Sunday, November 06, 2011

Swimming Through Heartache

The poems that appear in Eloise Greenfield’s The Great Migration: Journey to the North (illustrated by Jay Spivey Gilchrist) strike the chords of heartache and dislocation, exploring the lives of African-Americans as they struggle to make the journey from the South into the unknown Up North.

Greenfield writes about the thousands who risked their lives to make a better life for themselves and their families. They boarded trains or drove beaten-up old cars or walked, leaving the only homes they knew, and took the long journey northward, their bags filled with their belongings, their hearts filled with their hopes and dreams.

Here's how Greenfield describes a man preparing to leave home:
Saying goodbye to the land
puts a pain on my heart.
I stand here looking at the green
growing all around me,
and I am sad.
But I keep hearing about this
better life waiting for me,
hundreds of miles away,
and I know I’ve got to go.
Hope my old car can make it
that far.
The words are simple but the emotions that they convey to the reader are profound, inviting the reader into the emotional landscape of this man’s life.

What’s striking is how this man’s hopes, dreams, and fears carry the echoes of the hopes, dreams, and fears that my grandparents held as they left Poland and Russia for America, and that someone’s mother might have held as she left Ireland or France or any other country for America ... or which someone's father might feel leaving a country today torn by war (or persecution or discrimination) for a haven free from strife and heartache.

Greenfield describes a woman about to depart:
I can’t wait to get away.
I never want to see this town
again. Goodbye, town. Goodbye,
work all day for almost no pay,
enemy cotton fields, trying
to break my back, my spirit.
Goodbye, crazy signs, telling me
where I can go, what I can do.
I hear that train whistling
my name. Don’t worry, train,
I’m ready. When you pull
into the station, my bags and I
will be there.
In this description, Greenfield offers the reader another perspective, one with determination, fierce pride, and a stubborn will to leave behind the South and the suffering of the past, while using the language of every day, so striking in its ordinariness, to create an elegant poem of heartbreak and loss, hope and love.

Greenfield captures the rhythms of these journeys, the acts of bidding farewell to the familiar, the long train ride north, the doubts and questions that arise in the night as the train keeps moving (Will I make a good life/for my family,/ for myself?/ The wheels are singing,/ “Yes, you will,/ you will, you will!”), and the excitement of the arrival Up North.

It all adds up to a book of poems (with illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist as profound as the poems they illustrate) that children and adults will treasure not only for the history it shares but for the soul music that Greenfield draws out of the words on every page.

For more information about the Greenfield and Gilchrist, visit:

And to read more about the book, visit:


Anonymous said...

Bruce, great review. I have that on my desk to read.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Mac. Enjoy the book!