Tracing life through poetry

Janice N. Harrington’s book of poems, Even the hollow my body made is gone, is an important tale of music and memory. This chronicle, set on the brink of the Civil Rights movement, tells the story of Lillian, Webster, their children, and their grandchildren, a family living a meager life in the rural South more than 60 years ago. The book is split into five sections, some including one poem and others 12. All of the poems point to the author remembering and reflecting back to her childhood, as an adult.

Throughout the book, the author utilizes repetition and alliteration to emphasize important themes, symbols, and motifs in her poems. The continued appearance of persimmon, catalpa, and kudzu trees, as well as crops like cotton and corn, display her connection with nature and how observant she is of her environment. The musical and lyrical quality of her work is expressed throughout the book, with the inclusion of song lyrics in poems like “The Thief’s Tabernacle” and “They All Sang.” She explores numerous topics from her perspectives as a girl and as an adult, and the poems reflect her growth.

Harrington does not accommodate for the reader, using incredibly elevated language and allusions that address varied topics like pain, loss, death, and injustice, as well as lighter occurrences in the life of a Southern girl, like the afternoon on a swing, described in “Waiting.” Folklore and the labor that runs life weave themselves through this rich history and cultural account of the region of Alabama. Her rich, colloquial poems draw on both folklore and science, and are tributes to her weary but tenacious family in their journey North. This book does a splendid job of recounting and reanimating some tender and touching memories of the lives of her loved ones.

The first poem, “The Thief’s Tabernacle,” is an example that dictates the tone of the rest of the book. It encompasses all the other types of poems included in the book, using the italicized lines to present the lyric and musical quality present in many of the following poems. Harrington uses lofty vocabulary like “wan,” “penitent,” “purloin,” “avarice,” and “nectarous,” all of which display her prowess with nouns and verbs to describe very specific images. She is almost encouraging the reader to consult the dictionary and look up these words. She notes nature, acknowledging animals when she mentions the “bellies of white-tailed deer,” and science when she mentions “protons.” In the same stanza, the allusion to “Cantor’s infinities,” a mathematician’s controversial and philosophical arithmetic concept, displays how her references include things from all realms of academia. With eight stanzas forming a hypothetical question, she still questions the reader’s morals, asking, “will you forgive me?” This internal probing is what the rest of the poems that follow tend to do, encouraging the readers to take an introspective look and evaluate themselves.

The poem titled “Shaking the Grass” is an interesting close to the book, and her wondering about, “maybe I did no more than swallow deep/deep breaths/and spill them out into a story” is a concern I think all writers of any type can identify with. The repetition of the phrase “all is vanity” suggests to the reader that her superfluous wonderings are conceited, or they might allude to the quite popular optical illusion drawing of the same name by Charles Allan Gilbert, an American illustrator, lauded for his stunning realism, style, and exquisite detail. Harrington might want to be compared to this interesting artist.

“Ash” is a 12-couplet poem, using alliteration to detail a very intimate moment between Lillian and the author. Phrases like “sifted snow,” “sallow feet shining,” “red roses,” “comet-cinders, cast out,” and “briefly bright” all allow the readers to see Harrington’s attention to detail, also displaying the emotion in the scene, and the caring displayed by how they were “banked beside” one another. Lillian and the author are waiting for the “colored serviceman/who belonged to us,” to come and rescue them out of the snowstorm that has trapped them in their house “as slanted as a cant of snow.” This simile allows her audience into this fond memory of piercing cold and poignant time together. “Heat” is a poem that repeats the phrase “cast iron” as an adjective for heavy and hard, to symbolize strength and sass.