In November at NCTE16, I was privileged to finally meet poet Jeannine Atkins. I got a copy of her upcoming book in verse, Stone Mirrors. I didn’t know what this book was about. I just loved the cover.
The beauty of this book is on the inside and the outside. Jeannine tells the story of Edmonia Lewis, a Objibwe-Haitian-American woman, who in 1862, had the rare chance to attend Oberlin. While there, she became mixed up in a controversy over poisoning. She was acquitted, but forced to leave the school. Her future took her to Boston and Italy where she became a successful sculptor.
The facts, however, are not the important aspects of this story. What I found intriguing was Jeannine’s unique way of writing story in verse. As I read, I was drawn in by the melody of the language as well as the fascinating story. I loved following Edmonia through her growing confidence as an artist and as a woman. I wonder how Jeannine got into the mind of Edmonia. How did she know the feel of the stone she carved? “She hammers out stillness, holding a life in mid-speech or stride, like a deer between danger and trust.”
Intertwined into the story of Edmonia Lewis are lines of wisdom, carved into Jeannine’s poems like the images Edmonia carved in stone.
Edmonia carves the smokey smell of drawing pencils,
like a burned-down fire, and hardening clay,
with its whiff of a pond bottom. She goes to the art room,
where each mark on paper offers a new chance.
She has nothing left but hunger for beauty,
small as the tip of a paintbrush.
She wishes the stove were lit,
though if smoke rose she might not be alone.
She smashes ice that sheathes
a jar of water to rinse a paintbrush.
She no longer draws goddesses, gods,
or anyone in transformation.
White people think metaphor belongs to them.
She opens a cupboard with boxes
printed with names, none hers.
She reads them as if studying a map
of places no one expects her to see.
The shelves and boxes are divided
like classrooms where walls come between
art, poetry, and myth. In history class,
teachers separate the dead from the living.
All through the school, lines are drawn between
right and wrong, white and colored, rich and poor,
truth and lies, facts and dreams, courage and fear,
what belongs to one person and what doesn’t.
They forget that every time the wind blows,
the world asks everyone to bend.
from Stone Mirrors, Jeannine Atkins, January 2017
On a recent trip through New Orleans, we crossed the Hale Boggs Bridge. My daughter was driving, so I could take this amazing picture. As the time changes over to a new year, I contemplate what may lie ahead.