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The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005 (Pitt Poetry Series) Paperback – November 28, 2007
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words on the problems inherent in america, its racism, rage, comic perspective and utlimately potential for transformation. It does not get any better than this. BRAVO. I hope many are inspired by this review to
read on and be with its journey for the soul!
In this collection spanning 20 years, Michael Weaver's poetry shows an incisive edge, the sort of sharpness that can slice you when you're not looking or, like a paper cut, get you while you were halfway through a simple, unsuspecting move. This is poetry of subtlety, not a forceful samurai sword that takes your head off before you feel the blade. His writing comes at you directly, with apparent innocence, until you feel the sting and see the blood. People and places are deeply felt and tightly focused. The clues to this depth---underwater, in a cemetery, behind walls---are arranged in elemental sections: Gold, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, which (as the author notes) are the Daoist creative path. Yes, the poetry is that basic, that powerful, the simple work of a Tai Chi master (which he is) or a factory worker (which he was) or a man maintaining strong family, geographic, and loving connections.
And pure. Consider these three lines about a young man and an old woman leaving church:
"Through the benediction and the hush,
we walk together outside, an unusual machine
turning on the pistons of forgiveness and curiosity."
Or this opening line: "The fist is a hand that has made decisions."
Or these capturing the moment love captures:
"I was instantly figured over with lines,
like Gulliver in Lilliput, your love
having converted itself to a million pygmies."
The book finishes with a long poem titled "New England," which is a remarkable topography of history, place, character, feeling and truth. Here we have 20 years of Weaver's best, each line a town, every sentence a city, for, as he writes:
is a city."
I have no affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh or its press, but as you might expect, they have done a handsome product in keeping with their caring commitment to poetry.
bears rereading, for it opens to deeper understanding of class as well as race, of the journey to heal as well as the story of harm, in ways both moving and insightful. I read through the book before I read in the notes that the poems are organized according to the "five elements of Chinese philosophy," which, placed in this order--gold, water, wood, fire, and earth--serve to construct the "Creative Path." I read for the logic of the poems together, and the synergy of their placement. Each section opens with a crystalline, koan-like verse (excerpted from Ten Lights of God), and then moves into meditations on relations (of father to son, of poet to self, of self to loss), origins--both personal and cultural--and poetic investigations that are radically, delicately innovative.
"Wood," opens with a meditation on how the speaker's mother's voice "chang[ed] up for white folk," which the speaker neither likes nor understands, significantly, "how Mama taught me translation." I found such scenes of code-switching, often performed in the poem that is contemplating the action, incisive and subtle analysis. From there we move to poems that dwell on the complexities of making a living in the black community that fights poverty and the casual or concerted racism. But there are also, importantly, poems of great celebration--of jazz, of Civil Rights, of cultural heritage and plain speech. Yet there's nothing plain-spoken about Weaver's poetics or portraits. Weaver soars easily through riffs of allusions ("in the shadows of the lilacs in the last door") and alights in the garden of black heritage. See, for example, his blazingly witty, tour de force "The Last Jazz Club" (death, I think), and his critically nuanced and beautiful "Composition for White Critics..."
Finally, we move to poems of friendship and love in "Fire," which treat loneliness as it transforms through the poet's labor into a fruitful solitude, becoming by the final section, "Earth," full of wisdom and lament. For me, "Water Song" is gorgeously elegiac, "New England" a powerful poem, at once hauntingly lyrical and an incisive indictment of the sources of northern wealth and Puritanical hypocrisy (we are told that the founder of Brown University, for example, made his money from "Africans,/ molasses, rum, and oil."). Weaver ends with a tribute to Langston Hughes which gestures toward the genetic hybridity they both came from: "I meditate on the congregation of genes and wishes/ that brought me here, counting back the four generations/ to the first African, naming along the way the Native Americans/ Europeans the polka-dot army of chromosomes and molecules/ like tiny spaceships that align themselves with mystic glue/ so that I am the same mystery each day and do not dissolve..." This is a wondrous and attentive gathering of poems--representative of the poet's individual creative path. Afaa Weaver is a path-forger, and as he calls a dear and lost friend, "a warrior"--one who has trained rigorously to survive to teach wisdom not war.