a few books about structural racism & police brutality

from link

Are you, o reader, from the United States? If so, there’s a fairly decent chance you’ve heard about our latest fatal police shooting in Chicago,1 and the subsequent police “action” (or riot) at the impromptu protest. If you aren’t from Chicago, you might assume it happened in a bad neighborhood, the sort of place where “those things” happen. You’d be wrong: South Shore is a good neighborhood. It’s also painfully close to home, for me. You see, I’m a Hyde Park native; the fatal shooting happened less than four miles away from where I grew up.

There’s little better than a fatal shooting on one’s own turf to drive home the danger with which so many of my friends and neighbors live on a daily basis. I learned, when I was in grad school, that my own dark eyes—pretty much the only thing .I have that isn’t stereotypically Irish—can, in some places, mark me out as other. But the truth is, in Chicago nobody gives a damn about dark eyes on an Irish face, and I can move much more freely thanks to the privilege afforded me by my race, my ethnicity, and my continued performativity of class, never mind that, as an educated and underpaid millennial, I might never regain my place in said class. In any case, as a white woman, regardless of my current or former social or financial class, there are a lot of things I won’t live, but I can damn well suggest books that might delve into our current (and former) situations in this country.

There are, whether we want there to be or not, racial disparities in policing.2 Take a trip through the ways in which one group of Americans are policed with the essay collection Policing the Black ManDelve into mass incarceration with The New Jim Crow, then trace the history of tough policing in the Black community with Locking Up Our Own. Delve about our history of racist ideas (and ideals) with the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning. Wondering about how we ended up with such a segregated city? Check out The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Wondering about our unfair housing policies? Try Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and the older Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Even before our toddling democracy was hacked, we struggled with true equality, as evidence by our struggles with voting rights. The upcoming One Person, No Vote studies voting rights in the aftermath of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Read about the racial anger that simmered and exploded during the (very moderate) Obama years in We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, then walk through race in America with the essay collection The Fire This Time. (In case you’re wondering: this plays off the title of the late, great James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.) Are you curious about Black Lives Matter? Learn more with The Making of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All, and the documentary built around James Baldwin’s final, and unpublished, manuscript, I Am Not Your Negro. Try a slightly different angle, one once again thrust into the spotlight, with the essay collection Our Black Sons Matter.

Ever wondered about what makes a white person, well, white? (I’m going to be honest: I spend a lot of time thinking about it.) The answer, of course, is that it’s a socially constructed piece of nothing. But if you’re curious about a more detailed answer—including a rundown of when some of us (such as my Irish ancestors) became “white,” or at least white enough, most of the time, you might like The History of White People. We have a tendency, in our country, to talk about the rage of people who don’t fit under that constructed umbrella of “whiteness,” but we spend far less time on white people’s angry. Rectify that with White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.

Want things more specific to Chicago? I’ve got those, too. Study Chicago segregation in The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Young folks have always been on the frontlines of what’s happening; learn about their lives from before the First World War through the 1960s in Mean Streets: Chicago Youths and the Everyday Struggle for Empowerment in the Multiracial City, 1908-1969.  Want to read something about the cops themselves, or at least the cops themselves, way back in the day? (And I’m intentionally pointing to a certain set of days: the images of police rioting in South Shore, and of police targeting journalists, were impossible not to link to 1968.) Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention might be just what you’re after.

I try never to leave anyone with a list only of nonfiction—fiction, after all, has a way of helping us understand, and drawing us in, that truthiness will probably never be able to replicate. In the graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones, the titular character tells the story of his death at a policeman’s hands, while those he left behind fight for justice. The Hate U Give, soon to be a major film, and All American Boys both focus on the aftermath of police brutality. Both feature “good” cops as well as bad; both have been challenged by the police in South Carolina. I’d challenge anyone to actually read them before trying to get them banned. In American Street, a young Haitian immigrant must cope not only with her mother’s detention and a whole new world but with American-style police brutality as well. How It Went Down carries readers into the aftermath of a shooting, as do Dear Martin and Tyler Johnson Was Here. Find Chicago again with Kekla Magoon’s duet of 1968-set young adult novels, The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets.

I am not an optimistic person, which is no doubt one of many reasons I’m a Slytherin and not, say, a Gryffindor, convinced of my own rightness, or a Hufflepuff, who wants to befriend everyone, or a Ravenclaw, who just wants to study. The past was, for the most part, pretty awful, but let’s be honest: the present sucks, too. It’s always been my philosophy that by working together we might manage to make the future a little less horrible—but sometimes, it’s hard even to maintain that hope.

And yet there is never any choice but to press on, even if we are borne ceaselessly into a past that, of course, is still the present.

1 For coverage, see:

2 For additional information, see these selected articles (there are a lot more out there:


Party Like It’s 1776

Looking out.

July has been, historically, an important month for my family, as well as for my country. On July 2, 1776, our country declared itself independent of the yoke of its tyrannical government, based in England; sometime that same year, one of my ancestors, a man to whom I have taken the liberty of assigning passion and determination (and, well, nationalism), joined a New York militia. Maybe he joined after he read Patrick Henry’s immortal words. Maybe he joined because his family, which most likely had originated in London, or perhaps Leicestershire, had come to hate England, or at least a government based so far away and with so little understanding of this continent. Whatever the reason, and whatever the date, John joined up in 1776—and, unlike some (including his future brothers-in-law, the ten or so sons of a local Irish American family, who with their father cycled in and out of the militia for the duration of the war), he remained, until the bloody end and our true independence, in 1783. Our war for independence didn’t end with Yorktown.

I mean, do you want this guy ruling over you? I think not. link

July 3, 1863 marked another important event in the history of my country (and my family): that well-known genius Robert E. Lee, famed for being a traitor, decided to teach us Yanks a lesson with a singular mark of military excellence known today as Pickett’s Charge. It was a great day for Yankees, since it meant that Gettysburg was ours; it was also a Big Day in family history, since my ancestor—the guy who surrendered at Appomattox—was among those Johnny Rebs wounded in the Charge. (He may have been among those captured, too.) There were, of course, other members of my family about on that day, including a man too old to be drafted who joined up anyway, in the name of liberty, freedom, and preservation of the Union. I think that particular fellow was the son of an immigrant, back in the good old days when one’s whiteness and one’s ability to walk onto American soil made one more or less good to go.

and it did, and it does. link

Independence Day has always meant a lot to me, a day to remember my country’s promise and those who have tried, over the years, to force it to live up to its great words (and, sometimes, to confront and destroy its horrible ones). It’s a day (at least for me, descendant, as I am, of our equivalent of conquistadores) to celebrate this country that my ancestors helped to forge, while simultaneously forging ahead to make it actually live up to the promise, however half-baked, of equality for all people. (“Remember the Ladies,” said Abigail Adams, and of course they didn’t—and they actively denied the personhood of African Americans, and of Native Americans, and if one were a man without property, well, one wasn’t exactly equal either.)

although I am distant cousins with some President nobody remembers. link

I am, of course, a stickler for historical accuracy—I’ve denigrated movies for failing to get it right, I’ve double-checked biographies while fact-checking television shows, I’ve railed at those who get it wrong in jokes or in novels. As a writer I check and double-check my sources, ranging from old newspapers to scholarly treatises. Perhaps my patron’s right after all, and I am cold: certainly my mother figures that my brother E and I fit more in the logical world of STEM. Independence Day can be interesting when one is profoundly wedded to accuracy, since we are wedded to our fairy tales; it can also be grating in its lunge towards the commercial, since, after all, we’re remembering that time when we went to war against a tyrant in another country, not that day we got great sales. (Not that I won’t use the sales to my advantage, mind—I am stuck in capitalism, even if I’d prefer to crush it.)

not a party! link

There are many irritating Independence Day slogans—my winner before was probably Happy Treason Day! which always makes me want to kick something—but I walked into a new winner when I headed into the grocery store this year to pick up the fixings for my nice Prussian Independence Day feast: PARTY LIKE IT’S 1776! it said, and, I mean, I can tell you, 1776 was no party for my ancestors, what with being on the front lines of a damn war and all. (July 3, 1863, when B. rode into Union cannons, was also not a party, although at least the Confederacy lost that battle, and, eventually, the war.) Now, most likely my ancestors did blow some stuff up when they heard we’d declared ourselves independent—probably the Irish side had a bonfire or two, if they’re anything like my family now. Perhaps one of them was even attractive enough (if he was part of the Continental Army!) to get invited to one of Baron von Steuben’s possibly nude parties! But they were in a war zone—the entire country was a war zone—and so I highly doubt any of us much want to replicate their parties.

and they did. link

In 1775, we, as a young and stumbling collection of colonies, rose up against tyranny. (We rose up for some less than savory reasons, too, and had less than savory leaders—but tyranny definitely played a part.) We had villains, and heroes, and certainly no saints, and together, out of blood and gun smoke and determination (and a lot of help from a Prussian and a bunch of French and Haitian and Spanish guys), we forged something that yearned forward, towards greatness, even if we still aren’t quite there. I was raised to believe—no doubt with more than a shade of arrogance—that as the descendant of men who fought the Revolution (and before that the French and Indian War, and after the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, and then the Civil War, on both sides), it was my place to push my country towards true equality for all.

We’re not there quite yet, but we damn well should be. From link

Well, it’s 2018, and there are children being held in cages without even blankets, and a foreign government seeks to meddle in our own tween democracy. (After all, as countries go—just think of China!—we’re pretty young.) I watch patterns I have seen before, from Germany to Spain, from Argentina to Chile. Naturalized citizens are threatened with losing their citizenship. To paraphrase a great Irish poet, the centre surely cannot hold much longer. Perhaps we should, indeed, party like 1776, and remember that a man “whose character is marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” And so let us rise up, from the Women’s March and the March for Science and the Families Belong Together March right to the ballot box, and let us bring in a new sea change, and move once more towards greatness.


migration & immigration stories, part ii

one world, from above. link

World Refugee Day was last week, on June 20th–a strange and horrifying irony set amidst our current political hellscape. We know that reading makes us more empathetic, better able to understand or to sympathize with other people1—so what better way to mark the passage of World Refugee Day than by reading?

You can start out right here, from your computer, or your tablet, or your phone, with the New York Times’ Pulitzer Award-winning comic chronicling the experiences of Syrian refugees in the U.S., “Welcome to the New World.” Wondering how anyone could leave? Check out “Madaya Mom,” a collaboration between Marvel and ABC. And, because maybe you’re a fan of the graphic format, we can move from here to other graphic renderings of refugees. Vietnamerica chronicles the lives of a family of Vietnamese refugees, as seen by their first-generation American son; Eoin Colfer’s Illegal is a children’s graphic novel, a tale of a young boy’s journey from Ghana to Europe. (Thus far, it’s gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weeklyas well as a strong review from School Library Journal.) Follow Marjane through revolution-era Iran, and learn some of the reasons why people flee, in Persepolis, then bump between countries in The Arab of the Future.

Follow a young Russian refugee in New Jersey as she tries to decide who she is and where she’s bound in Invitation to a Bonfire. Stumble across a Germany decimated by the Nazis with fleeing Prussians, their Scottish POW, and a young man in a Wermacht uniform who is actually a Jewish refugee in Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast, then visit a family who put their lives on the line to save—and fight with—their Jewish neighbors in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Oh, and that’s a movie too, in case you hadn’t heard.) Share a story of worship and of defiance with your children with The Grand Mosque of Paris and its tale of Parisian Muslims working to save their Jewish neighbors. I’ve mentioned these before, of course, but now’s a good time to re-read Ruta Sepetys’ work, from Salt to the Sea, the anguished story of refugees fleeing for their lives onto a doomed ship, to Between Shades of Gray, the tale of death—and life—in Soviet gulags. And, of course, Americans have fled death in their own country: for just one example, see Years of Dust, a quick read, geared towards young teens. Step into the world of the Berlin Wall with the award-winning2 A Night Divided, where a young girl must decide whether to attempt to cross the wall and reunite with her father in the West, and The Lives of Others, a tale of spies and death in East Berlin. Travel between past and present in a tale of intertwined families and long-hidden tragedies in The Bastard of Istanbul, in a tale that moves from contemporary America (and Turkey, or the Turkey of a few years past) to the Ottoman Empire and back.

Now let’s move forward, away from the Second World War, towards our dark present. Mahindan thinks that life will finally get better when the ship carrying him and other Sri Lankan refugees docks in Vancouver—but all are detained and he is separated from his son as the country debates their lives and fates in the award-winning The Boat People. Flee for your life alongside Nadia and Saeed in Exit West, then follow a contemporary Syrian refugee and a medieval mapmaker’s apprentice in The Map of Salt and Stars. Step into the deadly world of Generalissimo Trujillo’s Dominican Republic alongside Haitian-born maid Amabelle in The Farming of Bones, then follow a young Iranian refugee in America—and her father in Iran—in Refuge. Step into the worlds of Vietnamese refugees with the short-story collection The Refugees, then visit a world of refugees and of spies with The Sympathizer. A group of attorneys, translators, and activists come together to try to protect a refugee in Live from Cairo, then revisit another book I’ve suggested before as Fabiola, a young Haitian immigrant, must struggle to cope with a new world after he mother is detained upon entry to the U.S. in American Street.

Follow two teens from very different backgrounds—Australian-born Michael, whose parents are the face of an anti-immigration party, and Afghan refugee Mina—as they meet at school and grow close in the face of rising xenophobia in The Lines We Cross, then follow Nisha and her family as they flee violence after Partition in The Night Diary.  Travel alongside Afghan refugees in The Kite Runner, then travel from Trujillo’s Dominican Republic to the Bronx with the García girls in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (this one gets challenged a lot, so you’ll be getting up on your banned book reading, too!). Visit the Cuba of the Revolution, as people decide whether to stay or to go, and then return years later, with Next Year in Havana, then follow a family as they make the difficult decision to come to the U.S. in The Book of Unknown Americans. Travel from Saigon to Alabama with Hà in Inside Out & Back Again, then follow along as a young Vietnamese-American girl returns to the country of her parents’ birth as her grandmother searches for her husband lost in the war in Listen, Slowly.

Share a story of separation—and of a mother’s love—with the picture book Mama’s Nightingale, then read of traveling to the U.S. with Two White Rabbits and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. Ready to move away from fiction and towards memoirs and sociological texts? For a concise understanding of American interventions3 throughout Latin America, try America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on TerrorStep into a world of U.S. citizens on the move from one world to another with When I Was Puerto Rican and Down These Mean Streets, both the tales of Puerto Ricans, one born on the Island, one from New York. Actress Diane Guerrero tells the story of her separation from her parents—and of growing up American—in In The Country We Love, then follow immigrant teens through a school year in The Newcomers. Explore the refugee experience with authors who are themselves refugees in The Displaced, then travel the border alongside a former Border Patrol agent in The Line Becomes a River.

Learn about young Latin Americans without papers in Tell Me How It Ends, then step into tales of survival with The Girl Who Smiled Beads and How Dare the Sun Rise. Revisit the Rwandan genocide with We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, travel to contemporary Europe with Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisisand step into the world’s largest refugee camp in City of ThornsThe New Odyssey tells the story of the contemporary refugee crisis, at a time when more people are living as refugees than at any time before (even during the Second World War). Travel with Central American refugees in Flight to Freedom and Seeking Refuge, then ride a deadly train in The Beast. Share stories of refugees and refuge with your little folks with Where Will I Live?This Land Is Our Land (it’s a great pick for the Fourth of July, too!), and Stormy Seas, among others. (I’ll have more for you later, rest assured.)

Did you know that without soldiers from elsewhere, including a gay Prussian aristocrat, soldiers from France and Spain, Haitian soldiers, and more, we would not have a country at all? So, as we draw close to that day on which our forebears declared themselves a nation, let us remember our own roots that so often come from elsewhere, and seek to serve humanity with grace and compassion.

1 And here’s some citations for that claim:

2 One of the awards A Night Divided won is the 2018 Rebecca Caudill Children’s Choice award—which means that young folks really, really like it.

3 I’ve very briefly covered the very start of our interventions here.

Young Adult Fiction About Migration, Immigration, and Refuge(es), I

Poor Woman, Who Understands: Honoring My Mother and Grandmothers

Beautiful, beautiful grudge, somewhere in Wisconsin.

When one works with the public, one meets some interesting people, who have many interesting interpretations of one’s life and lived experiences (never mind that they haven’t lived them). I’ve been told I am cold and logical (probably partially true); I’ve been told (while smiling) to smile, because then everything will be great (it’s never worked, folks). Today, however, I’m going to focus on the guy who told me that he’d analyze my handwriting—and then, after being flummoxed that I wrote in pencil (I’m severely dyslexic, what do you want?), said that I am stubborn, determined, and strongly influenced by a woman, or women—my mother, my grandmother. And you know something? It’s a crackpot idea, everything he did—and anyone can probably see I’m stubborn, and a plotter—but it’s true: my mother, and my grandmothers, are always there.

from link

My maternal grandmother, a soft and gentle woman whose yearly rages are the stuff of legend and whose novels were (almost) always about the nicest people imaginable,1 got me to say my first word (everything was a duck), and told my mother, when I was just a tiny little thing, that something wasn’t connecting quite right, and my parents should be on the lookout for dyslexia, or some similar learning disability. (She was, of course, right.) In a day when women did not often get educations, she was considerably more educated than my grandfather, who claimed, to her three Master’s, only one, in library science. (She had that too, of course.) My memories of my grandmother are strange, and fraught, and I am often frustrated when I am told I look like her, and I wonder if perhaps those who think I do merely think all fair-skinned, dark-haired white women look the same—but I owe a great deal—perhaps even my hard-won literacy—to my grandmother.

She would have agreed. From link

My paternal grandmother was not a soft woman. Though she be but little she is fierce, Shakespeare wrote, and it could easily have been written about her. At her tallest she barely hit five feet, though I remember a time when she seemed tall and I quite, quite small. I think I was two years old then, and she was teaching me to ice skate. My brothers told me, recently, that they think she mellowed out, by the time they came around. I’m not sure if this is accurate, or if, perhaps, she merely passed on her rage—her “Peso ancestral,” with its cup of women’s bitterness and rage—to me, and not to them. I learned old grudges and newer vendettas from her; the sound of an English accent will always make me flinch, thanks to her tales of cannibal English and their unrelenting desire for Irish babies.2 My grandmother was eternally complex, a creature of iron and of bedrock, the foundation of a dynasty, much as her mother, whom she loved and hated, had once been. She aged well, and, my father and my uncles have told me, in the end she died well, too—a model of how to live, and how to die, my introduction into my own culture and ethnicity. I laugh like her, I am told, though my brothers—who may well remember a more mellow woman than I, since I cannot imagine her mellow at all—have asked, more than once, if Grandma actually laughed. She was not, you see, your average grandmother.

from link

My mother is very little like either of my grandmothers, though, like my paternal grandmother, she never stops moving. I’ve grown up on her tales of the bloody ’60s and ’70s; I, apparently unlike other white folks, was trained to be as wary of the cops as of a mad dog, or a bear. She, a champion speller, never gave up when presented with a severely dyslexic child, and without her determination, I have no doubt I’d never have made it through a double major (with a perfect 4.0 back in the day when that was as high as it went), and then through two Master’s programs, without her.

My mother does not, in case you’re wondering, look like Reese Witherspoon. From link

She is a musician—in the highest echelons of Chicago’s freelance elite—and I grew up backstage, which meant both that I, despite being so cold and so logical and so used to the inside of a lab,3 can move freely among artists and musicians and actors and writers. It also means that I had a full repertoire of profanity by the time I was, oh, maybe five, and now can swear pretty respectably in three languages4 and, in one of them, multiple dialects. When one is lucky enough to have a mother who encompasses that word, in all its nouns and verbage, a few words on Mother’s Day are paltry, indeed, yet here they are, all the same.

badasses all, in very different ways. from link

I have been  lucky, in my life, to have learned from strong, imperfect women, whose strength and fire and—sometimes—outright rage has forged a path for me. One raised me, on tales as well as determination; one gave her the insight to watch for a disability of which she’d never heard. One taught me rage deeper than, most likely, anyone really needs to know, and gave me bedrock on which to set a foundation. I am not quite sure what it says, about me or about the women who have formed me, that from the moment I read the Argentinean modernist Alfonsina Storni‘s poem “Peso Ancestral,” I thought of those women who came before me, strong women, determined women, who had no choice but to drink of that bitter cup of centuries, and who blazed through it anyway, from determination, from spite, from love. I would not be here, or be who I am, without them.

1 I do not write about nice people.
2 Probably this was a bastardization of Jonathan Swift, who was actually Irish and writing satire, and Jack and the Beanstalk, but trust me, you hear it enough times, you’ll never hear an English accent without flinching again, ever.
3 This is true: when she couldn’t take me along and couldn’t find a babysitter, I got dropped at my father’s lab, where his fellow lab rats gave me my very own set of test tubes and pipettes, showed me the doctor’s hidden chocolate stashes, and let me play to my heart’s content.
4 I hope to add German, some day.

because everyone needs someone, to clue them in—and some of us are lucky enough to get it (mostly) at home. From link

What Even Is Genre

In the wild, when I’m working readers’ advisory, I tend to lean a lot less on genre (with the exceptions of some broad ones, like “commercial” versus “literary”) than on appeal factor: what might make my patron want to read this book, or another. What was the last book you enjoyed? Or the last movie, or TV show, or video game? What made it good? When you finished it, what made you say, now that was a good movie/book/TV show? Because those are the things I need to know to find a book (or a movie) that might fit your needs right now. (Note that much as I try to suggest rather than recommend, I almost always preface a suggestion by saying, and if this one doesn’t work for you, there are lots more!) Those hooks and appeal factors—the characters, the way the story’s told, what happens (or doesn’t happen)—those are the most important things, when I’m booktalking.

thanks to the US National Archives via Giphy!

I build my passive readers’ advisory largely around fanbases and books and other materials that share appeal factors as the original fanned item, whether it be Black Panther (I filled that one with Afrofuturism, in case you’re wondering) or OutlanderReady Player One or Downton Abbey. I make deals with myself: I’ll never have fewer than two diverse works on a list, I promise myself, and then I try my damndest to ensure I have more. I do a pretty decent job of it, albeit not perfect, but every time is another reminder of what a piss-poor job we do of acknowledging the diversity in the “normative.” (As a dyslexic, it’s really frustrating to see myself so seldom represented.)

So, then, that is my day job: a world where genre, in its barest form, as romance or Western or mystery, matters—but where it’s a lot less important than appeal factor, where your favorite TV show can help steer us towards a book you may enjoy just as your favorite movie might guide us towards some new bands for you to try. (Enjoy Ready Player One? Have a hankering for some ’80s music? Why not check out Redbone to go along with your Def Leppard and your Twisted Sister?) For that matter, if I do my job well, I can “sell” the book multiple different ways, making genre even more flexible. But my night job, the one that, like childhood trauma, is always with me? I am gathering that, at least for the business side, genre’s rather important.


As a musician’s daughter, I am quite familiar with the importance of marketing and of business in the arts. It’s pretty much paramount: you’ve got to be able to market yourself if you’ve a snowball’s chance in hell of making it out there. So, for the first time in quite a while—since before library school, I guess, back in those halcyon days when I thought Dewey made some kind of sense—I have to try to think in terms of genre, to pick through preferred styles and agents and novels, to figure out what on earth I do, beyond type incredibly fast (and filled with odd typos, only half of which pertain to dyslexia). Maybe in the next, oh, year, I’ll pigeonhole myself (upmarket? commercial? wtf?), and get the courage needed to start down the road of rejections.

Wondering about appeal factors and booktalking? Here are some of the things I’ve used to become an okay (I hope) booktalker.

You might also like this list of resources from the Public Library Association.

or, as Fitzgerald says, it’s like being multiple people!

The Rhythm of Words: World Poetry Day 2018

Long before I could read, I loved the sounds of words, the music of them, the way they fit together and were forged anew, over and over again, a new world in each sentence. Maybe it was in part my long years of illiteracy, or perhaps it comes of having been born a musician’s child, with an ear towards sound, but I have, as long as I can remember, loved poetry, where words become their own music.I turn to poetry in times of stress and of joy, in hours of boredom and of curiosity. I seek it out in my first language and my second, sometimes even stumbling over it in languages I do not, technically, speak at all. And so, though April is National Poetry Month, today is World Poetry Day, and it seems a good day to talk about some of what poetry means to me.

Words are sexy, and stuff. From link.

Apparently, way back in the day when I was but a wee little thing, I was wildly fond of Hey Diddle Diddle. I memorized nursery rhymes and poems (my mother really loved Robert Frost). I memorized the picture books that were read to me, too. Have you ever heard of a picture book called Yonder? I can’t even say for sure what happened—I know they planted a lot of trees—but my God, I can still remember the cadence of those words.

husky, brawling, and Big Shouldered as the day is long. 2012 image by Allen McGregor. From Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up knowing that I was from that Stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders, and have been known to spout Sandburg’s words, at times of irritation (or when talking to someone who thinks that Anywhere Else Is Better, because they are wrong in their wrongness, forever): Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning, for we are still that tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities, and probably always will be. (Note that my father’s hometown, though it may hold fewer than 2,500 souls, is also rather a slugger.) Words are my métier, my magic; poetry is escape.

After I learned to read (on Shakespeare, which is kind of poetry), I started working my way through every book of poetry my mother owned. I read Tennyson (though we didn’t have much, my mother disliking flowery language in all its forms); I read John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Leaves of Grass (I got the idea that it was very Exciting and Naughty following the Clinton impeachment trials and was sorely disappointed, I tell you) and Evangeline and Miles Standish and Giles Corey, which sticks with me to this day. (Evangeline makes me wince, but Giles Corey retains all its horrible power.)


I branched out, read Beowulf (love it!—and I think it got me started on tales of adventure), and then, since I was a (very lonely and depressed) teenager, I embarked upon love poetry, and on poems of despair. Dylan Thomas is great, if you’re in the mood for something dark and full of angst (and also worms). Oh, and, pray: Do not go gentle into that good night. It’s perhaps an odd poem to which to turn, as one’s world darkens or one loses loved ones, but I’ve clung to it for fifteen years now, maybe more, and it’s been there for me, through loss and grief and fear, and it’ll be there for me for years to come.

I had a lot of amazing classes as an undergrad majoring in Spanish—and I read one of my all-time favorite novels, Juan Rulfo‘s Pedro Páramo, for the first time in one of them—but I think the class that sticks with me the most was the one where all we did was read poetry, which was really incredible and wonderful and lovely, actually. We read Pablo Neruda—I love Neruda, and I love his weird surrealist phase, which freaked out a lot of my classmates, and I love his million odes to everything from cats to onions. We read César Vallejo, who made language his plaything in his dark poems, and whose surrealism glinted out of every word. I fall back on Alfonsina Storni (her Peso Ancestral is one of the first poems I think of, every Women’s History Month) and Delmira Agustini, gone far too soon.

because the National Archives has an awesome Giphy channel! from link

I have gotten the feeling, over the years, that poetry is maybe an acquired taste. It’s one I acquired very, very young, well before I ever learned to read, as I memorized the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, or Sandburg’s “Chicago”—and did you know he has a charming little poem about the fog and its little cat feet? Poetry has carried me from before I could read; it continues to be there for me. I would agree with UNESCO, that poetry can help draw us together. Whether spoken—as all poetry was, to me, before I was ten—or read, there is a magic in the rhythm of a poem. It can be educational and a tool for change; it can be a space of beauty and of sound. And it doesn’t even have to rhyme!

And—here’s Frost’s The Road Not Taken! It was apparently first published in The Atlantic, years ago; you can read an article about it, here.

1 I am sure it’ll be a total surprise that this is one of the reasons I love opera: it’s words, drama—and music! Magic!!

from link

This Glorious Marchest of Marches

It’s spring! But we aren’t here yet. From link.

It’s the Spring Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere, and it’s been a cold, blustery one in the Chicago area, perhaps to go with the end of what has been an incredibly stressful primary run. (I voted this morning! It’s over! And I hope you voted too, if you had a primary in your area.) It is now officially spring in Chicago, the great and glorious day of Chicagohenge (it’s kind of cloudy, so we’ll see about that), the day when there’s a certain kind of light not present at any other time, the season When life’s alive in everything.

I am somtimes (often?) Squidward, come spring.

Now, of course, it’s also the season, in Christina Rossetti’s words, that passes by, / Now newly born, and now / Hastening to die, because this is, after all, Christina Rossetti, and she’s got to get some good allusions to death in there somewhere. But, as we all know, Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May. Thus, in addition to that season that races towards its death yet is hyperalive while it’s here, spring is also pretty much the most volatile of our often volatile seasons.

This is, of course, why I am here, to obnoxiously talk about how spring is meant to be wild, to hop madly from one extreme (65 degrees Fahrenheit, anyone?) to another (now it’s snowing), because it’s spring, that time between. This volatility is, in fact, my favorite part of the whole season, that madness of weather hopping from warmth to cold and back again. (This makes me about as popular as loving snow and cold, bu there you are.)

According to Five Thirty Eight, Chicago’s weather is, indeed, most prone to (violent) fluctuations in the spring. It’s definitely not a surprise: with the exception of merry November, the spring months are the most likely to lurch wildly from one extreme to another. (Ironically, we still don’t have particularly violent fluctuations, and we still aren’t windy—that name’s still down to our politicians.) The spring equinox has come, and spring is here (and it’s actually windy today, too, in the city of big-talkers), and it’s absolutely right, and normal, and appropriate, that we still have snow on the ground in my backyard.

And so are the allergies, Lisa.

It’s also right, and appropriate, that we should be looking at 50s coming up soon. I hate those, however, so until they’re here (and killing me with those allergens), I’ll continue to ignore them. However, our temperatures are, in general, warmer—and that’s a big problem, in the spring as much as in July, or in January, when I really want it to be cold, and snowy, and beautiful. Climate change has contributed to increasingly violent hurricanes, even if only by providing them with extra water thanks to those handy rising seas. Puerto Rico remains devastated following Irma and a response that can charitably be called heartless, venal, and gleefully cruel—as well as racist, in case you’re wondering about that. (I have a lot of friends from Puerto Rico, and the situation there is not something I’ll forget.)

what climate change feels like, sometimes, even if we did cause it. 😥

Last year’s warm winter destroyed most of Georgia’s peaches (incidentally, there is a young adult novel called Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit; you might enjoy it! It’s a great fast read for Pride, or any other time). Wildfires are getting worse (thanks, climate change!)—something we’ve seen, over and over again, in the past year alone. We’ve had a string of heat records—you can follow along with NASA’s temperature data, if you wish (I do). You can read random articles about increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, which are depressing. (Since these are pretty unrelentlingly depressing, here are a few articles about things you can do to make a dent in climate change, from CNNNational GeographicCurbed, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Climate Kids from NASA.) Why does this matter, in this Marchest of Marches? Because our wild, topsy-turvy weather is just where it’s supposed to be, for once in rather a long while.

I so hope these aren’t magnolias, because if they are I’m gonna have an allergy attack just looking at them.

To be more accurate: it probably is still warmer than it should be, even in this wild and blustery March, but I’m damn well going to enjoy having a very Marchish March all the same. It’s snowed, and blown, and iced (not my favorite, but definitely appropriate for the season); we still have snow, and ice, here and there around the yard—and the rains will be moving in soon, getting ready for April, and those flowers that will eventually shove their way up in May.

I have a little while longer, of this wild and undecided season, before it cedes way to the heat of summer. (I hate hot weather.) I fully intend to enjoy it while I can, before everything heats up, and also before the tree pollen starts trying to kill me (which is definitely going to happen too). Best of all? I know I still have the Three May Icemen to look forward to, just around the bend.