Any book by Nikki Giovanni is likely to make the bestseller list, but Bicycles benefits from both serendipitous timing and what could be called the “lightning factor.” Ms. Giovanni’s tone and subject matter offer readers a flash of light and heat, as well as the promise of much-needed relief from difficult times and issues.
The book begins and ends with violence: two shootings, a year apart, that stunned the campus of Virginia Tech, where Giovanni teaches. In “Blacksburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006,” the opening poem, Giovanni conveys what locals experienced – from anger to cold, almost detached fear – but says of both emotion and analysis that “it sure doesn’t make us safe.”
Giovanni then takes a sharp, unexpected turn out of the darkness with “In Simpler Times.” The title alone brings a sigh of relief, as does the speaker’s benign acknowledgment that:
I talk to myself
People think I am on my phone
In simpler days
I would have been considered strange
people would feel sorry
Readers don’t feel sorry for her, though, because she lightens their experience – and her own – with an enviable admission: “It’s easy to see/ The delight I am taking/ In this life/ I am always smiling/ I am in love.”
From there, Giovanni explores various aspects of romantic love: longing to be with her beloved, aching when they are apart, missing opportunities for closeness, and feeling that the whole world shimmers and moves to silent rhythms. In “Migrations,” one of the strongest poems, she explores those forces – call them instinct? – that drive wild creatures from one seasonal home to another.
The poem begins:
The sun returns
To the arctic circle
From its winter rest
The grasses sprout
Seducing the winged
And the hoofed
Polar bears and their cubs
Before the ice
There’s a subtle shift in the poem’s last lines, and the speaker, who has been just a witness until now, responds with the same strength or drive as the animals that
... unflinchingly face:
As would I
Page after page reinforces the idea that love is not just an archetypal need, but that it – and goodness – is an antidote to the world’s craziness. In “Everything Good is Simple,” Giovanni writes: “All things good is good: poetry ... patience ... a ripe tomato on the/ vine ... a bat in flight ... the new moon ... me in your arms .../ things like that.”
Some may question the value of simplicity, but many of the poems in “Bicycles” are lovely and moving; they really work as poetry. Others sound like pronouncements from a friend who can’t refrain from sharing her glee or wisdom. Both are likely to contribute to the book’s popularity.
But the final poem shows the limit of art that receives some of its power from the headlines. “We Are Virginia Tech” should leave readers feeling deeply stirred and whispering “wow” under their breath. The opening line, which repeats the title, hints at a bold resolve that the school can overcome memories of the April 2007 tragedy. So does the repetition of “we will prevail” toward the end of the poem.
Between those sections, however, Giovanni writes “We know we did nothing to deserve it/ But neither does the child in Africa/ dying of AIDS.” She also mentions children in Iraq, Mexico, and Appalachia, and orphaned baby elephants. Those leaps just don’t satisfy, since they ask readers to supply the depth of emotion that Giovanni, at her best, is capable of making her readers feel.
When it works – which is much of the time – “Bicycles” is powered as much by Giovanni’s warmth and authenticity as by her words.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.