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.


Giovanni’s poems in Re: Creation and My House tend to be less confrontational than her earlier poems, though they’re still there, like “Ugly Honkies, or The Election Game and How to Win It” with lines like “ever notice how it’s only the ugly/ honkies/ who hate/ like Hitler was an ugly dude/ same with lyndon/ ike nixon hhh wallace maddox.” Strangely, this movement away from confrontation results in several poems that are little more than sentimental snapshots, more songs than poetry.

Luckily, there’s also a few more poems like this,


the last time i was home
to see my mother we kissed
exchanged pleasantries
and unpleasantries pulled a warm
comforting silence around
us and read separate books

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

mommy always sat in the dark
i don’t know how i knew that but she did

that night i stumbled into the kitchen
maybe because i’ve always been
a night person or perhaps because i had wet
the bed
she was sitting on a chair
the room was bathed in moonlight diffused through
those thousands of panes landlords who rented
to people with children were prone to put in windows
she may have been smoking but maybe not
her hair was three-quarters her height
which made me a strong believer in the samson myth
and very black

i’m sure i just hung there by the door
i remember thinking: what a beautiful lady

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home from his night job
or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by
“come here” she said “i’ll teach you
a poem: i see the moon
the moon sees me
god bless the moon
and god bless me”
i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Of course, being a voracious reader I identify with the last lines in the first stanza. Much of my time with significant others has been spent reading in the same space. Though most of the time it’s simply giving the other person time to do what they like to do, it can also be a way of avoiding dealing with the other person.

I’m not sure I remember the first time I saw my mother “consciously,” though it may have been the time she fell down and clipped her chin in her bedroom, knocked herself out, and was gushing blood from her chin. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I ever had to help her with anything, and up to that moment I probably thought she was omnipotent. She’d always taken care of me, and herself.

Although I loved my mother dearly, I really liked the ending of this poem, “just to say we must learn/ to bear the pleasures/ as we have borne the pain,” which, for me at least, took it out of the purely “sentimental” category. I don’t think I’ve ever had a long term relationship with anyone that hasn’t included both pleasure and pain, particularly with someone as important as a parent.

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998

After 50+ years of attending school I find it difficult not to turn to literature when September approaches, and this year is no different than any other year. In fact, I started reading The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni over a week ago. I suspect that I was originally drawn to the collection by someone posting a poem like this on their site,


sometimes i feel like i just get in
everybody’s way
when i was a little girl
i used to go read
or make fudge
when i got bigger i
or picked my nose
that’s what they called
or when i got older
but it was only
that i was in the way

a poem whose simplicity and immediacy definitely appeals to me. As a teacher I encountered far too many kids who seemed to feel as if their intelligence marked them, set them apart from others.

Unfortunately, there have been far too few of these kinds of poems in the first hundred pages of the collection and far too many like:

The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro
(For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)

Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your
’68 El Dorado
(that’s all they’re good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain’t got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed europe
Can you kill
Can you kill a white man
Can you kill the nigger
in you
Can you make your nigger mind
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can you shoot straight and
Fire for good measure
Can you splatter their brains in the street
Can you kill them
Can you lure them to bed to kill them
We kill in Viet Nam
for them
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
Learn to kill niggers
Learn to be Black men

Accompanied by endnotes like this by Virginia Fowler that provide context for the poems:

“The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For

Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)”

“Black vs. Negro”: Naming has always had enormous importance to Black Americans because of its connection to identity and power. Africans brought to this country and sold into slavery were stripped of their names and forced to take the names given them by their new masters. In the 1960s special attention was focused on this issue. Those involved in the Black Power and Black Arts movements drew significant distinctions between the terms “Negro,” “nigger,” and “Black.” Sarah Webster Fabio wrote a definitive essay on this topic for Negro Digest, in which she offered the following analysis:

Scratch a Negro and you will find a nigger and a potential black man; scratch a black man and you may find a nigger and the remnants of a Negro. Negro is a psychological, sociological, and economical fabrication to justify the status quo in America. Nigger is the tension created by a black man’s attempt to accommodate himself to become a Negro in order to survive in a racist country. Black is the selfhood and soul of anyone with one drop of black blood, in Amer- ica, who does not deny himself.

The black community has always known-and it is becoming apparent to the world-that America wants Negroes and niggers but not black people.

James Baldwin makes reference to the observation that “the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.” The Negro is a pathology: Baldwin has also said that there is “no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the ‘nigger’ who surrounds him and to the ‘nigger’ in himself.” Being black, then, is a reaffirmation of selfhood; it is a meaningful anti-dote to white racism; it is a move toward deniggerizing the world population of non-white people and of humanizing the white people. (“Who Speaks Negro? What Is Black?” Negro Digest, Sept.-Oct. 1968.)

Perhaps a black audience, or historians, might find poems like this interesting but they remind me of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, and I couldn’t finish that book even when it was wildly popular among my “liberal” friends.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any poems that hold the same appeal for me that many of Robert Hayden’s poems did. I’m too frugal and too stubborn, though, to just discard the book now that I’ve purchased it. (I pride myself on having finished all but two books I’ve ever started reading.) Hopefully, I will find the later poems more to my liking and will be able to post on the book regularly in the next few days. Otherwise, there will continue to be blank space here at In a Dark Time more often than I would prefer.