The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, by Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water
written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson
illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

This is a children’s picture book that was part of The 1619 Project and it is beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated, and addresses a difficult but vitally important topic in an age-appropriate manner.

The framing story starts with a young child being given a class assignment to write out their family tree. However, while their white peers are able to go back many generations and list which countries their families came from, this black student can only list three generations and feels ashamed. The main focus of the book is the history of that student’s family that starts with joy and culture and rich history in Africa, goes through great suffering and hardship with kidnapping and enslavement in America, but still perseveres, fights, and survives to live on in the student today. It gives a message that survival in the face of trauma is to be celebrated. Black Americans have a great deal to be proud of in their African roots and their American survival and their achievements – past, present, and future.

I’m particularly impressed with the way this book shows centuries of American slavery as the middle part of the history of the student’s ancestors. Slavery was long and harsh and transformational, but it was not the start of their history and it was not the end of it.

This is clearly intended for a young audience, but I highly recommend it for adults as well, not just for the pure artistry of the writing and illustrations, but also for the soft discussion of a difficult topic.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!


By Sophokles and Anne Carson

AntigonickBuilding off of Rebecca’s post, here’s another very interesting novella in verse. I was chatting with a friend about the new translation of The Odyssey, for the first time by a woman (which I had first heard about from Kinsey), and the friend asked if it was the same author that did this translation of Antigone. It’s not (The Odyssey, which I look forward to reading, is translated by Emily Wilson, in beautifully crafted plain prose), and I had never heard of Anne Carson, so my friend lent me her copy, and I have to say, it blew me away!

Antigonick is only 44 pages (including the introduction, which I highly recommend reading), and I read almost the whole thing on my commute, practically missing my stop in the process. It is not a straight-forward translation; my best description is that it is a post-modern study/satire of the play. The characters reference their own theater, anachronistically quoting Hegel, Beckett, and Brecht. It is also surprisingly snarky for a millennia-old Greek tragedy!

You also don’t need to be fully up on your classics to be able to follow along and enjoy it. I’d actually confused it with Medea, and had a couple of pages of confusion over the lack of dead children before I realized my mistake. While not a strict retelling, Carson quickly got me up to speed, and the humor and cleverness kept it from being a bummer.

Novels in Verse

Are novels in verse coming back into fashion? Because while I’m not a big poetry reader, I do think it would be kind of awesome, and I’m beginning to see some evidence of it. I just ran across this article about a new imprint that will be focused on YA books with a strong verse element:

I’ve also been following with interest the discussions of the newest translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson that is making waves in certain circles by it’s going back to the roots of the original language and retranslating it for meaning that speaks to current society rather than to Victorian society.

And I’m reminded of a Stargate Atlantis fanfic “Free Verse” by Dasha that includes the line: “They built their laboratories to look like temples. Of course they wrote their text books to read like poetry.” And references the poem “The story of Schroedinger’s cat (an epic poem)” from The Straight Dope.

So despite not being a great fan of poetry in general, I’d be really interested in modern epic poetry coming back into fashion and seeing what modern authors do with it.

The Undertaking

By Thomas Lynch

UndertakingThomas Lynch describes himself as an internationally unknown poet, though my impression is that is fake modestly for the sake of the mild joke, since from his own accounts he seems relatively well-regarded in poetry circles. More importantly to this memoir-of-sorts, he is a third-generation undertaker in a small Michigan town. I was looking for some insight into how undertakers view death when they deal with it daily and in such a practical way. Lynch kicks the book off with a treatise on funerals that can be summed up with his repeated phrase, “the dead do not care.” It is occasional humorous, but more often, uh, bracing, like cold water or a slap in the face. It isn’t really a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one.

That is, until he goes off on tangents on wider subjects, and his old-white-maleness starts showing. Sympathizing with a friend’s divorce, he bemoans how the ex-wife seemed to just callously stop appreciating poetry idolizing her body. I started side-eyeing the author a bit there, but he really gets going at the end of the book. A lengthy screed against assisted suicide, stemming from a more interesting description of his brother’s post-mortem cleanup service, veers way off course into anti-abortion territory with a wide variety of willfully ignorant arguments that made me dislike the author quite heartily. The glib snarkiness that had seemed darkly funny at the beginning became pretty nasty towards the end.

Gabriel: A Poem

By Edward Hirsch

Perhaps I should add a tag for “mourning” here? I feel like I readreadread as much escapist nonsense as I can take in, but then suddenly get jerked to a stop by some book that looks like it might address my reality in an important or useful way. I saw this headline from NPR on my facebook feed: “A Poet On Losing His Son: ‘Before You Heal, You Have To Mourn’”, and I thought, that sounds promising; I don’t feel like I’m healing much at all yet – maybe I just need to mourn some more.

I’m actually not that big on poetry, either; I have great respect but little understanding for it. The following excerpts caught ahold of me, though:

Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into


Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him

Turns out this…was not an easy read. It has taken me two months to get through 78 pages of short lines of poems (and an additional month to post about it). I’ve been reading other books, too, of course, because I couldn’t bear to take this one on my commute with me. So, I read a few pages at home until I needed to stop and then I waited until the next day.

I truly don’t really get poetry. Even reading this, I don’t understand how Hirsch has managed to capture so much of what I’ve been going through more accurately in like 15 words than the various prose books have in pages and pages of text.

Hirsch dedicates the majority of the poem to describing Gabriel and their history together. And there were so many similarities: Gabriel was adopted like Thomas, was raised in an upper middle-class and highly academic family, and had serious teenage rebellion that included drug use and short stints of homelessness.

Toward the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his own mourning, and there were even more similarities: the desperate practicalities that have to be done even though you are barely holding yourself together, the agonizing over what you were doing the exact moment your loved one died, what you were doing just before that when you could maybe have done something to prevent it instead.

Yeah, this was a tough read, but a lot of the lines continue to echo in my head, and I know that I will read it again in a year or two, as well, when hopefully things are a little better.


The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

the_prophetThe Prophet
By Kahlil Gibran

This is a really gorgeous piece of writing. The version I read was also a beautifully illustrated version, with Gibran’s own illustrations. The text also happens to be available online for free.

It is essentially a collection of poetry essays addressing a variety of issues regarding life and faith and living life in a spiritual manner.

While it’s relatively short (less than 90 pages in the version I read), it is not a quick read. It is made up of 28 chapters and it’s the kind of text that you can read a bit at a time and spend a lot of time thinking about. The wording is beautiful, the imagery is beautiful, and the philosophy is beautiful.

In many ways, it reads a bit like the very best of Bible passages, but while it’s clearly deist, it’s not any one religion. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone ever.

While it’s gorgeous in it’s own right – to the extent that I have a hard time describing it without making it sound significantly more schmaltzy than it is – I would also recommend it to anyone who has to give some emotional speech. If I ever need to give a speech or a toast or something at a wedding, a graduation, a funeral, or whatever, this will be my first go-to book for inspiration and quotes, before either Shakespeare or the Bible.  (I am clearly not the only person to have this thought, though, since I recognized several quotes from it.)

But anyway, I highly recommend it. Go forth. Read it. Or listen to it. Whichever.