Thurs. Feb. 19, 7 p.m.
Stern Student Center, College of Charleston
71 George St.
In her new book, Bicycles, poet Nikki Giovanni attempts to clean up the messy business of love. Big and nebulous and hard to pin down, love in Giovanni's hands becomes diminutive, tidy, and elegant, like the curve of the neck of a bottle of wine.
Times change, scenes change, but bonds endure in a poem called "Friends in Love" in which, "Hands and hearts / Tied up as one / In this package / Neatly."
"This package" has a double meaning — the container, or inner world, created by lovers and the container, or poem, created by the poet. If you were to neatly sum up the gestalt of Bicycles with a single image, it might be a gift box wrapped lovingly in a bright bow.
Even former revolutionaries write about love eventually. In fact this is the second time Giovanni, once the Afro-ed "Princess of Black Poetry" during the heyday of the Black Power movement, has published a volume devoted to love.
The first time was in 1997. It was simply called Love Poems, and it saw the unremitting influence of ordinary life — sex, friendship, motherhood, and loneliness, among others — rival the more extraordinary passions of her former incendiary self.
The author of 1971's Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment, Giovanni came to prominence because she bluntly expressed that era's Zeitgeist. For instance, "The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro." It voiced the ideological divide between integrationists and the militant followers of Malcolm X radicalized by MLK's death and the injustice of being sent to fight in Vietnam while facing discrimination at home.
Her poem was a violent call to action: Stop being patsies, she said symbolically, and be proud "Black Men." The poem also happened to scare the shit out of whitey:
" ... A nigger can die / We ain't got to prove we can die / We got to prove we can kill / They sent us to kill / Japan and Africa / We policed europe / Can you kill / Can you kill a white man / Can you kill the nigger / in you / Can you make your nigger mind / die ..."
Many award-winning books later, Giovanni gives us Bicycles, the follow-up to Love Poems, and the only vestige of her fist-pumping past is in a poem called "Free Huey," an affectionate homage to the murdered founder of the Black Panthers.
The rest hardly touch on politics or racism or fear. Instead, we have neatly packaged poems about love in myriad forms — love of family, of friendship, of food, and other irreducibly simple things. But mostly, Bicycles is about being in love.
Love poetry has long been the preserve of the young. So Giovanni's age, 65, enhances her charm. You smile at this sage woman losing her bluesy cool to effervescent twitterpation.
And love is deepened by overtones of tragedy. Giovanni teaches at Virginia Tech. One of her students was Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and himself in a 2007 shooting rampage. Though an ode to love, Bicycles begins and ends with Blacksburg and its shadow of death.
So it makes sense that love is kept in check by age and experience. Giovanni doesn't allow it to overwhelm her, as she did the righteous indignation in her youth. Love requires trust and balance, she writes, just like riding a bike.
Unfortunately, Bicycles is an uneven volume that often makes you wince. Structures are brilliantly designed, and in her use of rhythm, especially, there is much to be enjoyed and admired — it's easy to imagine many of these poems set to music.
But they can also be cute, treacly, and even clichéd. Some of these poems are just out of balance. Then again, maybe that's the chance you take. Giovanni knows life is too short not to risk falling in love.