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.
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.
(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.
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 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!
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