Three Poems from Nikki Giovanni’s Make Me Rain

It’s always a good day when poet, activist, and professor Nikki Giovanni showers us with the power and wisdom of her words.

I love her latest book, Make Me Rain: Poems and Prose (William Morrow, 2020), which is by turns celebratory, conversational, tender, soul nourishing, and ablaze with fierce conviction. Her heart and refreshing honesty are on display whether the subject is deeply personal or politically controversial. She begins with this lyrical restorative gem:

MAKE ME RAIN

make me rain
turn me into a snowflake

let me rest
on your tongue

make me a piece of ice
so I can cool you

let me be the cloud
that embraces you

or the quilt
that gets you dry

snuggle close
listen to me sing

on the windowsill

make me rain
on you

What a beautiful way to invite us into this collection! As a poet and person, she is wholeheartedly in service of language and its critical role in the healing and nurturing of humanity. Water, which sustains every living thing, is a recurring theme in the book.

The book’s cover is an homage to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, recently ranked #1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

There are other joyous and life affirming poems about family, friends, mentors, and dreams to soothe the spirit. She often uses the quilt metaphor not only as a symbol of comfort and safety, but as a way of stitching together precious memories and illuminating the uncommon strength that comes from unifying diverse elements.

“Pictorial Quilt” by Harriet Powers (1898)
(From Nikki's poem, “Quilts”):

Some folk think
a quilt is leftover
clothes
but we know
it is made up
of loved pieces
we have saved
then sewn
together . . . 

America is a quilt
made up of different
folk
we came together to build
something warm
and good

And yes, she talks fondly about food — a communal activity with universal resonance. She tempts us with butter fried chicken, vegetable soup, fried okra, blackberries, pinto beans and warm cornbread muffins, in a voice warm and intimate.

Yet alongside her poems of positivity and light, she also rouses and provokes with hard truths about our times. There is a rallying cry for voting rights, and her defense of immigrants in “Raise Your Hand” should be read by every ‘privileged’ citizen in the country.

In one of her most powerful poems, she incisively addresses racism and white supremacy, staring down the hatred that is tearing our country apart.

“Cracked Justice” quilt by Carolyn Crump
AND SO IT COMES TO THIS

Painful words
Nasty comments
Always in groups
Never just by yourself
Teaching your sons to hate
And your daughters to fear

Waiting until night
Putting on white hoods to cover your face
Burning the Cross
You say you worship
Bombing the church Four Little girls
Or Nine Bible Studiers
Will be in

Passing laws
No this allowed
No that

Complaining because you’re poor
Complaining because you’re ignorant
Sad because you’re stupid
Greedy because you don’t know anything else to be

Sexing your fourteen-year-old daughter
Beating your wife
Saying you are for the unborn
Unless you can be a cop
And shoot them
Or on a jury and free the men who murdered them

Or looking for a job and taking one
In Private Prisons
Where God only knows what you do to the men

Since when did Prisons become
“Private”

Killing coyotes because they howl
Killing lions if you save enough money to go to Africa
And can brag
Killing your girlfriend because she says she’s
   leaving you

Looking at the world with a toothless mouth
With facial hair down to the ground
Trying to believe coal will come back

Finally having to recognize:

The only thing you have to offer
Anything . . . yourself . . . Planet Earth
Anything at all.
Is
Your white skin

How sad. How sad.

Nikki also celebrates her Black heritage, expounding on the enduring power of music, the distinctive common “language” of her community, with its origins in slave ship spirituals and the evolution of this oral tradition to jazz and blues and rap and “whatever will come next.”

No matter who we are or where we find ourselves our first stories came in song.

In her essay “We Write,” she explains how this new ‘language’ helped forge an unbreakable bond among her African ancestors who were sold and then scattered in communities across the world. They learned to live and worship together, communicating through this nascent song.

We write because we have evolved into another century. We write to be sure the words to the songs, and for those who understand, the notes to the music, get written down. We write because we are lonely and scared and we need to keep our hearts open . . . We who do words are doing what we do. We are not trying to get folk who are frightened of us to be calm around us. We are reminding folk who love us that this is a good thing. Black Ink should be a soup or a drink or something we can embrace with pride. Black Lives Matter. Black Ink reminds us why.

Nikki discusses the primacy of poetry in “Lemonade Grows From Soil, Too,” with wonderful lines like, “We hear poetry from the moment we are conceived. Our mothers sing songs to us in the womb while they smile and anticipate . . . We need poetry because it brings the light of love . . . We find the song in the darkest days to say ‘put on your red dress, baby, ‘cause we’re going out tonight,’ understanding we may be lynched on the way home but knowing between that cotton field and that house party something wonderful has been shared . . . We are poetry. And poetry is us. Those who share with us are poetry. It is the soil that keeps all of us growing.”

Perhaps this poem says it all:

“The Warmth of Other Sons” quilt by Bisa Butler (2020)
THE BLUES

Some folks think the blues
Is a song or a way
Of singing
But the blues is
History
A way of telling how
We got here
And who sent us
The blues may talk about
My man
Or my woman
Who left me
Or took my money
And is gone
But what they mean
Is I was stolen
In an African war
And ignorantly sold
Probably not
Realizing to a new world
But the Lord is Good
And gave us a song
To tell our story
We sang the blues in the cotton fields
Not to complain
About our lives but to let
Each other know
We are still here
We stirred the blues
In our stews
To give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used
The Blues
To give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And much more Thank the Lord
How to stay until
The next day
The blues is our history
Our quilt
The way we fry our chickens
The way we boil our grains
To make us some really good
Something to drink
The blues is our encyclopedia
And no matter who tries to copy us
Only we know
The real meaning
Of those songs

More than twenty years ago, I heard Nikki read her poetry at a nearby public library. It’s still one of the best readings I’ve ever attended. I remember wishing I could be a student in one of her writing classes at Virginia Tech.

How lucky we are that she continues to gift us with her plain spoken, accessible poems and stories that inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves. Hers is always a song worth singing. Don’t miss Make Me Rain. 🙂

I’m here
And if I mist
On emotional soil
A weed will
Grow

Make Me Rain

Let me be a part
Of this needed change

*

MAKE ME RAIN: Poems and Prose
written by Nikki Giovanni
published by William Morrow, October 2020
Poetry Collection, 144 pp.

*

The wonderful and talented Matt Forrest Esenwine is hosting the roundup at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme. Breeze over there to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Enjoy your weekend!


*This post contains Amazon and Bookshop affiliate links. When you purchase using either of these, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no cost to you. Thank you for your support.

**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

26 thoughts on “Three Poems from Nikki Giovanni’s Make Me Rain

  1. Jama, thank you for this post. I’ve seen this book talked about and have wanted to pick up a copy. Now I know I will. What stunning insight poured into her poems. I love the art you’ve found to illustrate this look at Giovanni’s book. What a wonderful experience visiting this blog this morning. Thank you. I was inspired by a quilter this week as well. How about that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quilts are a running theme in this book; I was happy to find just the right ones to go with her poems. Nice to hear you were inspired by a quilter this week!

      Like

  2. I didn’t know that Nikki Giovanni has this new one out, Jama, and what powerful parts of it you’ve shared today. It makes me so sad to know that she speaks the truth & it happens over & over again. I have her Grand Mothers book and have loved it for a long time, will certainly get this one! We should all be glad that she wrote!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s truly a wonder. She did several video interviews last Fall to promote the book. I enjoyed hearing what she had to say. Never holds back. 🙂

      Like

  3. Thank you for sharing Nikki Giovanni’s latest, Jama. It absolutely is MUST read…for EVERYbody. Her poem, “AND SO IT COMES TO THIS” is unflinching and necessary. Wow. “Let me be a part
    Of this needed change” – yes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s always been a fearless advocate of what is right and just. It’s just sad that the same issues she fought for back in the 60s are still plaguing us today.

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  4. Oh, my GOODNESS – the Marvin Gaye cover callback was a great thing! It’s so weird to imagine Nikki Giovanni as an older person now – she came to speak on poetry in school and was vibrant and energetic and my brain puts her right at that place in her life (and mine) forever…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I love that homage to MG’s album cover –of course I had to listen to “What’s Going On” several times again. Such a brilliant song. When I saw Nikki years ago she was vibrant and energetic. I think she’s still the same now, judging by the video interviews I saw recently.

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  5. Thanks for this robust review of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry book MAKE ME RAIN, filled with so many poems to treasure, ponder, and grow from—I’m looking forward to reading more! Her poem MAKE ME RAIN, feels as if she plucks the words from the sky and they sing on the page. And I love the cover connection with Marvin Gaye–had to go listen to his song again. BTW I’m taking my family and mom to the Chicago Art Institute for Mother’s Day and will take in the Bisa Butler exhibit and a few others, her work is gorgeous, thanks for sharing it here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, how exciting!! I hope you’ll blog about the exhibit sometime. I also had to listen to Marvin’s song again — it just gets better and better and continues to resonate no matter what. Love your description of Make Me Rain: “she plucks the words from the sky and they sing on the page.” That could be a poem too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Jama! I meant to mention, I really liked your gift to Ruth for her blog’s 15th Crystal Birthday. I took the first line “Crystal Blue Persuasion…” (another song I like) and wrote a quick golden shovel poem for her, thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

        Like

  6. Thanks for this introduction to a powerful book! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Like

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