Sunday, February 06, 2011

Stepping Out From Behind Our Masks

One of the most compelling features of poetry–and a book like Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade which mixes poetry with longer prose–is how the voice of the poems creates an intimacy on the page between reader and narrator, offering a glimpse into interior lives that are usually hidden from view.

Using words and images that are direct and raw, Grimes’ poems come straight from the hearts of her eighteen teenage narrators, each offering us a view of their hearts so stunningly and heart-breakingly clear that it feels as if we’ve stepped magically into their skin for a few brief moments.

Take a look at this poem as an example:
Mirror, Mirror
by Janelle Battle

Sisters under the skin,
we meet in the mirror,
our images superimposed
for one split second.
Ready or not,
I peer into your soul
and dive deep,
in a pool of pain
as salty and familiar
as the tears on my cheek.
Your eyes don’t like
what I see.
You don’t want to be me.
So you curse
and smash the mirror,
which gets you what?
A bit of blood,
a handful of glass splinters,
another source of pain.
(p. 72)
From the first line’s words–sisters under the skin–Grimes points a reader to a world beneath the surface, suggesting there is more to each of us than meets the eye. Our reflections in the mirror may fool us into thinking that we’re different from one another, but, underneath, we share something of the same souls.

Janelle, the narrator of this poem, is just one of the characters in this book who find themselves exploring difficult issues in their young lives as they navigate their way through Mr. Ward’s high school English class.

As the students complete their weekly poetry assignments and read their work aloud each week at the class’ Open Mike session, the narrators begin to discover how much they share in common with classmates who may seem like strangers. Over the course of the year of writing poetry, they come to see one another, not as aliens from other planets or as potential threats, but, rather, as potential friends.

Grimes works her magic in prose, too, not just poetry.

Here’s an excerpt from the narrative that precedes "Mirror, Mirror":
“Look, I am nothing like you, okay?” she spit out. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re fat and I’m not. And you’re wrong about my poem. It was just words. It didn’t mean anything. You got that?” And she slammed out of the bathroom and left me there, stinging from the inside out.

I bit my lip to keep the tears back. I turned the faucet on and washed my hands a few times, staring at the sink until I heard Sheila step out into the hall. I glanced up at the mirror before I left. “You’re wrong, Judianne,” I said to the mirror. “They weren’t just words, and you know it.”
In this example, as in so many other passages in Bronx Masquerade, Grimes captures the subtle intonations of speech, the almost invisible emotional weight that words carry (often unbeknownst to their speakers), and succeeds in recreating, too, the pacing and timing of speech, conveying through words, both poetry and prose, how each speaker feels behind their words and behind the masks that they try to create with their words.

Life in the Bronx might require teens to play their roles as part of a masquerade to survive, and maybe that’s the way life is for teens no matter where they grow up today, whether it’s the south Bronx or suburban Houston or Sarasota or inner-city LA.

But no matter where teen readers (and writers) might live, they can open Grimes’ work and meet eighteen young teens who find the courage and strength to step out from behind their masks, to face the world as they truly are, and to tell the truth about themselves in the poems they share with us.

For more about Nikki Grimes and Bronx Masquerade, visit:

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