SOUTHSIDE RAIN: QURAYSH ALI LANSANA
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
First, let to tell you the story behind my copy of this book. Originally, Quraysh caught me walking on Division near the Guild Complex, and he stopped me right there on the street to give me one of those big hugs he gives. You know, the kind where he takes his fist and punches you on the back. It kinda hurt, but I carried the memory of his hug aching between my shoulder blades for the rest of the night, and for some reason that felt good. Along with the hug, he also gave me an autographed copy of his new book from Third World Press. Cool. That was during the first month of Letter eX's rebirth.
Then I was left with the duty of trying to get the thing reviewed. I admit it, race played a factor. I thought about it, and I figured it would be best to get someone black to review it. It just didn't seem right to assign this new work, written by one of Chicago's leaders in the African American literary scene, to just anyone. I eventually did give the book to a writer of color, signature and all, but unfortunately, months and months passed, and due to her busy life I still didn't have either the review or my signed copy of Southside Rain from her.
Having received a nomination for Quraysh to be our Poet of the Month for August, 2000, I knew I had to get a photo of him. So I ordered a copy of his book through Amazon.com. A week and a half later I contacted them to inform them Quraysh's book must have gotten lost in the mail, because it never arrived. They sent me another one, free of additional charges, which did arrive about a week later. From that copy, I duplicated the photo on its back cover onto the website, only to have Effie complain to me how lop-sided it was. Oh, it just didn't seem like I was going to win.
So there I was, finally with my own copy of the book. And it is a beautifully designed book. It is the kind of book that simply feels good in my hands. It's like money: I wanted to bend it to make it soft, make it my own. It told me it didn't want to be put on a bookshelf; it wanted to be handled. And it emitted some kind of energy, like so much of Quraysh's love is in it that it just can't be contained within its covers. Seriously. Touch it and see if you feel it too.
Flipping through it, I could see that the majority of the poetry within it is short. Not really what I would expect from someone who arose out of the performance poetry scene (by the way, some historic gossip: Quraysh was formerly known, in the Stray Bullets era, as Brother Ron Myles). The back cover of Southside Rain quotes praise from not only Gwendolyn Brooks and Luis Rodriguez (two Chicago greats), but from one of my favorite local poets, Tyehimba Jess, as well. So, I was geting psyched.
I came to the conclusion that there was only one person in the city of Chicago who I could depend on to get a fair review done in a timely fashion of this particular book, someone with years of experience reviewing local performance poets--and that someone would be myself. However, as I opened the book and plunged right in, I realized I wasn't getting it. The poems were entering my eyes but escaping my understanding. I looked around at my home, at all the scattered things which were reflective of myself, and I realized that this book needed a venue. Just like a good live performance requires a venue, so does this book. It longed for a place which would inspire deeper thoughts than "It is similar to the work of e. e. cummings because Lansana uses no upper case lettering."
I got into my car with the book and I drove to the South Side of Chicago. Coincidentally, the sky was overcast and as I drove, small beads of water landed on my windshield. At first, I parked on 71st, next to the mountain of firewood near Dorchester, a tall church steeple to the south of me; the music of the radios in the cars stopped at the traffic lights changed from Marvin Gaye dusties to boom! boom! boom! and back again. It didn't feel right there either (too many distractions); I needed a place with a history to it, where I would be able to sit back, relax and read. Finally, I found the appropriate venue for this book: Daley's Restaurant under the el-tracks, at 806 E. 63rd, Daley's Restaurant. . .since 1918 (or 1892 according to the menu), across the street from the currency exchange and next to the combined liquor store and beauty supply outlet. I sat myself down right smack in the middle of the regulars, the only white face there, and I ordered breaded pork tenderloins, which came smothered in gravy with a side of mashed potatoes, with corn soaked in butter, cornbread muffins, thick cream of chicken soup with ocra in it, and a big ass slice of lemon pie. There I sat and I read Southside Rain from cover to cover.
When I finished the book and my meal, I left two dollars on the table for the waitress. These two dollars, which would normally be insignificant to the waitresses from the restaurants I usually find myself in, inspired a certain contained glee in my waitress. I saw it in her tired eyes. She really needed those two dollars. At that moment, as I looked into those weary eyes, it all came rushing at me like a flood of thought. I suddenly understood.
Here in Southside Rain, through the art of poetry, Quraysh shares a vision of life on the South side of Chicago: growing up, surviving, witnessing, standing before the path of change, either forgiving and moving on, or being sucked into its darkness under the "abandoned canopies" with a bottle of "wild Irish rose". And then on to looking back and being inspired by Southside family, Southside religion, and, yes, even escape.
As Quraysh enters the journey, he deals with childhood, primarily a child's education and the adults in charge of that education. From the feeling of helplessness a teacher struggles with when trying to hold a lesson in front of a classroom traumatized by last night's drive-by shooting, to a candid moment in the teacher's lounge--Quraysh tackles the subject of public education with insight and heart. There, in the schoolroom, Quraysh realizes, is where a person must choose the path to follow for the rest of life.
many have marched
for my right to choose:
a 20 below sidewalk in springfield
or six hours in a cabrini-green house of learning.
both roads paved by drinking gourd followers
who traveled the same path.
The title poem, 'southside rain', is one of the two best poems in the book (the other being 'baggage'). In it, childhood's schoolyard dreams hit the ground of reality like the raindrops which puddle in asphalt pot holes.
southside rain drops like false prophets
southside rain drops like my brother's blood
southside rain drops like our leaders
southside rain drops like my knees
Throughout this book, Quraysh gets very personal, speaking of his own choice to move on, away from gang days and drunken nights, struggling to make his own tomorrow instead of "waiting on it" ("passage"): "alone / one discovers pen and paper / and tries to hide / behind his words".
In this book, the poet documents both harsh and fond recollections alike. To achieve this transcript of memory, there are some rich metaphors in this book which speak of the African American experience, such as:
"cloaking a twisted family tree / nooses dangling from scattered branches" (from "likeness");
or ". . .the englewood moon / a pale, knowing bulb." (from "our sons");
or "in a pre-jordan north carolina." (from "the woolworth's poem");
or "like your trousers, shorty / we're loose / but we're not free" (from "postcards from bridgeport, 1997);
or even "i see for miles and myles" (from "patchwork").
These metaphors are the beautiful gems that I couldn't find sitting in my own home, but which popped up at me and hit me in the face as I was sitting in one of the places Quraysh writes about. Sometimes these metaphors extend into entire poems--in the poem "way down south" Quraysh sees the state of Georgia (or is it Georgia O'Keefe) as the combined pleasures of food and sex.
Besides experimenting with metaphors, Quraysh also experiments with voice, as in the poem "going down", which speaks in the voice of Peter Tosh. The work is also filled with simple, real characters, which are expertly fleshed out, as in "aunt rubie goes to market".
The rest of this touching poetry truly bites with reality. The poem "concrete cowboy" is about a person, someone who might live on any and every block in the Englewood community. It might as well be about an eighty-year-old man I met named Sherman Lawson, who lives two doors down from the house on South Honore, where a girl was shot as she slept in her own bed. The news cameras came up to Sherman's front door, right into his face, and he told them it sounded like they were shooting off some fireworks. He didn't know a little girl had died, yet he didn't seem surprised, not surprised at all.
a golden and wise elder sits stoically
atop his throne in this kingdom of pestilence.
hawking the block.
it's all he has.
numbering his days
in the way cartridges are dumped.
one at a time.
The only thing that really bothered me about this collection, is that some of the poetry in Southside Rain is simply too short. For example, when I read "a sign from houston", I wanted to know how the gunshop billboard, which he quotes in this three line poem, inspired Quraysh, why it moved him enough to dedicate a poem to it, what does it mean to him, what memories does it invoke. I realize he is leaving it there, to inpsire the reader's own thoughts, but we all weren't raised on the South Side of Chicago (how does this sign from houston relate to that?). I get the idea Quraysh has a lot more to say about that subject than he allowed himself to. And also, the poem "private school" is too short. I personally spent most of my childhood in a private school, and I don't agree with Quraysh's assessment that private schooling can be summed up as "more lies / for people / who can afford / them". My parents were pretty damn poor, and they scraped together the money anyway, to keep me from the public school system. I only wish Quaraysh would have spent more than eight words on an idea which is so profound and debateable. However, a few of his other short poems do seem perfect in their brevity, such as the poems "reflection" or "i smiled".
As a book, the poetry moves from growing up, to making one's own choices in life, to loving and establishing family, to looking back on it all with appreciation. It is a lovely ride, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes tense, usually heart wrenching--a ride through life on the South Side of Chicago.
It ends with a peace offering in the poem "window":
these words may not be worth
the paper on which they're written
they may not be worth the chasm
that denies our dread loc
but, they represent vision to me
Vision and representing. Amen to that.
Southside Rain is available through Amazon.com (hope for better luck than I had), or through Barnes and Nobles.
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Note: C.J. takes a trip to the South Side to seek understanding from Quraysh's "Southside Rain."