A Whistling Woman: Alice Walker

I needed Alice Walker this week. I needed her clarity, her perspective, the way she empowers her readers and holds us accountable. I needed “We Alone,” a poem that grabs us by the lapels and speaks strongly to both what we can do and what we ought to do.

We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
is gold
so much the worse
for you.

Feathers, shells
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.

This could be our revolution:
To love what is plentiful
as much as
what’s scarce.”

On a week where the world whispered stress into my ears, I needed Walker’s powerful poetry to remind me of a time, decades ago, when I was invited to speak at a high school graduation and chose to include Walker’s “Love is Not Concerned” as part of my message to the graduates.

love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home
love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.”

Her words were far wiser than any of mine.

There is much wisdom in Walker’s 1979 collection Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, wisdom and passion too. A better poetic companion is difficult to imagine than Alice Walker. 

This is not to say that her poems, particularly those in this volume, are easy or gentle; fierce, personal, political, powerful, these are better descriptors of the forty or so poems that fill the book. Some, like “These Mornings of Rain” and “Listen,” in which she addresses another:

Listen,
I never dreamed
I would learn to love you so.
You are as flawed
as my vision
As short tempered
as my breath.
Every time you say
you love me
I look for shelter.”

…are intimate and so very real to the emotion of experienced love. 

WalkerOthers, such as “First, They Said” and “The Diamonds on Liz’s Bosom” radiate the rawness of racial and political injustice. These poems deserve a place with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. or the novels of James Baldwin in classrooms ready to discuss the complexities of race in America. They are as insightful as they are justifiably fierce.

Still others, “Without Commercials,” “Gray,” and the nearly epic “These Days” stretch verse to cover the human condition, like a forensic scientist reconstructing a missing person’s face with molding plastic over a broken skull.

And this week I needed to read Walker’s words of warning, words of warmth, and words of wisdom. I needed to allow myself to see the world through her poetic eyes, fold her perspective into my own, and breathe deeply as I let poems like “Mississippi Winter IV” transform my own stress into something it wasn’t before.

My father and mother both
used to warn me
that “a whistling woman and a crowing
hen would surely come to
no good end.” And perhaps I should
have listened to them.
But even at the time I knew
that though my end probably might
not
be good
I must whistle
like a woman undaunted
until I reached it.”

Poetry has an ability to work magic. Just words on paper, but so much more.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Anne Sexton’s 45 Mercy Street.

2 thoughts on “A Whistling Woman: Alice Walker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s