There is often a stigma regarding self-published work. I am not ashamed to say that I read it, if it looks interesting. After all, I read junk emails that catch my attention, as well as every cereal box that sits at the breakfast table. The ones worth savoring and recommending – those emails that make you “lol” – are sent on to friends as an endorsement. The book I am considering here is worth far more attention than a silly email. Walt Whitman published his own (multi-versioned) Leaves of Grass. Robert Browning, Carl Sandburg, and Gertrude Stein published at their own expense as well. In that spirit, indulge me in pointing out things worth noticing in a recent book by a delightful new African-American poet.
Darlene Anita Scott’s Breathing Lessons 101 is actually a bit of a teaser. It is a hardback 8 x 8 coffee table book of 20 unnumbered pages, containing the title poem of a larger collection that she is working on. It can be ordered from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for $20. I have heard her read her poetry at festivals and have read some of her work in manuscript. She is a poet I will watch expectantly.
The “breathing lesson” of this book is a metaphor for living in a troubled and confusing world. The poem is laid over photographs by the author to create a synthesis of eye and mind. The first line (and page) – “This is your liver on Heineken” – references the photograph behind it, which is a close-up of a woman’s torso, showing the bare skin from the navel stud to the hip. It is not the liver (thankfully), but it represents anatomically where the liver is located in one’s body. It is a literal representation that Scott turns playful on the next (black) page when she adds: “and when the boy’s buying: Guinness.” What began sounding like a cautionary public-service announcement becomes a commentary on beer economics and male-female relationships.
The book is made of a series of “This is” statements, concerning “the girl,” whose body “turn[s] itself Legend,” who deals with sadness, renewal, scars, and, ultimately, the language that we become in that meditation. This meditation moves the reader through a series of images both literal and mental. Nearness and distance are fused in “a brown body orbiting / dangerously close to your prudence.” As the imagery moves from cosmic to linguistic, the you named in the poem grapples with syntax to the point that, in the final this-is statement, “you conjugate the verb to fit your longing.”
The structure of the book, separated into small thoughts – zero to thirty-three words per page – facilitates the meditative mood. These thoughts are joined with images on which the words rest, or sometimes an image is presented alone, as reinforcement or exemplification of the line preceding. Some of the photographs are body parts, as mentioned earlier, some are landscapes, some abstract; but all are integral to the message of the poem. The synergy of word and image makes Breathing Lessons 101 a pleasant, thoughtful book, one that leaves a reader wanting more.
Stan Galloway, author of Just Married (unbound CONTENT, 2013), his first collection of poetry, is the organizer of the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, scheduled for January of odd-numbered years. His reviews of poetry have appeared such places as Christianity & Literature, Paterson Literary Review, and Referential Magazine. He teaches English at Bridgewater College, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.