Thursday, April 25, 2013

Poetry A-Z: B is for Biographical

While I love poems about nature and the world around me, I find poems about real people and/or historical figures to be inspirational forms for sharing the stories about their lives and accomplishments. 

BIOGRAPHICAL - of or pertaining to a person's life

In perusing my bookshelves I realized that while I have many biographical poetry books, the books of one author first captured my attention.

César: ¡, Se Puede! Yes We Can, written by Carmen Bernier-Grand and illustrated by David Diaz, is a biography of Chávez told in a series of 19 free verse poems. The back matter in this book is extensive and includes a section of notes, a glossary, a short synopsis of Chávez's life, a brief chronology, the author's sources, and a collection of Chávez's quotes. It is one of the most comprehensive and moving biographies of the man I have ever read. What is different about this work is that it does not shy away from the difficulties and injustices he faced in his life. Instead, his life story is told head on, shining a spotlight on the good and bad times. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.

Crooked Lines

"God has written in exceedingly
crooked lines."

What made César follow
Father McDonnell
from camp to camp
and Mass to Mass?

What made Father McDonnell
give César the teachings and prayers
of Saint Francis of Assisi:
"Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace"?

Why did a book about Saint Francis
mention Mahatma Gandhi,
a man of peace who won many battles
against injustices in India?

Why did César talk
to Father McDonnell
about his passion for peaceful change
and the leadership hidden deep
inside him?

What made Father McDonnell
send Fred Ross, from the
Community Service Organization,
to see César?

God's crooked lines.

The next biography Carmen tackled was Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!. In this book the poems are largely accompanied by the paintings of Frida Kahlo, though a few photographs of Frida are included. I knew nothing about Frida's personal life until I read this book. The 26 poems capture her strength in the face of adversity, her passion, and the poignant experiences that marked her life. Here is a poem describing an early event that shaped her life.

Hummingbird Wings

I am a wounded hummingbird
caged in my room for nine months
with polio, crippling polio.

Warm towels soaked in walnut water
ease the pain in my leg,
a thin, drying twig.

I hide in the walnut wardrobe,
put on a white sock,
another on top,
and another.
Is the right leg as fat as the other?

The cage opens.
Now I have wings.

As with César, the back matter in this book is also extensive and includes quotes from the letters and diary of Frida Kahlo, a short overview of Frida's life, a brief chronology, a glossary, the author's sources, and a section of notes.

After writing about Frida Kahlo, it makes a great deal of sense that Carmen's next work would be about Diego River. Diego: Bigger Than Life follows the form of the first two biographies and is another exceptionally well-researched volume about the artist. This one contains a whopping 34 poems. The emotion that resonates in these poems is a testament to how well Carmen writes. I'll have to admit that there was little I liked about the man after reading this, but the connection between his passionate, controversial life and art is unmistakable. Here's a poem that describes his art.

Brimming With Mexican Light

As naturally as I breathe,
I painted in grand scale the colors of Mexico—
clearer, richer, more full of light than colors in Europe.

As naturally as I speak,
I painted in grand scale the music of Mexico
in markets, crowds, festivals—
Burning of the Judases, the Dance of the Deer.

As naturally as I sweat,
I painted in grand scale the workers of Mexico
in fields, mines, streets—
Indians carrying bundles of calla lilies.

A million public walls
wouldn't be enough
to paint all the beauty of Mexico.

All Poems ©Carmen Bernier-Grand. All rights reserved.

These titles were followed by Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina, a poetic biography of the prima ballerina assoluta of Cuba, and Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey, a collection of 40 poems about the life of the artist.

I have long had an interest in African American scientists and inventors, so finding Marilyn Nelson's book Carver: A Life in Poems was a revelation. Finally, here was the story of a remarkable man in language as inspiring as his life! Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.


God's breath on a compound of silica,
alumina, and various oxides—
primarily iron—gave Adam life.
There is a primal, almost mystical
connection between humankind and clay,
from the footed, bellied first receptacles
to frescoed Renaissance cathedral walls.
To Carver's eye, the muddy creek banks say
Here, to be dug up, strained, and painted on,
is loveliness the poorest can afford:
azures, ochres . . . Scraps of discarded board
are landscapes. Cabins undistinguished brown
bloom like slaves freed to struggle toward self-worth.
Beauty is commonplace, as cheap as dirt.

Poems ©Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved.

Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters, written by Jeannine Atkins, tells the story of three daughters moving from childhood to adulthood. Each of the three sections of the book begins with a bit of backstory about the mother and daughter and where their story in poems begins. The poems convey a real sense of person, and after reading them you feel you really know these women in an intimate way.

Irene Curie's story begins with birth of her younger sister and follows with the untimely death of her father, living with grief, her mother's second Nobel medal, war, Irene's studies at the Sorbonne, working side-by-side with her mother, and more. Here' are excerpts from two of the Curie poems.

from Without School Bells (p. 160-161)

Irene can't worry about yawns or crushes.
She needs to comprehend
the laws of radiance, reflection, refraction.
Every question and answer binds her
to the one world her mother loves.

from Paris (p. 185)

Irene and  now work side by side, though Irene
can't forget one of them
keeps two Nobel Prizes in her bureau.

Poems ©Jeannine Atkins. All rights reserved.

As with the other stories in the book, Irene's ends with a section entitled Legacies, that tells of her life after her mother's death. The book ends with a timeline marking important events in the lives of the three mothers and daughters. A selected bibliography is also included.

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Sean Qualls, is a novel-length biography written in verse that tells of the boyhood of a nineteenth-century Cuban slave who secretly learned to read and wrote poetry about beauty, despite the harshness of the world in which he lived. The poems are told from the perspectives of Juan himself, his parents, his owners (two different women), and others involved in his life. Here's an excerpt.

Juan (p. 38-39)

Even though I am not free
     there are things that I love
     in this world, this mansion, palace
     this strange home where I live
     even though it doesn't always feel exactly
     like living
     or home

I love to sit in the central courtyard
     looking up a a ceiling of sky
     looking around at the fragrant garden
     of jasmine and tuberose
     looking down at the mosaics on the floor
     chips of tile swirled into stories
     of kings and castles
     jungles and beasts

I love the singing fountain, ripening fruit trees
     a view of high balconies dancing in the wind
     the rhythm of archways and columns
     railings of wrought iron in  the shapes
     of black metal peacocks
     and angels playing harps
     I like to think that the angels are real
     the music mine

I roam the vast rooms
     filled with paintings and statues
I dance in the ballroom when no one is looking
I try out the musical instruments
I sit in the rocking chairs, swaying
     to my own secret song
     a silent moment
     of peace

Poems ©Margarita Engle. All rights reserved.

This is a heart-wrenching life story, beautifully told. As sad as parts of it are, there is hope here. Engle provides a historical note about Manzano in the back matter of the book. Here's an excerpt.
Juan often said that he hoped to write a novel about his life. He never had the chance. In fact, strict censorship by the colonial Spanish government prevented all Cuban poets and novelists from writing verses or stories about slavery. 
The life story of Juan Francisco Manzano is known only because some of his autobiographical notes were smuggled to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.
The historical note is followed by examples of Manzano's poetry, in Spanish and English translation.

That's it for B. See you tomorrow for some A inspired poetry ponderings.

1 comment:

  1. I think biographical poems are some of my favorites - and yet I don't own any books of such. Hm!