Books can be our greatest friends. And when friends write books? That is a special category of delight.
Two friends, Diana Dinverno and Jillian Stevens, have recently published poetry collections, respectively titled When Truth Comes Home to Roost and Blue Idyll. Through the lens of her rich maternal family history, novelist Jean Alicia Elster explores slavery’s legacies and the complexity of race relations as it played out in the lives of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.
The truths that have come home to roost in Dinverno’s life are nested one within the other each breaking open new truths: the identity of her birth mother (in actuality her aunt); discovering her birth father was a Jew; learning of an extended family of survivors of the Holocaust who have embraced her deeply and joyously. These truths lead to others: ignited memories that become searing metaphors in the author’s poetry. Order the chapbook, a winner of the 2021 Celery City Chapbook Contest, here.
While Diana Dinverno’s chapbook of poems is a lyrical narrative the reader eagerly joins as silent observer, Jillian Stevens’ poetry calls for a different kind of engagement. Her poems arrive on the page evanascent, mysterious, sculpted into irreverent stanzas that stream from the poet’s consciousness into that of her readers. We are left at times puzzled yet entranced all the same. Stevens’ lexical mash-ups — Pringle-mouth, spattered memories, plum rubber — echo e.e. cummings’ language gymnastics.
Stevens writes in her intro: Blue Idyll arrived as scribbles upon steno pads in April of 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an enigmatic force devastating the lives of individuals across the planet. While sitting with this global and personal grief, these words surfaced in the guise of a healing balm, anointed to assuage the spirit. These very words have been my comrades — my comfort, my solace. Coming off a break-up only to enter Covid’s lockdown, Jillian used her pen as a sword to slice her way through devastation toward a new life, as written into this poem from May 29, 2020:
roots grow beneath
roots grow beneath
I can feel the melting,
the calcium-rich soil, beginning
And now, from poetry to novels — Jean Alicia Elster’s How it Happens and one of her earliest memories: asking her maternal grandmother, “Grandma, are you white?”
In the prologue, Elster writes of that memory: “At that age [a toddler] I had no concept of race or ethnic heritage. I just knew she looked different from the other family members that I interacted with. I also did not know this: her color represented a vivid reminder of the history of racial relationships in the American South as it relates to the sexual interactions between blacks and whites and the resulting offspring that did often come from those unions.”
While the seed for How It Happens was planted in her grandmother’s kitchen when Elster was a toddler, it took twenty years for her to begin to answer her long-ago innocent and potent question. Research trips to Tennessee yielded genealogy documents, information on family history, cemetery records and more. Interweaving this trove with family stories, Elster portrays three generations of indomitable women who walked a fine and fearsome line between post-slavery “freedom” and the rules, mores and laws that kept them, their husbands and their families at the mercy of white employers, shopkeepers and educators.
Alicia and I have known one another for nearly 30 years. I know her better now and more deeply for having read How It Happens. The stories and lives of Addy Jackson, May Jackson Ford, and Jean Ford Fuqua, respectively Alicia’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are part of me now, as Alicia has been for so many years. Order How It Happens from Wayne University Press and while you’re at it, check out Elster’s prior titles in the trilogy: Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car.