By John Zheng
All the Songs We Sing is an anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective founded and directed by Lenard D. Moore, a noted poet and ardent community leader. It includes forty-one authors, out of the total of the Collective’s eighty-four members.
The editor selects works with diverse themes—civil rights, social justice, culture, pride, tradition, history, and race—which provide different angles to see and ponder the human world and happenings. For example, Kim Arrington’s “When I Consider the Open Casket” reiterates the murder of Emmitt Till with a description of the mutilated corpse in the casket which shocked the whole world, while Janice W. Hodges’ “Love Poem” written for E. Ethelbert Miller is a song reflecting Black Arts aesthetic:
your history beats
like saturated love songs
dripping innocent slave boy’s blood
sorrow and sweetness
as rich as Africa’s ethos
like a dying eye
for hollow trees
dried kinked and knotted
like aging lovers’ hands
is as beautiful
A favorite song is Adrienne Christian’s “portrait of pin, or blush.” It’s like a snapshot about an elderly couple at a bistro. They are “in jeans, leather / bomber jackets, and heeled boots” and getting up from their stools to leave. The images in stanzas 2 and 3 suggest an appreciation for love:
him behind her,
his bomber jacket zipper
a spine at her back,
him wrapping on her scarf
the heart-shaped cookie she nibbled
the shape of her mouth,
that cookie, puffy,
with still-soft icing white and rose.
Images function to suggest so that a reader sees or feels through the mind’s eye. The association of the heart-shaped cookie with the shape of the mouth shifts to the soft and colorful icing offers a moment to enlighten the observer to ponder in the final stanza, “I learned / the anthropology of blush.”
This anthology includes haiku and haibun, two Japanese poetic forms, which catch moments of sensibility to nature and human nature, as exemplified by “hiking trail / sweet smell of gardenias / enters my nose” by Valeria Bullock, “near the ruins / of St. Agnes Hospital / magnolia blooms” by Sheila Smith McKoy, and “plantation tour— / I follow the swallowtail / to the slave house” by Crystal Simone Smith. It also includes sonnets. Camille T. Dungy’s “What to Eat, What to Drink, and What to Leave for Poison” distinguishes itself as a sonnet corona, a sequence of seven linked by using the last line of the previous sonnet as the beginning line of the next and concluded with the first line of the first sonnet as the last line of the final sonnet. Dungy’s sequence sings for the beauty of spring, as the last sonnet presents:
Daffodils are up, my God! What beauty
concerted down on us last night. And if
I sleep again, I’ll wake to a louder
blossoming, the symphony smashing down
hothouse walls, and into the world: music
something like the birds’ return, each morning’s
crescendo rising toward its brightest pitch,
colors unfurling, petals alluring.
The song, the color, the rising ecstasy
of spring. My God. This beauty. This, this
is what I’ve hoped for. All my life is here
in the unnamed core—dogwood, daffodil,
tulip poplar, crab apple, crepe myrtle—
only now, in spring, can the place be named.
In the fiction section, the catchy title of Tracie M. Feller’s “When the Stars Begin to Fall” is a line of an African American spiritual. It reads like a memoir that takes a reader back to history: a girl growing up, singing in the church, attending school, taking a walk with a young man who is part of her world, and filling Nana’s shoes to run the household. The surprise ending with the young man appearing at her door suggests an expectation that all’s well that ends well.
In the nonfiction section, Lenard D. Moore’s “An Onslow County Tradition” brings us fond memories of eating good food, gardening, fishing, and cooking. Food is fresh and delicious with the joy of gardening. Read this description:
I tended the garden—weeding, hilling, watering, and raking—until the waist-high and shoulder-high plants yielded their output. Always on the ground, cucumber, watermelon and cantaloupe vines sprawled all over the plot. Pole beans wrapped around the slender poles…. Like others in our African American community, we often ate from our garden. There was no talk of going to the grocery store for vegetables. After harvesting what we wanted from the garden, we sat on the front porch where we snapped or shelled beans and shucked corn with our father. All we knew was eating fresh food out of the garden.
The celebration of food surely presents a view of family gathering and harmonious kinship. Moore reminisces that his father exemplifies himself for manhood and fatherhood: “I knew that he knew what fatherhood was all about, and he demonstrated how to be a good provider and a great father.” His father cooked delicious food for him, and now he cooks for his own child and siblings. In a sense, Moore’s piece shows a continuation of tradition through the celebration of food.
In conclusion, All the Songs We Sing symbolizes an accomplishment of a literary mission through the collective voices of the Carolina African American writers. It’s a great addition to contemporary American literature, a tapestry woven with language, imagery, and genres, and an album of songs about “Black existence, Black memory, and all the liminal spaces in-between,” as Jaki Shelton Green says in the foreword. It’s worth reading indeed.
John (Jianqing) Zheng published A Way of Looking and Conversations with Dana Gioia in 2021. His poetry has appeared in Hanging Loose, Mississippi Review, Poetry South, Tar River among others. He is the editor of Journal of Ethnic American Literature.