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HeartLove: Wedding and Love Poems. – book reviews

Haki R. Madhubuti initially made his reputation as a seminal Black
Arts Movement poet during the late 1960s and early 1970s with books
such as Don’t Cry, Scream, and We Walk the Way of the New World. Since
then, he has devoted much of his time to community organizing, and
helping to build Black institutions such as Third World Press, an
independent publisher he founded in 1967.

In the interim, his talent for creating fearless, provocative
essays–best displayed in books like Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions
and Enemies: The Clash of Races–began to overshadow his renown as a
maker of poems. Although Madhubuti continued to publish occasional
poems and enliven his public lectures with recitations, admirers of his
poetry had to wait more than two decades for the arrival of another
collection. Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors appeared in 1987, his
first such volume since Book of Life was published in 1973. Ground
Work: New and Selected Poems appeared in 1996.

His latest volume, Heart Love, shows Madhubuti continuing to
examine the issues that have occupied his attentive gaze throughout his
career: the necessity of sustaining loving relationships; honoring the
strength and wisdom of our ancestors; and the danger of indulging in
complacency, however fleeting.

Like many of his poetic contemporaries, Madhubuti makes frequent
allusion to the musical styles that paralleled his own development. As
he, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and others called for poetic
approaches that kept pace with the urgent ascendancy of Black life,
their musical counterparts such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and
Marvin Gaye were working to fashion new musical forms that blended
strains of cultural nationalism with street-spawned rhythms and
technically demanding performance. Hence, it’s not surprising that
references to artists such as Nina Simone, Coltrane, and various Motown
mainstays pop up in the poems included here.

What is surprising is Madhubuti’s failure to approximate the
rhythms and harmonies found in the music he mentions. Despite the
allusions, much of Heart Love is decidedly unmusical. In the first
sequence, titled “Wedding Poems,” phrases like “conscientious givers,”
“abandonment of weakening habits,” and “your unification is the
message” slow down the rhythm of otherwise muscular lines, resulting in
leaden stanzas that read more like paragraphs from essays than careful
poetic constructions. Madhubuti’s spare use of metaphor and other
poetic techniques adds to the prosaic quality of this section.

There are moments of bright beauty, to be sure. “Answers: This
Magic Moment” invokes “mornings bright with sun and rain” and “kisses
that quicken heartbeats.” In “Breathing the Breadth of the Other,” the
poet speaks in a voice of mature reflection as he recalls, “we’ve seen
the sun/ rise/ melting loud promises of our twenties.” Unfortunately,
such moments are too few, blunting the clarity of Madhubuti’s lessons
on what he rightly calls “serious mating.”

The uneven quality of these poems illuminates a problem that
intellectual poets such as Madhubuti inevitably encounter: how to
successfully translate the ideas and philosophies absorbed over decades
of study and experience into language that’s accessible enough to reach
readers most in need of the insights the poems are intended to convey.
One can sense Madhubuti wrestling with this enduring conundrum as he
celebrates elder couples’ fruitful unions and young lovers’ promising

Madhubuti’s concluding section, “Extended Families,” is the
strongest by far. Here we find the poet’s trademark righteous fury in
full force and deftly channeled into lines of incisive and emphatic
grace. Here also is where Madhubuti at last openly delights in
language, often bypassing the plain platitude or the quick hit in favor
of alliterative–and yes, musical–lines that practically beg to be
read aloud. Thus, he sings praises to “mothers making magical music
miles from monster madness.” He instructs brothers who “bop & pop
& be-loop in cities locked up/ and chained insane by crack and
other acts” that they should instead “bop to being Black & bright
&/ above board/ the black train of beautiful wisdom that is bending
this bind. …”

He also widens his scope to shine a relentless light on global
atrocities as he condemns Black-on-Black destruction–from intraracial
genocide in Rwanda, to small-minded gang bangs in Chicago’s housing
projects. In such a world, the poet laments, “we have learned to sleep
on bare mattresses,/ we measure our tomorrow against the deaths of
eleven year olds …”

In “Peace Starts Inside You,” a contemplative coda that echoes
Coltrane’s “Om” and Pharaoh Sanders’s “Hum-Allah,” Madhubuti speaks
effortlessly in the voice of the thoughtful elder he has become. Now as
much a father figure as the warrior he has always been, he recognizes
the value of quiet meditation, of finding a restful space between
battles. “Discover stillness,” he wisely advises. Seek the “calm within
the quiet,/ peace be still.”

Jabari Asim is an assistant editor of Washington Post Book World. His poetry appears in

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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