Guest post by Padma Venkatraman
ONE LAST WORD
By Nikki Grimes
I, for one, am immensely grateful that one last word will not be the last word by this talented author whose work has gained much well-deserved recent attention. There are few books that I treasure not just for the writing but also for the artwork, and even the quality of the writing and the layout. Nikki Grimes’s latest is one of those – a book to have and hold and bequeath to one’s grandchildren.
One last word begins and ends with poems that speak to the contemporary relevance of work from bygone eras. The first poem, Emergency Measures, gives us an insight into the author’s initial interest in the work of poets who lived during the Harlem Renaissance. It could, however, just as easily, be about a child of today or any day in the future, who is inspired to dip “into the bowl of years” and discover the wisdom of poets from the past. When, in the final poem, the author leaves “the glory days” of the Harlem Renaissance behind, her readers carry its songs in their hearts. We are left feeling “….full of something / strange and delicious: / hope.”
The poet then takes us on a tour of work by well-known and lesser-known poets whose art soared to great heights between 1910 and 1930. I found it particularly delightful to see the work of female poets who “are usually left off the roster” highlighted here.
Using the golden shovel, a form of poetry in which the poet chooses words from poems by these literary lights and uses them in brand-new poems of her own, she creates luminous art of her own. We are thus able to experience both the original poem and her unique creation. As she points out, it is a “very challenging way to create a poem” but she rises to the challenge admirably.
In fact, she soars above the challenge. Through her work, we view anew well known poems by the likes of Langston Hughes. I hate to pick favorites. I love every page of this book. But, as a first-generation immigrant, I found “Lessons” particularly touching. In this poem, we see a mother’s struggles to give her child a better future and pass on her wisdom. “Truth? Life can be sadder than a willow stripped bare” she sings, but “withered as I am, I’se / got a dream or two.”
In poems such as “A Safe Place,” Nikki Grimes speaks yet again of the power of dreams and of words to provide hope and comfort in a nation that “has not yet fully realized its promise of freedom and justice for all.” Her book shows us how far we have come as well as how very hard we must fight to go further.