Tag Archive: book reviews


(Marlene Lillian Photography)

According to the Library of Congress’s website:

The Poet and the Poem is an ongoing series of live poetry interviews at the Library of Congress with distinguished artists. Webcasts are now available of recent events, including the appearances of two U.S. Poets Laureate and several Witter Bynner fellows. Distinguishing features of the show are the poets’ discussions with host Grace Cavalieri about their craft and sources of inspiration. The series is sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

I really appreciate Grace Cavalieri having me on this show! Check out the recording here.

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2012. 78 pages. $15.95.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

The world continues to remember Nina Simone (formerly Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a storyteller through songs, whose body of work created a legacy of compassion, empowerment and liberation. At the time of Simone’s death on April 21, 2003, she was already among the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists.

But, to poet Monica Hand, this song griot was something else. Reading Hand’s poems, it’s clear that Nina Simone is the center around which a carousel of memories revolves in Hand’s new collection of poems me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012). And I have to agree with poet Terrance Hayes calling this book “a debut fiercely illuminated by declaration and song.”

Those declaration songs aren’t overshadowed by Nina Simone’s presence. Instead, Hand masterfully weaves Simone’s bio throughout her own. We get glimpses of Simone in the poem “X is for Xenophobia”:

like the x
in a geometry problem or hex
I don’t understand their pain
why they act like chickens in a pen
as if they felt at their nap
broken bone
why they want me alone hobo
for preaching hope
for reminding people we are Ibo
not bane
cause of soullessness they took an ax
to my happiness I want to open
the door play classical piano
now my hipbone
slips to Obeah
I am the unanswered z y x

(PHOTO: Courtesy) When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003–according to Nina Simone’s official site ninasimone.com–she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album.

Hand’s speaker in “X” might be alluding to Simone’s critics unable to file her musical style. “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in,” Simone wrote in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.

“On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

The one thing Nina Simone struggled with musically was mixing politics with popular music. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” according to her autobiography. “I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from people it was trying to celebrate.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That was until “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s tribute to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing. The South banned Simone’s song and performances.

Hand’s speaker brings us from the South to New York City to see Nina Simone perform that song at the Apollo Theater in the poem “Black is Beautiful”. That night, Hand’s speaker and her friend “D” are rocking their “crushed-velvet jackets blue-jeans high heels” to see Nina Simone’s performance:

Nina is singing Mississippi Goddam. Me and D we look at each other and nod.
Nina plays the piano a long time as if she forgets we are there. But we are.
Nina goes Holy roller African all in one wave of her hands ragtime to classical
and back again. We are in her groove our seats rocking with our bodies. Our
young female bodies, big Afros and big dreams. The balcony is a smoky black
sway. The orchestra white. Someone fidgets. Another one coughs. Nina stops.
Quiet. Her voice a swift typhoon. You could hear their hearts hesitate. Stop.
Nina chuckles then returns to her song. Mississippi Goddam. It’s different now.
Bruised. Me and D we look at each other and nod.

Reading those lines, I wondered if the fidgeting orchestra members were uneasy from the song itself or that they were the only white people, it seems, in the Harlem venue. In either context, the white band members’ tension is akin to that of the white folks who were in the movie theater watching Rosewood, a movie by John Singleton that told the story of an almost unknown incident in a small Florida town.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The false testimony of a white woman accusing a “black stranger” of raping her set off a mob of angry white folks who hunted down and lynched most of the black men in town. According to rumors, the movie caused such a stir that white folks, attempting to avoid any assumed confrontation afterwards, snuck out of the theater before the movie ended.

In me and Nina, Monica Hand doesn’t shy away from confronting sensitive topics. “In these poems she sings deep songs of violated intimacy and the hard work of repair,” Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of Hand’s book. Hand touches on that violated intimacy in the poem “Everything Must Change,” a poem in which Rufus, a boy from the neighborhood, invites Hand’s speaker to go see Nina Simone perform at the Blue Note.

As the poem goes, Rufus, who’s polite and respectful in front of Hand’s mother, turns out to be a jerk. Under the guise of going back to his parents’ spot to get some more money, Rufus lures Hand’s speaker into his basement bedroom. There:

he starts begging me to give him some—just a little he says. I’ve never done it before and/ I’m not scared just not really interested. I want to go. See Nina Simone. He / begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: Please, please,/ please. I give in. Stop his begging. It’s over. Quick. No big deal. I don’t feel a/ thing.

They never made it to the show. Part of repairing that hurt is not seeing Rufus anymore: “[…] when my mother asks what happened/ to him I just shrug my shoulders or tell her I think he’s dead. Just like, I tell the/ kids at school who ask where’s my daddy.”

In the poem “Daddy Bop”, Hand’s speaker gets herself into a mess of trouble trying to repair that hurt from her father. “Knew him like a fifth of vodka/ he tasted good with sugar and lime/–left me with the shakes/ so if you see me on the street/ acting like a bitch–/ I’m just missing my daddy,” according to Hand’s poem. “Lost all my self-respect/ in bed with some men some women/ who smelled like my daddy/ if they could love me, maybe he would too/ just understand everybody needs/ some respect he was my daddy”.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Monica Hand is a poet and book artist currently living in Harlem, USA.

And just when things seem hopeless, Hand’s speaker turns to Nina Simone for answers through her six “dear Nina” poems and the section “Nina Looks Inside,” which sets itself apart from the rest of book with white text on black pages.

“These poems are unsentimental, bloodred, and positively true, note for note, like the singing of Nina Simone herself,” according to Elizabeth Alexander.

Poets Terrance Hayes and Tyehimba Jess also agree. “She [Monica Hand] shifts dynamically through voices and forms homemade, received and re-imagined to conjure the music (and Muses) of art and experience,” writes Hayes.

After reading me and Nina, I felt that Jess best summed up this collection. “Monica A. Hand sings us a crushed velvet requiem of Nina Simone.” Whoa! That’s the best way to put it. “She plumbs Nina’s mysterious bluesline while recounting the scars of her own overcoming,” Jess continued. “Hand joins the chorus of shouters like Patricia Smith and Wanda Coleman in this searchlight of a book, bearing her voice like a torch for all we’ve gained and lost in the heat of good song.”

I don’t think I could’ve said it any better.

Makalani Bandele’s *Hellfightin*

Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2012. 65 pages. $14.95.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

There’s a lot of music in Makalani Bandele’s debut Hellfightin (Willow Books, 2012). The title’s a subtle bow to the Harlem Hellfighters (or the 369th Infantry Regiment) that fought in both world wars I and II.

As the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, according to sources, those men continued blazing the way for future Black soldiers.

In that spirit, the musicians that Bandele honors—Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones, to name a few—blazed the way for younger musicians, such as Eric Lewis and DC’s Young Lions.

This 65-page collection of poems is one long jam session that took me back to those nights at DC’s HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues.

Before it moved from 14th Street NW to the other side of the city, I use to pay either $8 or $10 and could sit through two sets of the Antonio Parker Quartet or bob and twist to the amazing Eric Lewis killing the keys, while appreciating every moment of it.

And I’m not even a jazz head—well, not one as serious as Bandele, whose passion for the music exuded through Hellfightin. Reading this collection was like walking down a hallway, where each poem was a door opening to a memory of every past encounter I’ve had with jazz. One door opened on a Thursday night in 2007, when Herbie Hancock just happened to be chilling inside the now-defunct Café Nema on U Street NW.

That night Mr. Hancock was there checking out his friend, Allyn Johnson, who plays keys for the awesome Young Lions band, a dynamic trio of well-traveled and humbled thirtysomething-year-old brothas. The intensity of Bandele’s hellfightin’ poems matched our anticipation that night for Mr. Hancock to play something. We all chanted, “Herbie! Herbie!” but he just waved us off.

I remembered Nema’s owner, who earlier took pictures with the jazz legend, throwing on his coat and walking through a corridor of friends who shared his excitement in Mr. Hancock blessing the spot with his presence. Then something happened. While jamming out a fast-paced numbered, Mr. Hancock moved to a bar stool closer to the band. The music got all up in him and he nearly fell off his stool twitching to every note.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Noticing that, Allyn Johnson smiled up at his friend and mumbled something. According to accounts from people who were near both men, Johnson asked his friend, “You want some of this?” To which Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t mind if I do.”

The crowd erupted and the owner threw off his jacket and ran back to the bar. Everyone snatched out their digital and cell phone cameras snapping at Mr. Hancock jamming with the other two Young Lions members.

Makalani Bandele matches that excitement with his poem “and the jam session extends after hours and into early morning at 63 hamilton terrace,” which–coincidentally–is about Herbie Hancock:

Herbie on piano heavy/ ebonies,         few ivories./ you can no longer see
The blues,/          but hear long              aloof chirps/ of brass.
and the jam session extends/          after hours          night shine/          trades
eights     with the shadows/ of box elder branches          playing/          in a
zephyr.

And for all of jazz’s improvisation, Bandele’s a formalist. In fact, he’s a genius, who not only successfully uses the contrapuntal (a form of poetry that’s read as either one poem or two poems in their distinct columns) to mimic jazz on the page but to also show that while the notes seem to fly wildly from horns and pianos, there’s still an order to the process.

Bandele also gives us an intimate moment with these musicians. His persona poem “introspective, eric dolphy” reads like a transcript of a treasured never-before released interview with the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist:

(PHOTO: Makalani Bandele) Makalani Bandele

a certain mind/ leaves its footprints along land’s end          thanking sea spray,/          it charts flight/ of gulls          on staff paper, their insistent calls/          called back          in gust:     the flute’s shrill,/ the breadth of horizon.     In my fingers/ how i know     time-/          signatures swirl          loose/ boundaries of decibel.     i logged thousands/ of hours   in—
clarinet lessons./          father added a room/          to woodshed in—the wayfaring/
has made my blood and teeth clean/         but sweet          in my fingers

Makalani Bandele delves deep into America’s history of disenfranchising people of color, especially African Americans who were once considered three-fifths of a person. In Hellfightin’, Bandele sees jazz as a blueprint for correcting these past injustices (“i like my government like/ i like my improvisation: mellifluous,/ full of organic changes/ progressions”):

to right the constitution,
then rewrite it, extempore.     give it
arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, a mouth—shake
your psyche to it—we making us
a whole black man  (from “jazz in the key of democracy”)

This poetic and musical journey through history speaks to Bandele’s craft as a poet and musician. In his past life, he was an ordained minister who pastored a church in North Carolina. Now, he’s moved his church to the page.

If you read this book, don’t be surprise if you hear Joe Nanton and Johnny Hodges playing as Ivie Anderson sings, “It don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Just know that Hellfightin is definitely swinging.

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