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A Good Cry
(What We Learn from Tears and Laughter)
by Nikki Giovanni
111 pages/54 poems/$19.99
ISBN 978-0-06-239945-8
ISBN 978-0-06-283545-1 (Barnes and Noble signed edition)
Harper Collins Publishers
To purchase: Harper Collins Publishers

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

Growing up my parents typically posed a question when they sensed the weight of the world bearing down on me: “What have you learned from this experience?” Nikki Giovanni’s, A Good Cry, offers a similar sentiment, “Come, let’s meet the world together.” Her poetry is honest and real, never condescending, informed by a life lived in tears and laughter.
Let’s begin with titles. Like Wallace Stevens, whose titles are as interesting as the poems themselves, Giovanni entices her readers with intriguing titles: I Married My MotherA Haiku for MarsBig MaybelleVolleyball: A Ballet (for #17)Fathers (for Jack), and Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying. Some poems feature simple titles: Bread, Thirst, A Poem, and On a Snowy Day. In every case the poem that follows is a perfect fit, full of the “stuff” of real life.
By way of presentation, A Good Cry, features a variety of typographic styles: 11 poems are centered, 32 run flush-left to the margin. No interior or end-line punctuation appears in these poems. This poses no problem for the reader; crucial words often appear as single lines capitalized for emphasis. Style and message meld seamlessly, as in
Baby West
Baby West my godmother
And left me $50 in
Her will
Where would I be
Without that $50
The collection contains 10 prose pieces which are really prose-poems. They feature poetic devices, expert craftsmanship and a friendly, conversational style.
I was surprised and delighted when I encountered,  A Poem for Morris, an acrostic guaranteed to warm the heart. Surprised, because I don’t associate acrostics with serious collections (my weakness); delighted, because the poem expresses Giovanni’s winsome love for a friend.
As we bore more deeply into the substance of Giovanni’s poems we recognize why she has been variously described as, poet, firebrand, mother, activist, teacher, and healer. Her career spans five decades; she currently holds a University Distinguished Professorship at Virginia Tech. A Good Cry is ample evidence that Giovanni is all of these and more. The poet’s incisive mind, wit and wisdom weave a rich tapestry of life-experience.
Heritage, written for Walter Leonard, who lives in a nursing home, reminds me of my many visits to nursing homes and the sad conditions of life experienced by the residents:
The folk here
Are old
There are wheel
Chairs and people
To push them
As the poet raises Walter’s dignity, she raises that of her reader as well:
All will become something precious
Sapphires . . . Emeralds . . . Rubies which
Will be discovered
By other explorers who
Will polish and shape
The stones
In Bread, the poet expresses her heart for common things:
The butter
On my fingers
I was so happy
I laughed aloud
Almost waking
A Poem for Joanne is about friendship. The poet skillfully weaves all four seasons into this prose delight:
            But I’m lucky . . . friendship doesn’t have a season . . . Joanne is
            there smiling no matter what the weather
For those readers unfamiliar with Giovanni’s background and growth, Nikki Giovanni: A Look at the Development of this Small Business, chronicles her first job babysitting for kids across the hall in the apartment building where she lived in a Cincinnati suburb. This is followed by a series of small jobs leading to her current one: CEO for the small business of poetry and teaching at Virginia Tech. She concludes with,
            money is a good idea and you certainly need some; but chasing a dollar will
            make you crazy.
Even though Giovanni’s past is marked by much suffering, her greatness lies in the ability to place events in perspective.
From: The Past . . . The Present . . . The Future
We cannot undo
The past
Not the people who kidnapped
not the people who sold
nor bought
We cannot undo
The past we can build
The future
After reading Autumn Soup, I felt like a ten-year-old, peering wide-eyed over the stove as my mother’s efficient hands concocted aromatic delights from beef chunks and vegetables from the garden:
1st you peel and quarter
a yellow onion (I know some folk like white
but I’m a country girl)
I like a whole garlic bulb
What’s the difference between
2 or 3 little cloves and the whole
thing? Taste
These have to simmer
From there activate your taste buds for squirrel, fish, red potatoes, rutabagas, pumpkin beer and more. This is a poem one can simmer to taste!
A Poem is dedicated to Ethel Morgan Smith and Lucy, friends whom she has neglected to thank for their kindness:
I call when I need lifting
I call when I need advice
I call when I need to understand something
then I forget to say
thank you
In an age of abuse toward women, Surveillance lifts the curtain on the poet’s own childhood suffering as witnessed through trauma inflicted on her mother:
Who was there . . . who looked
Where was the camera
That Saturday night my father
Hit my mother so hard
She literally flew
Across the living room
And fell against the windowpane
Like a rag doll
In reading the collection as a whole, we learn that Giovanni cherishes deep, authentic friendships. Any review would be remiss if it did not mention three friends who were and continue to be difference-makers in the poet’s life:
Rita Dove
A raindrop
A snowflake
A little bit of sun
A smile
A tear
A lover’s laughter
Shall we call her Rita
And let’s add an Eagle
No, a Dove
Both beauty and ice
At Times Like These
(for Maya Angelou)
At times like these
We measure our words
Because we are
Measuring a life
We measure not
The depth
But the width
Of compassion
And passion
And dreams
For Ruby Dee
            I loved Ruby Dee for a lot of reasons but mostly because she remembered who 
she loved and who loved her.
As I savor each poem in this superb collection, I count myself lucky to have found a poet who, with an arm around my shoulder whispers, “Come, let’s meet life together.”


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