white women accusing them of rape. Although the defendants were eventually set free after years of further trials, convictions, and reversals, the case has remained a prime example of Southern injustice at the time. In the poem’s marvelous closing lines, Dawes’s speaker wonders what the boys could have been thinking even placing themselves in such a position during that era of racial strife: “Can’t believe those Scottsboro boys / had no idea what history they was messing with // rocking on that old freight train, / cutting through the heart of America.” The statement reveals the African-American community’s firmly held belief in the need to protect oneself from being placed in a vulnerable position when among whites, especially at that particular time and place in American history, and an innate distrust in any sense of social justice.

Nevertheless, much of the book contains compelling narratives that cover private incidents or intimate revelations reflecting individual experiences and relationships rather than overtly political or social commentary. In “Still Born” the speaker recalls: “My mother bore nine children— / we chant this as a litany of her strength.” Yet, even in a personal note like this one, there is an indirect appraisal of social conditions in which so many children die, as readers learn: “Three did not live to see the second year.” The speaker laments: “I count those who died before they woke, / those I cradled, caressed, cocooned to life, / hoping beyond the weakness of their cries.” In “Stations” a speaker candidly addresses her mother: “I gather all these memories inside me still, / and there’s nothing to do but line them up // look them over, standing there like stations / of my crosses, and your crosses, Mama.”

In fact, a number of poems appear to consist of characters looking back with new comprehension and appreciation at the lives their parents led. In “Mother and Daughter” a woman reminisces about her own childhood perspective toward her mother: “Foolish, ungrateful child that I was, / I thought that maybe you had a choice.” Even as Dawes shapes these poems to celebrate the achievements of their speakers, they also disclose a renewed pride in the courageous lives of a past generation that paved the way through difficult terrain for further freedom in their children’s lives.

Certainly, an important factor in these poems pertains to the act of remembering and the discoveries of self and society this process realizes, as well as the need to preserve memories while it is still possible: “Sometime I could sit down / and remember better / than I think I could remember— / from way back—better than I can do now” (“Memory”). In “Gardening” a woman is credited with “pages of stories / shaping themselves in her nimble mind. / She talks in pictures, we are enthralled.”

Throughout Wisteria, Kwame Dawes transforms the stories he recorded into pictures, striking images drawn in lyrical lines of poetry. In doing so, he honors the lives of those sharing their tales that inform and enlighten us all, even as those speakers pay homage to their predecessors. A few times, the poetic language appears a little too self-conscious and noticeable, almost to the point of distraction, as when one narrator becomes aware of the passage of time—“I stare at the seconds / switching in spastic efficiency / on the clock radio” (“Sleep”)—or another chooses to use the phrase “homoerotic enigma” (“Gender”). However, almost everywhere else in this collection, Dawes enhances the narratives with his fine ear for language and an astute poetic sensibility.

The musical voices of his personae evoke the blues or even church hymns on occasion, and the poet’s acute insight seems to get the spirit of the narratives just right time and time again. As Dawes depicts the woman in “Gardening”: “her stories carry the cadence of miracles, // striking pragmatic magic in her wisdom.” In this volume, Kwame Dawes repeatedly demonstrates his ability to represent with simple elegance those individuals whose own spirited storytelling skills offer readers an eloquent legacy. Wisteria supplies to readers an impressive series of poems written with precision and rich in passion that also consistently display a great deal of the poet’s own magical wisdom.

Dawes, Kwame. Wisteria. Red Hen Press, 2006.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, David Byrne, for such a generous reading of Wisteria. Very sensitive. Hopefully you will get a chance one day to see a rendering of the piece with music composed by poet and composer Kevin Simmond which was performed in the UK in October at Poetry International. The reception was overwhelming and gratifying.

One love


Edward Byrne said...


I appreciate your response to the review. I would very much like to see the theatrical presentation with musical accompaniment. However, you have slightly confused me with cousin "David," the real musical expert of the Byrne clan.