'A Good Cry' both a comfort and a call to arms

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 6:11pm

“A Good Cry” is Nikki Giovanni’s 21st collection of poems to be published, and the experience shows. As one of America’s most prolific and recognizable living poets, this new collection proves that Giovanni is settling into her role as senior poet with grace, elegance and a continued immediacy that makes her work as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and ’70s.

The poems in “A Good Cry” are written in Giovanni’s signature style, combining the lyrical with the endearingly colloquial. At her best, she revels in simplicity: Simple language and images thoughtfully bundled together to express great complexity and intensity of feeling. Poems like “Bread,” “Thirst” and “Morning Breakfast Routines” elevate the mundane pleasures of food and drink to a dream-like state of poetry, and “On a Snowy Day” is an ode to the impact of small acts of kindness from strangers. The emotional backbone of this collection, in both its lightest and darkest moments, is Giovanni’s complete sincerity, and this makes each poem, no matter how simple, vibrate with honesty.

At times, the poems might falter in the direction of being too simple. For example, the acrostic “A Poem for Morris” and the prose poem “A Poem for Joanne” say nothing that hasn’t been said before by other writers in more nuanced ways. These poems are saved, however, by Giovanni’s enduring earnestness, her affection for the subjects shining through in every word. It would be a mistake to confuse her preference for simple, everyday subjects with an inability to cope with complexity and ambiguity; Giovanni is able to sit comfortably at the midline between light and dark, hope and hopelessness. If anything, her choice to write about seemingly quotidien subjects reveals an admirable lack of self-consciousness that comes from her wealth of experience.

The poems in this collection reveal Giovanni’s thematic obsessions, many of which revolve around time, memory and age. In poems like “Heritage” and “If I Have to Hospital,” she considers old age with refreshing equanimity. In “Surveillance,” “Baby West” and “I Married My Mother,” she looks back on her childhood, and particularly her troubled family relationships, with a refusal to either idealize or condemn; and in “Rita Dove” she looks forward to the next generation with enduring hope. Giovanni also writes about friendship, particularly her friendship with fellow writer Maya Angelou, with an intensity that many poets ascribe only to romantic relationships, insisting on solidarity and connection as the most important human experiences. Many of the poems in this collection correspond with Giovanni’s lifetime of work as a civil rights activist; she views the Civil Rights movement as both a triumph and an ongoing struggle, making this collection an essential read in the current political climate.

The common thread running through this collection, and perhaps the greatest virtue of Giovanni’s work, is her ability to confront joy and tragedy in a single swoop. She demands connection in a world where we are bound to be isolated, and honorable intentions even under the worst of circumstances. Her message, both a comfort and a call-to-arms, is best expressed in “Introduction to Tim O’Brien”: “You cannot make the tragedy go whole / You cannot make the hurt heal / You can do nothing but embrace / The best within yourself.”