review: Here in Harlem

review: Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices

author: Walter Dean Myers

Holiday House; 2004

‘Review’ is probably a misnomer. I am not the one to review a book of poetry! This particular book of verse is more like an artistic interpretation of Harlem.

Myers happens to own the largest collect of African American photos in the US. I’ve been told he roams yard sales, thrift shops, antique stores and other nooks and crannies collecting photos, most of which were taken in Harlem. These photos help him create characters for his stories and they become the faces of the people he creates in this slim volume. These pictures are incorporated into this book of poetry.

In the introduction, Myers says the book was inspired by Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology which creates residents for a fictional town. From his growing up memories in Harlem, he gives name, age and occupation to Harlem residents for this book. I would image these poems took years to formulate and to be matched to perfectly to what are actually random faces. First person verses about people like Terry Smith 24, unemployed make Harlem a real place, not just a stereotype where poor Black people rode the A train, went to the club and complained about race and racism all day long.  Here’s some of Terry:

The hiss of the stove is soft

As soft as the gentle snowfall

That fills the street below

Christmas carols rise from the alley

And I feel the child moving against my side

His crying, hoarse after the first minute

Has stopped and his breath

Is like a sigh against my breast

Christmas

The last straw crumbled weeks ago

The last man happened years before

The last hope tiptoed past the door

And the holidays are here again

Breathe deeply, child

The Magi have gone another way

We meet the undertaker, jazz musician, beauty shop owner, mail carrier, party girl, 14 year old student and newstand dealer. Dana Green, Christopher Lomax and John Reese a 70 year old retired ball player. Charles Ray is an x-ray technician and composer, doing all he can to make ends meet. And then, there’s that fine Sam DuPree, the Hustler. Over there is C.C. Castell, the 49 year old man on disability.

The difference between here in Harlem

And Mississippi where I come from

Is that here the young peoples is in a hurry

To get somewhere even if they don’t

Know rightly where they in a hurry to get to

And that’s okay because it means they

Think they important enough to get something

Done and whatever little think they trying to

Get done is going to mean something to

Somebody so’s they in a hurry to do that little

Thing. Now I be sitting here on this stoop

Most of the time, more or less, and I ain’t doing

Nothing and I ain’t in a hurry to get nowhere

But I enjoys watching the young folk

Because even if one or two of them is right, see,

Well, that’s what you calls

Progress

The flow is off, just a bit, isn’t it? That’s what poetry does, it tells us what we need to know without saying it.

Typically, we find women to be the caretakers of culture, the ones who see to the details, carry on the message and tidy up the mess. Harlem would have had its caretakers, too and in that role, Myers gives us the testimony of Clara Brown which is pieced throughout the book and hers is the last voice we here.

Harlem isn’t a place, its people and they all have a story that goes beyond their name, age and occupation. The mechanic, the boxer even the junior college student.

DISCLAIMER: I purchased this autographed edition several years ago at the McConnell Library Conference in Kentucky.

2 thoughts on “review: Here in Harlem

  1. I thought I was familiar with most of Walter Dean Myers book. Then I see this one and a customer came in today asking for some MG books he did, that I’ve never heard of.

    Everyday you learn.

    The Magi has gone another way. – That’s a lovely line

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    1. Not only has Walters been around forever, but in the last few years, he’s been cranking out 2,3,4 books a year. I can’t say the recent books match the quality of some of what he’s done in the past, but I do think he’s a gifted author. I’m glad I was able to call attention to some of the good stuff!
      Have you seen some of his nonfiction? There’s one about a Antarctica and biographies about Ali, Malcolm X and a couple of books in the “My Name is America” series.

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