Sunday, December 12, 2010

When Poetry Shines a Light

In Borrowed Names, Jeannine Atkins retells the stories of three famous women through verse, using poetry to shine a light on the relationships that these women had with their daughters.

We learn how Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, Rose, encouraged her mother to write down her childhood stories, and the challenges that the two encountered as Rose tried to help her mother shape a book out of her experiences.

Here’s how Atkins describes Rose's feelings about her role in the book-making process:
Stories unroll like a bolt of cloth over the table.
When the pattern looks smooth, Rose turns
the fabric inside out, opens her scissors.
She craves the first stroke of blades slicing
a clear way through cloth.
She is the invisible shaper
behind the page, choosing where to begin
and end this particular history.
(from “Shears” p. 73)
In the same way that Atkins shines a light on the relationship between Laura and Rose, she shares with readers the relationship between Madame C.J. Walker and her daughter, A'Leila.

The descendant of former slaves, Walker founded (with her daughter’s help) a multimillion dollar company built out of the beauty products that she created for and sold to women.

But her relationship with A’Leila wasn’t always easy, given her daughter's rebellious, stubborn nature.

Atkins skillfully reveals the depth of their relationship in this excerpt of a poem that captures A’Leila’s response to her mother’s final days after receiving a telegram while in Cuba:
After A’Lelia gets the telegram, she dives
under warm waves where she can’t hear whispers.
She books passage on a ship. Once in New Orleans,
she learns that her mother’s heart is failing fast.
She boards a train, hears wheels
spin on the track. Hurry, hurry.

It’s too late. She missed
the dying, misses the funeral.
The choir has gone home,
but she’s crowded by consolation:
Your mother was so good, so generous.
The Walker saleswomen insist. She changed our lives.

The casket is left for her to view, the bronze lid open.
Her mother’s hands are folded together, her elegant
neck exposed. Nothing is hidden now,
and nothing will be known
but what she knows already.
A’Leila drops roses on the casket. All the arguments
are over. Who’s spoiled, who’s proud, who works hard,
who doesn’t care enough: What use had they been?
No voice lingers like the one she longs to hear
slow as the Mississippi River sloshing grief
on its banks. Why had she ever before
thought she was alone?
She knows the word’s meaning now.
(from “Circles,” pp. 131-2)
The emotional bonds between mother and daughter are particularly poignant between Marie Curie, who discovered radium and was the first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes, and her two daughters, Eve and Irene (who went on to win with her husband a Noble Prize of her own), especially as these bonds are described in this poem describing Marie Curie’s funeral:
As Marie Curie wished, no men wearing crosses
or medals speak.
Irene can’t keep her mind on a colleague’s praise.
She rubs her fingers, faintly burned at the tips,
We are very careful. Surely radium makes no one ill.
Her stockings wrinkle at her ankles,
the way her mother’s had,
the way she believes stockings are meant to sag.
Eve’s hat curves eloquently
over her blue grief-stricken eyes.
She folds her strong, soft hands
as a small dark stripe
zigzags across Irene’s foot, then disappears.
The butterfly casts a long shadow.
Memory shifts like atoms.
Me, come home, Irene wrote
in old letters she finds saved in a candy box
tied with thin ribbon.
Can the past press closer than the present?
Who is a daughter without a mother?
(from “Handful of Dirt,” pp. 195-196)
It’s rare to find a collection of poems focusing on the emotional depth between mothers and daughters with such sensitivity.

It's equally rare to find a writer who can offer such deep insights into the heartache and joy of these relationships, and whose skill as a poet enables her to express these emotions with such compelling force.

Take a look at the poems in Atkins' Borrowed Names, and I think you'll agree that they shine a probing light on the relationships between mothers and daughters, letting us see this world with fresh eyes.

For more about Borrowed Names, visit:

And for more about Atkins, visit her website:

1 comment:

Amy LV said...

Oh, I love this book too. Of Rose, Jeannine writes,
"Words are spare and functional as umbrellas/but they are for more than shelter." I love how Jeannine breathes realness into these women; her simple and elegant language makes me wish that I could pull them from the page, makes me feel that I have. For as she continues, "A writer can change even a burning house,/depending on where she begins or ends her story."