Still I Rise: Book Review
by Sue Blott
Can a whole book consist of one forty-three line poem and still be strong and bold enough to hold one’s interest? If the poet is Maya Angelou, undoubtedly. Can the art of one man successfully echo the sentiments of this strong poet? If the artist is Diego Rivera, certainly. Even the cover stirs the soul. Diego’s painting is of a seated woman, hands fisted on her
crossed knees, her gaze unflinching and upward, flanked by two workers, also
gazing upward. Diego chose to draw the woman and the two people from a low angle, looking up at them looking up. Then the book’s title, Still I Rise, sits below the painting in yellow contrasted on a green background. Holding the book, I feel a holy Hell! Yes! Immediately I know the book will pull no punches but that it will ultimately uplift the soul. This small solid square book is all about rising up.
Most pages consist of a segment of the poem on one side of the page and a vertical or horizontal painting on the opposite page. Earthy colours such as brick red, clayish yellow and sap green plus a clear deep blue highlight each two page spread. So it comes down to the selection of the painting versus the words. How in sync is the selection? And how can such strength be equally portrayed as a marriage instead of as two powerful pieces of work each vying for attention or overshadowing each other?
The poem’s segment length varies so the poem is anything but static. Sometimes a whole stanza is illustrated ie Out of the huts of history’s shame/ I rise/ Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/ I rise/ I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,/ Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.Other times, a mere two lines: Did you want to see me broken?/ Bowed head and lowered eyes?
So does the selected painting accurately reflect the chosen words? The temptation is to find a coupling that is weak or a little off. A crack in the marriage. But it’s impossible. A couple spring to mind, but mine them deeper, both the words and the painting, and their juxtaposition beautifully compliments each other.
Take the lines: You may kill me with your hatefulness,/ But still, like air, I’ll rise. Appropriately written on a sky-blue page with a full-page sized portrait on the opposite page of Portrait of Dolores Olmeda, 1955, at first the portrait seems distanced from the words, especially the images of hate and death. But the woman looks fresh and hopeful. Clad in a bright flowered dress with a headband of flowers and ribbons woven in her hair, she carries a cloth-bottomed basket filled with mangoes. Her gaze is unyielding, forward-facing, steady and confident. She holds the abundant future, ie the ripe fruit, in one arm and lifts the flounce of her dress with her other hand. No restrictive clothing will hold her back. Her resolve seems strong and firm. No doubt that she’ll rise clear- eyed and firm of foot.
Then there are the pairings that resonate so well they seem to vibrate off the page. For instance, You may shoot me with your words,/ You may cut me with your eyes,/ is paired with the picture Mural Study of Hands, Chapingo, 1927. The picture shows a close up of a woman’s left hand clasping just under the wrist of her right hand which in turn cradles her chin. Such a unique coil of connection. The woman’s shoulder-length curly black hair and her mouth and nose are evident but the painting ends, interestingly, below her eyes. Intriguing but, as such, it emphasises the critical world’s eyes, not the woman’s eyes.
Likewise the portrait, Portrait of Ruth Rivera, 1949, which accompanies the lines: Does my sexiness upset you?/ Does it come as a surprise/ . Ruth Rivera is painted in a simple white dress that suggests her hips. She glances over her shoulder while holding a beautiful round mirror filled with golden light and her profile. She looks as though she was admiring herself when someone walked in the room but she shows no surprise, more a look of indignation of being dis- turbed. The mirror glows moon-like, subtly emphasis- ing the feminine and the mysteries of femininity. To reach the height needed, the mirror’s long handle is taped to another stick, a surprising attention to detail when noticed in the gorgeous murkiness of the lower background. Ruth’s sandaled foot peeks from under her dress as though she were postulating to no-one but herself, admiring her own beauty and strength.
The following page quivers with vitality. Complimenting the couplet That I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?/, it is the only painting that features men. Dance in Tehuantepec, 1935 shows a man and a woman dancing barefoot while seated women watch. The man, all in yellow with a black hat, kicks and leans back while the young woman with twirling blue ribbons in her hair, has both feet solidly on the ground, her white skirts lifted and swaying about her ankles. In the distance, a second couple echoes the main dancers’ postures. The paint- ing vibrates with a passion that totally matches such
brazen words and uplifts the heart, the way a good dance and hypnotic music is apt to do.
This little book shows no qualms at cutting be- tween stanzas to shift the kilter, to toss us off balance. Despite this, I think Maya Angelou would approve even though it may give a slightly different interpre- tation to her work. Interestingly, the poem doesn’t ap- pear intact, on one page in the book, forcing the reader to take it however it is presented, piece by piece, page by page, digesting every word.
Rivera’s paintings are listed in the back of the book and cover a range of years from 1924 to 1955. Angelou’s poem appears to have first been published in 1978. This book was first published in 2001. The difference in times forms an inspiring arc, a multilayered umbrella of creativity.
The back cover of the book has no words, only a repeated painting: Nude With Calla Lillies (Desnudo con alcatraces), 1944. A naked woman kneeling on a woven mat embraces a huge basket overflowing with white calla lilies. She could be embracing the book itself! Its softness provides a refreshing contrast to the gritty industry of the front cover painting suggesting that woman still rises, on her own terms, through her own strength. She embraces the lilies as hope and assurance that yes, she will rise, whatever it takes.
What a joy for anyone to experience this little gem of a book. More especially, perhaps, what a joy for a creative. At least for this writer, the joy of cre- ating is in the process but also in the unknown, the release of a piece into the world at some point, some- how. One never knows when creating something how, when or even if it will breathe on its own, who it will journey to, who it will uplift, who will cling to it like a life raft in a dark stormy sea, what it could be paired with.
Perhaps it could be argued that a female artist’s paintings, maybe even different artists, should have illustrated the poem. Yet, it’s hard to fault any of the pairings—this little book simply works as a support- ive marriage. In wondering how Maya Angelou and Diego Rivera would have viewed this book, I think they would have both approved, probably as true cre- ative souls, neither of them surprised by the delightful combination of support and strength from each other’s work. Perhaps, as it is meant to do, this small book would have uplifted their souls.
Sue Blott has been writing for as long as she can remember, in as many different genres as possible. She isdelighted to have won this prize for her review of a small book crammed with hope and power; a fitting anthem for these turbulent days.
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