The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni:

I think I made it clear on my first two entries on The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 that I didn’t see myself as part of her intended audience. Despite the appeal of her clean, direct lines, she seemed to spend most of her career trying to appeal to particular groups that I’m not part of. Too often she seems to have “a chip on her shoulder,” and it’s not the same chip that I have, so it’s hard to identify with them. This poem probably identifies these areas better than I ever could:

A Poem Off Center

how do poets write
so many poems
my poems get decimated
in the dishes the laundry
my sister is having another crisis
the bed has to be made
there is a blizzard on the way go to the grocery store
did you go to the cleaners
then a fuse blows
a fuse always has to blow
the women soon find themselves
talking either to babies or about them
no matter how careful we are
we end up giving tips
on the latest new improved cleaner
and the lotion that will take the smell away

if you write a political poem
you’re anti‑semitic
if you write a domestic poem
you’re foolish
if you write a happy poem
you’re unserious
if you write a love poem
you’re maudlin
of course the only real poem
to write
is the go to hell writing establishment poem
but the readers never know who
you’re talking about which brings us back
to point one

i feel i think sorry for the women
they have no place to go
it’s the same old story blacks
hear all the time
if it’s serious a white man
would do it
when it’s serious
he will
everything from writing a
to sweeping the streets
to cooking the food
as long as his family doesn’t
eat it

it’s a little off center
this life we’re leading
maybe i shouldn’t feel sorry
for myself
but the more i understand
the more i do

There’s not too much in the poem that I don’t disagree with, though I’m sure I’ve read an awful lot of “political poems” that aren’t “anti-semitic” and I suppose I’m far too ingrained in old-school poetry to identify too closely with a “go to hell writing establishment poem.” Hell, I’m probably just plain too much of what she calls the “establishment” to identify with anything in this poem.

That said, I suspect even when I disagree with much that a poet says I’m still more apt to find something that does appeal to me per hour spent reading than I am to find anything that appeals to me in the same amount of time spent watching television.

And this poem might just prove that point,


we make up our faces
for lots of reasons
to go to the movies
or some junior prom
to see ice hockey
or watch the Dodgers come home again

going to the grocery store
only requires lipstick
while a bridge game
can mean a quick trip
to the hairdresser for a touch up

i clean my make up
before going to bed
and if my mood is foul
i spray the sheets with Ultra Ban

most faces are made up
before the public is faced
whether male female or child
it’s always so appropriate
don’tcha know
to put a little mascara
around the eyes

we make up fantasies
to face life
we need to believe
we are good on the job
or at least in the bed

we make up lies
to impress people
who are making up lies
to impress us
and if either took all
the make up off
life would not be
worth living

we make up excuses
to say i’m sorry that
forgive me because
and after all didn’t i tell you

and i make up with you
because you aren’t strong
enough to reach out
to say
come home I need you

I think the last time I literally wore makeup was Halloween 1951 when I was too sick to go out trick or treating so my mom dressed me up as a housewife and let me hand out candy to trick-or-treaters who came to our door, but that doesn’t make me less able to identify with this poem. Despite believing that honesty is generally the best policy, I’ve had to play enough roles in society to understand that “makeup” is both necessary and self-defeating, and it’s important to understand the role “makeup” plays in our lives if we want to understand others, and ourself.

2 thoughts on “The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni:”

  1. The change in the weather makes for more reading and writing, doesn’t it?

    Now that I think of it, Nikki Giovanni was a favorite of my German / Irish / Scots Irish mother. Nikki Giovanni spoke to my mother’s life of being a woman who had been silenced. My mother appreciated a young woman who spoke out so boldly. Still, my mother stopped writing short stories and poetry around 1968. I’m sure that “A Poem Off Center” spoke to her.

    I remember seeing Nikki Giovanni on public television in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960’s and being strongly impressed by her presence but sensing that she was not speaking to me and that she would probably feel contempt for me, a timid young white woman with very low self-esteem.

    She may have influenced me, though, to stop wearing make-up, to start writing poetry, to think of myself as an artist and to consider what it might mean that women of our generation had more options than our mothers and grandmothers had ever dreamed of, and it was certain that that truth didn’t make life as a woman any easier.

    I can’t picture you wearing make-up and dressed as a housewife, loren. That your mother dressed you as a housewife says a lot about how different things were in 1951 and, for some reason, makes me think of the scene in the “Rebel Without A Cause” where the father of the James Dean character is wearing a woman’s apron.

  2. I can’t imagine me dressing up as a housewife, either, am, but I do manage to do a lot of “housewiferly” chores around here.

    My mother was pretty independent and taught us all how to cook and how to clean. After he retired even my Dad helped cook regularly.

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