4 Poets (Part 3) Michele Barnes McClendon

If you are just joining us, this is part three of a four part series in honor of National Poetry Month.  I’m hoping to introduce Hearts & Minds customers/friends to some other friends of mine—ahhh, that social networking thing—friends of mine who happen also to be poets.  I am unashamed to be promoting these four scribblers, all whose books have come out recently.  First I told you about prolific Kent Groff, formerly of central Pennsylvania and renowned in spiritual direction work, who has done a new book of poems that are arranged around four weeks of devotional reading using some of his Jesuit insights.  Kent is an ordained Presbyterian pastor and wrote these prayer-poems in India.

In the last post I told you about L.S. “Lew” Klatt, who I first met when he worked for the CCO with graduate students at Pitt Law and Pitt Med schools.  He did very moving work, helping them gain a sense of their vocations in law and medicine, even as he schooled them in theology and spirituality.  He encouraged mission work, even among the local homeless, and, no doubt, read to his young friends with whom he was ministering, lots of poems, favorites of his and his own.  It wasn’t long until Lew was clear about his own calling, to pursue the vocation of being an English professor and a writer.  His award-winning collection of serious, playful, unusual verse is called Interloper.  I hope you enjoyed my reflections on it.

 (It is difficult doing this—describing poems, which are often so visceral, like music.  I’m not sure how to encourage folks to buy poetry volumes, so I tell you who these friends are and a bit about their work.  I hope you enjoy it.)

4881_101378799872736_100000018501482_35091_1154938_s.jpgNow I am eager to tell you about a woman who also worked for the CCO for a spell, doing campus ministry in Ohio.  Michelle Barnes McClendon did good outreach for the CCO and I was so glad to know of her efforts working with students, and was sad when she moved on from her campus ministry stint.  However, as she became a blogger, I came to realize what remarkable talents she had, what good writing she did, and although she posts less, now, her mundane stuff about family, kids, food, Jesus, recipes, hubbie….it just glowed.  I think her fine writing inspired me to blog here at BookNotes.  She is a very talented writer, a good wordsmith, and a person of huge, huge integrity.  It should come as no surprise that I think that much of what makes a writer worth reading is beyond sheer talent, but has to do with their character, their vision, their heart.  Ms. McClendon is that kind of a writer, who works hard at her craft, and—in the best way possible—wears it on her sleeve.  Did somebody say something about hearts and minds?  I invite you to listen to this wonderful one minute video clip of her talking about what she learned as a student at Kent State, before being employed by the CCO.  The Ted Schumacher she mentions is one of my oldest friends from college who was an older friend and mentor to me!  

Perpetual Grace in the Valley of Endure Michele Barnes McClendon (CreateSpace; $9.99) is her fine 
ThumbnailImageperpetgrace.jpg recently published collection, and when I got it with a hand-made ribbon marker, I was overjoyed at the sheer gift.  This is what artists do, I know, they give gifts.  They use their gifts—their talent, their heart, their passion—and give it away, like bread in the wilderness. Indeed, my favorite writer about the arts, Calvin Seerveld, has a brilliant essay in a book by the same title, called Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves which tries to capture this radical sense of the contribution of Christianly-inspired art work.  That is the sign of hope the dove brought back from the ark—olive leaves—and they are neither earned nor deserved, but point to a whole new creation.  It is a sheer gift of grace, this God-sent branch of beauty, and we are invited to pass it along, to carry good cultural artifacts into the needy world.  Art is gift.  Michele is a housewife and mom and active in extended family, neighborhood and church ministry, but I don’t think she sees herself as a professional writer or full-time poet.  She did this book as a gift.

She tells us a bit about this in a lovely preface, a well-written and fun story of her wanting to get together some older poems to cheer some friends.  Alas, notebooks and journals had gone missing (surprising for such an organized person) so she had to work anew.  One thing led to another (she tells it better than I) and she ended up creating this book, literally as a gift.  (Girl, what happened to the age-old customer of visiting with chicken soup?  You wrote a book for your friends??!!)  And, I am not kidding you, what a gift it is!  This is doubtlessly the best volume of new poems that I have seen this year.  Some of these were so deeply moving that I fought back tears sitting at the coffee shop; elegant and eloquent, tender and angry, insightful and honest, she narrates her life in charming ways, allusive and imaginative, yes, but utterly clear; clear as a bell.

I recommended Groff’s use of poetry as prayer.  I celebrated Klatt’s energetic aesthetic, his messing with words, sounds, playing in cryptic ways that demand attention to create mature art.  McClendon is a different sort of writer, a poet of the everyday, sharing poigant lines composed that are about mostly obvious things: the betrayal of a friend, loneliness, broken homes, the joy of children, fear, risk, romance, marriage.  She has a sensuously charged worldview, seeing God’s hand in everything, it seems, so she can celebrate the good and the bad.  It sounds like a cliche, and not terribly poetic of me, but these poems really, really, spoke to me.  Her life is interesting and her attention to her inner life and the raw honesty of the work shows her as willing to be vulnerable.  To name this stuff, this longing, this heartache, this joy—it is a blessing to hear, and I salute her.

Michele (as I hinted in a previous post) stands in a grand tradition, and she is well read and studied, especially in the movement of women and men writing intentionally as people of color.  One need not know (but it might help, so get thyself to a bookstore or library if you need to) the names of our best black poets, but she does pay good homage.  In fact, one section of the book (“gravity”) is exactly a collection of tributes to other writers.

In the preface she writes,

When I first began writing poetry at around the age of eight, it was a release for me: a way to comfort my own fears and insecurities.  As I grew, my love for poetry grew right along with me.  In my teen years, I was heavily influenced by such writers as Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  I would sit and read the words of these great poets and, in many ways, I felt deeply connected to them….In my teens I also discovered Toni Morrison’s hauntingly colorful literary style of writing and I fell in love. Later, I read Alice Walker, and I continued to be inspired and write about my world
—and the world of others—which was growing and changing all the time.

Here is a poem that not only pays honor to Toni Morrison, but shows the power of a book, of serious literature, of pressing on for dear insight.  Oh, yes!

“For Toni”

i have read your books
some of the books i must
return to
and read again
must remind myself
of your literary mystery
why i am pulled
ushered into a world
of friends
nappy-headed lovers
childhood grief
\religious tones
southern towns
black folks built themselves
after the war
a world of
wounded men
lost women
fully clothed words
you bring me
pieces of a puzzle
i think i shall never assemble
but then you creep in
quiet as a reprimanded child
offering a single clue
that stitches
 it all together
some say
you are too difficult to grasp
hop to the point already
but me
i’d rather be lost
in your literary forest
forced to find my way
in the end
to understand
to grow wiser
to see deeper
my own self
in a thousand different selves
from a thousand different
how could i look away
choose the path
of least resistance
for a chuckle at the end
or a mere tear
I choose reflection
and a prayer
in your world
there is life
and love
and God waiting
and above other things
I choose

There are some wonderful poems in a section called “Growing Up Black” that she admits is a bit of a catch-all.  (Besides the ones about other writers, there is a good section about her marriage, and a section on suffering, a topic she knows a bit about.)  Regardless of the reader’s ethnicity, these poems are both insightful as a glimpse into at least this particular black woman’s life, but in many ways, are insightful about any of our lives.   Not all of these are her exact lived experiences as she tells stories of others, too—friends, loved ones, relatives. 

A few of these are about what might be called inner city life, American poverty, some hard stuff going down.  These are not overwrought, but tell of aspects of her experience; one about an uncle with whom she corresponded while he was incarcerated is very moving.

And one that just knocked me over was “I Sang George Benson”

you taught me to respect
my elders
and to properly fear mice
there we were
standing on chairs
at the edge of the living room
hoping that the noise
of our voices
would drive away
the unwanted scurrier
you said
“Sing Michele!
Sing something
Sing anything!”
so I sang George Benson
you sang escape
from a prison
of abuse
and in the spring of 1997
while he was at work
we hopped a greyhound
left our pretty big house
(for his anger to fill)
and settled in
small roach-invested rooms

i sang george benson
you sang struggle

She continues this tale, her mother working, her “unsupervised hair” and the refrain before each short stanza is  you sang pride, you sang men, you sang femininity, you sang alone…there is a twist, as there often is, as she plays on these images–a long tale in a few short minutes.  It ends,

i sang george benson
but you

There is a remarkable poem about dating a white fellow, and how they broke up.  It is laden with race and awkwardness, what their respective friends and family may have thought, with Michele sharing great regret.  It is one of the most moving poems I have read, so simple but so true.  As the story unfolds she nears the end and writes

in the end
your departure
was no more a race issue
than with the black men
before you
looking back
of course
i’d like to think
i’d handle it all differently now
that id hold my head high
and your hand tight

(Oh, how those last two lines struck me, the cadence and commitment…)

For those who have been in chronic pain or have longed for healing, her hopeful, but realistic poem “Healing” is a great gift.   

healing don’t come
with a command
God gimmee it
make my grass grow green
like Charlotte’s…

After great, great lines of other stunning word-play and theological insight, she continues,

make me want to cry
that I can’t earn it
make me grateful
and sometimes
just sometimes
healing don’t come at all
and in the ache of it all
there is healing
(to some degree)
just not like you thought
not the healing
make you run wild
and forget God
but small enough
make you remember

There are light-hearted poems in Perpetual Grace…, lovely ones for her husband, great odes to loving mentors, brown skin, fine food, good days.  As with the best work, usually, there is particularity—she talks about specific events or certain failings or specific stories of her life—that then allow for some universal insight from the reader.  Yes, these are her tales, and we thank her for allowing us into her life with such poignancy.  (M: were you scared to put this out there?)   And, yes, we can all ponder life’s moments, reflect on our loves and losses,  our longings for justice, and personal stories,  it will “make you remember.”

 As we do, we come, through God’s grace working through (un)common work, a great insight.  She names it in a poem dedicated to her father-in-law, where the last lines are these:

we are
miraculous tales
of a whimsical glory
we scarcely


We stock these and other poetry books in our bookstore, of course.  Tomorrow, I’ll offer part 4 of this “4 poets” series.  It is a beautiful book by a writer who I am really, really fond of.  

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