Tag Archives: poetry

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

How to Love a Poem

  • Read it. Out loud.
  • Love the obvious parts. Underline them.
  • Read it again. Out loud.
  • Read it each evening before bed, like a meditation.
  • Lean on the obvious parts to bring out the obscured, the subtle, and the mysterious.
  • Underline those parts, too.
  • Enjoy finding something new each time you re-visit the rhythm, spaces, and text.
  • Delight in discovering the complexities within those obvious parts you loved at first.

And that is how to love a poem, or anything.

A poem by Jack Gilbert from his book The Great Fires. It means something different, and more, to me each time I read it.

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional

and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,

vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.

But the best is often when nothing is happening.

The way a mother picks up the child almost without

noticing and carries her across Waller Street

while talking with the other woman. What if she

could keep all of that? Our lives happen between

the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual

breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about

her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Jack Gilbert

Refusing Heaven - Jack GilbertI read a wide variety of genres – literary fiction, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy (lots of fantasy, these days), romance, and tons of YA. While I am reading a novel, I develop an intense connection to the characters. They populate my mind. If I move from one story to the next too quickly, my vampires get all mixed up with my Tudors. Though that does sound like fun, it gets confusing. When I read dissimilar books back-to-back (which I often do), it sometimes feels a little like my brain is eating chunks of German chocolate cake dunked in Thai fish soup. Certain combinations just don’t work.

I’ve found that if, between novels, I read essays, articles, non-fiction, and poetry it helps to clear my mind and ready it for the next foray into fiction. Sometimes I do this for one afternoon, and sometimes for a few days at at time. I do this to give my mind a break from fictional characters (with all their drama!) and to give myself a chance to catch up on sleep. As much as I enjoy a good essay, I’ve never felt compelled to stay up all night to finish one.

Jack Gilbert’s collection of poetry Refusing Heaven has lived on my nightstand for years. I read it when I am in between books. I read it when I want to meditate on how lovely language can be. After so many readings, the poems really are like a meditation to me, or a prayer. Many pages are dog-eared, and these are the poems I return to most often, such as this poem, entitled “Say You Love Me:”

Are the angels of her bed the angels
who come near me alone in mine?
Are the green trees in her window
the color I see in ripe plums?
If she always sees backward
and upside down without knowing it
what chance do we have? I am haunted
by the feeling that she is saying
melting lords of death, avalanches,
rivers and moments of passing through.
And I am replying, “Yes, yes.
Shoes and pudding.”

Okay, I might have a bit of a crush on JG. I heard him interviewed on NPR several years ago. He spoke of life, work, and romance. The way he spoke of love with his gravel voice, I imagined that’s what his voice would sound like, waking up in bed with a lover on a rainy afternoon. It’s not that I fantasized about him. It’s just that I think his voice – full of cracks and breaks – permanently sounds the way it would whispering sweet nothings while the rain taps the window.