Alice Walker writes free verse, employing concrete images. She resorts to few of the conceits, the extended metaphors, the Latinate language, and other common conventions of poetry. Readers frequently say that her verses hardly seem like poetry at all; they resemble the conversation of a highly articulate, observant woman. Although her poetry often seems like prose, her fiction is highly poetic. The thoughts of Miss Celie, the first-person narrator of The Color Purple, would not have been out of place in a book of poetry. Boundaries between prose and poetry are minimal in the work of Walker. Her verse, like her prose, is always rhythmic; if she rhymes or alliterates, it seems to be by accident. The poetry appears so effortless that its precision, its choice of exact image or word to convey the nuance the poet wishes, is not immediately evident. Only close scrutiny reveals the skill with which this highly lettered poet has assimilated her influences, chiefly E. E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Graves, Japanese haiku, Li Bo, Ovid, Zen epigrams, and William Carlos Williams.
Walker’s poetry is personal and generally didactic, generated by events in her life, causes she has advocated, and injustices over which she has agonized. The reader feels that it is the message that counts, before realizing that the medium is part of the message. Several of her poems echo traumatic events in her own life, such as her abortion. She remembers the words her mother uttered over the casket of her father, and she makes a poem of them. Other poems recall ambivalent emotions of childhood: Sunday school lessons which, even then, were filled with discrepancies. Some poems deal with the creative process itself: She calls herself a medium through whom the Old Ones, formerly mute, find their voice at last.
Some readers are surprised to discover that Walker’s poems are both mystical and socially revolutionary, one moment exuberant and the next reeking with despair. Her mysticism is tied to reverence for the earth, a sense of unity with all living creatures, a bond of sisterhood with women throughout the world, and a joyous celebration of the female principle in the divine. On the other hand, she may lament that injustice reigns in society: Poor black people toil so that white men may savor the jewels that adorn heads of state.
Walker’s first collection of poetry, Once, communicates her youthful impressions of Africa and her state of mind during her early travels there and the melancholy and thoughts of death and suicide she felt on her return to United States, where racism persisted. Perhaps the epigram from French philosopher Albert Camus, which prefaces the book, expresses its mood best: “Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything.”
The title poem of the collection contains several loosely connected scenes of injustice in the American South, small black children run down by vans because “they were in the way,” Jewish Civil Rights workers who cannot be cremated because their remains cannot be found, and finally a black child waving an American flag, but from “the very/ tips/ of her/ fingers,” an image perhaps of irony or perhaps of hope. There are meditations on white lovers—blond, Teutonic, golden—who dare kiss this poet who is “brown-er/ Than a jew.” There are memories of black churches, where her mother shouts, her father snores, and she feels uncomfortable.
The most striking poem is certainly “African Images,” an assortment of vignettes from the ancestral homeland: shy gazelles, the bluish peaks of Mount Kenya, the sound of elephants trumpeting, and rain forests with red orchids. However, even when viewed in the idealism of youth, Africa is not total paradise. The leg of a slain elephant is fashioned into an umbrella holder in a shop; a rhinoceros is killed so that its horn may be made into an aphrodisiac.
Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems
Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems is divided into two parts. The first is titled “In These Dissenting Times . . . Surrounding Ground and Autobiography.” She proposes to write “of the old men I knew/ And the young men/ I loved/ And of the gold toothed women/ Mighty of arm/ Who dragged us all/ To church.” She writes also “To acknowledge our ancestors” with the awareness that “we did not make/ ourselves, that the line stretches/ all the way back, perhaps, to God; or/ to Gods.” She recalls her baptism “dunked . . . in the creek,” with “gooey . . . rotting leaves,/ a greenish mold floating.” She was a slight figure, “All in white./ With God’s mud ruining my snowy/ socks and his bullfrog spoors/ gluing up my face.”
The last half of the collection, “Revolutionary Petunias . . . the Living Through,” begins with yet another epigram from Camus, reminding the reader that there will come a time when revolutions, though not made by beauty, will discover the need for beauty. The poems, especially those referred to as “Crucifixions,” become more anguished, more angered. Walker becomes skeptical of the doctrine of nonviolence, hinting that the time for more direct action may have come. The tone of the last poems in the collection may be expressed best by the opening lines to the verse Walker called “Rage.” “In me, ” she wrote, “there is a rage to defy/ the order of the stars/ despite their pretty patterns.”
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning expands on earlier themes and further exploits personal and family experiences for lessons in living. The title poem is perhaps the most moving and characteristic of the collection. Walker shared it again on May 22, 1995, in a commencement day speech delivered at Spelman College. As a lesson in forgiveness, she recalled the words her mother, who had much to endure and much to forgive, uttered above her father’s casket. Her last words to the man with whom she had lived for so many years, beside whom she had labored in the fields, and with whom she had raised so many children were, “Good night, Willie Lee, I’ll see you in the morning.” This gentle instinctive act of her mother taught Walker the enduring lesson that “the healing of all our wounds is forgiveness/ that permits a promise/ of our return/ at the end.”
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful took its title from words of Lame Deer, an Indian seer who contemplated the gifts of the white man—chiefly whiskey and horses—and found the beauty of horses almost made her forget the whiskey. This thought establishes the tone of the collection. These are movement poems, but as always, they remain intensely personal and frequently elegiac. The poet seems herself to speak:
I am the womanwith the blesseddark skinI am the womanwith teeth repairedI am the womanwith the healing eyethe ear that hears.
There is also lamentation for lost love:
When I no longer have your heartI will not request your bodyyour presenceor even your polite conversation.I will go away to a far countryseparated from you by the sea—on which I cannot walk—and refrain even from sendinglettersdescribing my pain.
Her Blue Body Everything We Know
Her Blue Body Everything We Know contains a selection of poems written between 1965 and 1990, along with a few new verses and revealing commentary. This collection includes poems from Once; Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems; Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning; and Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful. Walker provides readers with insights on the art of poetry (in poems such as “How Poems Are Made: A Discredited View” and “I Said to Poetry”). In her introduction to the final section of the collection, Walker relates how she once felt jealous of how musicians connect with their work and seem to be one with it, but that during career as a writer, she has learned that poets share a similar relationship with their poetry. Walker, a woman of passion, shows how her personal beliefs about Africa (in the first section of this collection, “African Images: Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back”), multiracial relationships (in the poem “Johann”), and the pangs of love (in poems such as “Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?”) are intricately intertwined and evident in her poetic creations.
Walker calls the final section “We Have a Beautiful Mother: Previously Uncollected Poems.” The poems in this section, including “Some Things I Like About My Triple Bloods,” “If There Was Any Justice,” “We Have a Map of the World,” and “Telling,” are deeply personal and challenge readers to think about boundaries between cultures, countries, and hearts.
Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth
In the preface to Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, Walker confides that she thought that she had reached the end of her career as a poet and was at peace with this, but after the terrorist attacks of September, 11, 2001, on the United States, Walker found herself writing poems regularly. After the attacks, Walker feared imminent war, and her poems in this book reflect that anxiety, including pieces such as “Thousands of Feet Below You,” “Not Children,” and “Why War Is Never a Good Idea.” The narrator of “Thousands of Feet Below You” mentions a boy, running away from the bombs of war, who eventually is shredded to pieces in a violent explosion. Walker shares similar feelings about the concept of war in “Not Children,” in which she refers to war as a cowardly act and an event that the world can do without. The title of “Why War Is Never a Good Idea” is self-explanatory, the subtitle of which (“A Picture Poem for Children Blinded by War”) emphasizes Walker’s stance on the issue.
Walker also continuously challenges readers to think about race relations in the United States, and how they might be improved. For example, “Patriot” encourages readers to respect all Americans, no matter what their country of origin is (she mentions Middle Eastern men, American Indian men, and African women, in particular), because these people all combine to make and define the United States. “Projection” encourages readers to look beyond the stereotypes associated with certain ethnicities (such as Indians, Germans, and Arabs) and remember that, inside each person, exists an innocent child.
In the preface to Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, Walker also shares her interest in and admiration for the environment and plants in particular. These feelings about the natural world are represented clearly in the title of this collection, which praises the earth for its beauty and righteousness. Walker, like many writers, associates nature with an inherent sense of peace. Natural imagery abounds in this collection, appearing in poems such as “Even When I Walked Away,” “Red Petals Sticking Out,” “Inside My Rooms,” and “The Tree.” Walker’s plant and flower images remind readers of her belief that humankind is deeply rooted in and connected to the earth.
A Poem Traveled Down My Arm
In the introduction to A Poem Traveled Down My Arm, Walker explains that her publisher sent her blank pages to autograph; these pages would later be bound into copies of Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth to save Walker time at forthcoming book signings. Tired of signing her own name so many times, Walker says that she suddenly started drawing little sketches on the pieces of paper. Soon, she was scrambling to keep up with writing down poems that sprang to mind, inspired by the images she had drawn. Walker feels this collection is strange when compared with her others, especially because she thought she was done writing poetry a few years earlier. Instead, she published two collections of poetry in a single year.
The poems in A Poem Traveled Down My Arm typically hover around ten words each. These succinct poetic creations address topics prevalent in the rest of Walker’s canon, including love, peace, nature, and war. The untitled poems function almost like a series of proverbs, offering her readers advice about living a healthy spiritual life while respecting Earth and all of humanity.