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
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
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.