Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Birds Only Sing To Those Who Listen" by John David Autin - A Lovely Distillation and A Hymn To Life

Those who regularly read my reviews are aware that I rarely review books of poetry.  I am so glad that I made an exception in this case.  In this gold nugget of a volume, John David Autin has distilled 50 years of writing poetry into the nectar that fills 91 golden pages.

In the Preface to this volume, Mr. Autin talks of his struggle with Parkinson's Disease, and the fact that only one poem in this book deals explicitly with that aspect of his journey.  Yet as I read each poem, it was clear to me that the author's awareness of his own physical fragility has given him an enhanced awareness of the fragility of all of life, and it allows his language to shine brightly and to penetrate deeply.

The styles of his selected poems are quite diverse.  Many are familiar iambic tetrameter:

"Oh, do not think that I am dead,
For children owe no debt to death,
But say my swelling life instead
Outgrew the turbulence of breath"

(from "Hide-and-Seek")

Other poems reminded me of the free-flowing and breezy style of Dr. Seuss.  On the other end of the scale, there as poems that are like David's Psalms of Lament, particularly the deeply moving and impassioned "Psalm to the Ancient of Days."  It is clear that this poet draws from a deep well of Biblical knowledge and from his familiarity with Stygian mythology.  There are many allusions to sin and strife, to crossing the river, and grappling with "things that go bump in the night"!  In many ways, taken as a whole, this collection of poems is a Hymn to Life.

Let me share the lovely poem that lends its name to the book:

Birds Only Sing

"Birds only sing to those who listen,
Stars only shine for those who look.
For people who approach it with the proper disposition,
Life is not a problem, but an open book.

Attitude is everything.  Do yourself a favor:
Be enthusiastic in everything you do.
The secret of the most delicious dishes is the savor
That you bring to them, not what they bring to you.

Our sins against ourselves are mainly sins of omission,
The chances that we missed rather than the risks we took.
For birds only sing to those who listen,
And stars only shine for those who look."
(Page 11)

This book is a family project, for the lovely cover design is by the author's son, Michael.  This is a book that will be enjoyed by those who know and love poetry, but also by those who may be dipping their literary toes in that water for the first time.  I can say with conviction: "Come on in; the water's fine!"  Mr. Autin speaks effectively and poetically to both audiences.



Review of "BUCK: A Memoir" by M. K. Asante - A Remarkable and Compelling New Voice

"BUCK" is a remarkable memoir by a new voice.  Be aware that Mr. Asante speaks with a voice (w)rapped in a thick Philly Hip-Hop accent.  It took me a few pages to get into his rhythms and street nomenclature.  But it was well worth the effort, for he opens his soul in telling of his life on the means streets of North Philly and Germantown.

It is a jarring and moving story of survival against long odds.  Neighborhoods peopled with drug dealers and gang bangers.  An emotionally absent father who eventual left altogether, and who spent his time preaching Afrocentrism, but neglected his family.  A brother jailed for rape in Arizona.  A mother bouncing between home and psychiatric hospitals with bi-polar disorder.  Death of a best friend in a shooting.  Expulsion from a variety of schools.  A common tale - until a remarkable turn-around took place.

Asante describes the day that he arrived at an alternative school called Crefeld.  His teacher, Stacey, tells the students in the classroom to write.  At first, he sits paralyzed.  But eventually, he sees something new in that blank sheet of paper:.

"The blank page begs me to tell a story - dares me to tell one - one that's never been told before, and to tell it like it will never be told again.  The blank page lights up a room in my heart that I didn't know existed.  I'm standing outside of Crefeld when my purpose finds me.  

I hear Uncle Howard's voice in my head as I race through the hallway: 'Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.'

. . . I find Stacey in her classroom.  I declare it: 'I want to be a writer.'" (pages 224-5)

And what a writer he has become!  His style is fresh, raw, deep, descriptive, evocative and compelling.  I felt as if I had personally been invited to accompany Asante on a journey through the disparate chapters of his life as he wrestled with competing values, tribes, family dynamics and world views.  Born in Africa and raised in "Killadelphia," Asante sees himself and the world around him through a kaleidoscopic assortment of lenses.  His telling of his tale is both descriptive and prescriptive.  The moral of the story is right there: the right kind of teacher/mentor in the right kind of a nurturing environment pulled the fat out of the fire and saved a life that was destined for the slab or the slammer.

The author has a lot to say.  I look forward to him continuing to say it in his unique voice