Thursday, April 14, 2022

Out of No Way: Madam CJ Walker & A'Lelia Walker A Poetic Drama by Roje Augustin

Out of No Way: Madam CJ Walker & A'Lelia Walker
A Poetic Drama by Roje Augustin
156 Pages
Published May 2020 by Bowker
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Poetic Book Tours - Where Readers Come to Poetry

Publisher's Summary: 
Author, producer, and emerging poet Rojé Augustin has written a groundbreaking debut collection of dramatic poems about hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia. Rojé's singular and accomplished work is presented through the intimate lens of the mother-daughter relationship via different poetic forms — from lyric to haiku, blackout to narrative. (One poem takes its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.) Written in tribute to Walker, Out of No Way deftly and beautifully explores themes of race, motherhood, sacrifice, beauty, and the meaning of success in Jim Crow America.

My Thoughts: 
You know me I'm always up for trying something different in a book. Well, maybe not are going to have to convince me that it's worth taking a risk, especially in the past year when my reading has been on the skids. But, say you approach me with a book about a woman that I've long been interested in learning more about and then also say that you approach me about a book of poetry, something I've been trying to read more of recently and then say that you have a book that combines both of those things. Well then, you've got my attention. 

Ms. Augustin doesn't just hop right into the poetry. She kindly gives readers an introduction to the characters who will be populating her work and prefaces the book with an explanation of why she wanted to write about Sarah Breedlove, why she chose to write her poetry from the points of view of both Sarah and her daughter Lelia, and how she chose what she would write her poems about. If you've been here long, you know that I almost always skip over these kinds of introductions but I'm glad I didn't do that here. To be honest, it wasn't that much reading but it was certainly well worth the time it took to give me a good background going into the book. 

Sarah Breedlove was the first child born into freedom in her family, orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, a widow at twenty. Lelia was her only child. Breedlove would marry twice more, the third time to Charles Joseph Walker who convinced her to call herself Madam C.J. Walker when her company began. Ms. Walker died at the young age of fifty-one have risen from a working child who earned seventy cents for doing the hard work of a household to being the first self-made female millionaire in the country. 

Each chapter addresses an issue relevant to this mother and daughter - the first letters of those issues, in fact, spell out M-O-T-H-E-R and D-A-U-G-H-T-E-R. Poem styles include lyric, narrative, haiku, blackout, elegy, nursery rhyme, and villanelle. It's particularly interesting to see how the form of poem either mirrors the topic (Envy is written in blackout form) or to act as a counterpoint (Hate written in nursery rhyme). 

All of the poems serve to move the story of these two women forward as Augustin explores the relationship between the two, often alternating poems from one woman's point of view to the other. As with any book of poetry, some of these resonated more with me than others. Rare for me in a book of poetry, I even highlighted some passages. 

Some of my poems were The Voice In Her Head, in no small part because of the way Augustin then took that work and used blackout to make it several other works. She also used black out to take a dozen Madam C.J. Walker product ads and create poetry out of them that addresses envy - I found them very clever and as a whole, very effective. In the chapter titled Resilience is a work titled "Resilience: Making a Way Out of No Way" Speech by Madam C.J. Walker Given at the Anti-Lynching Conference of June 1918" that is gut wrenching and inspiring. In the chapter titled Hate is the piece titled The Prison of Racism that Hate Built, which is a poem that builds on itself and becomes more and more impactful and which is one of my favorite works in the book. I'll share one of the last stanzas.
There was the money
For the NAACP
To challenge America
That elected the president
Who headed the government
That built a system
That rewarded the white men
Who created Jim Crow, 
That angered the woman 
Who helped the people 
Lynched in the prison of racism
that hate built. 
This is a book the keeps me challenging myself to read out of my comfort zone in both genre and subject, to read diversely and, sometimes, uncomfortably. Well done, Ms. Augustin. Well done. 

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