BOOK REVIEW | POETRY
JP Howard’s New Poetry Collection Showcases A Diva, A Poet And Love
By Claudia Moss March 8, 2017
Say/Mirror: Poems And Histories
By JP Howard
68 pp. THE OPERATING SYSTEM
SAY/MIRROR: POEMS AND HISTORIES made its way to me last year, when I first learned of its release. Upon receiving it in the mail, I marveled at the cover, a sepia whisper of another time and place, a brown bombshell flashing a show-stopping smile in a vintage car and a title that made me reminiscent of the line: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of us all?”
I fluttered the book’s pages, enthralled at the breathtaking pictures. Like art, the collection snatched a prominent place on my bookshelf. I wouldn’t lift it again until February 2017. And when I did, the book, the sacred essence of memory, bid me stay.
As I ventured into JP Howard’s artistry, awed at the power of her poetic quill, I was humbled, remembering. Howard, who curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a monthly Literary Salon Series based in New York, reached out and nurtured me once, years ago, our paths having never crossed. It happened after I’d received a hard review for a self-published book. Shook, I stared at the online review and slowly thanked the reviewer.
Then magically, Howard appeared on the reviewer’s site and left soft words that buoyed me above the heat, encouraging me to keep writing and praising me for what I’d accomplished. How could I not seek kinship with her on Facebook? And that is how I came to know of the tender, graceful and inimitable poet, JP Howard.
If the sweetest of treasure is a High Fashion Model Mother bequeathing her daughter with the gift of vintage photos of her strolling runways and regaling the 1940s and 1950s with her glamorous presence, then a major blessing for this book’s readers and me is that a poet severed her tongue’s umbilical cord to offer up a praise song for her mother and ours. That song yet echoes in my heart, and it has been weeks since I reached the collection’s final page.
Sipping the poems, I learned much about Ruth King. In an era when brown beauties were marginally esteemed, the incomparable King showed up in all of her regalia and showed out, long legs, Afro puffs, dazzling smiles and all. She lived. She experienced heartbreak. And she loved her little Diva Doll through the good and the taxing. Each poem sang its own harmony about her, charming me with the mirror’s image of a woman who mesmerized an era.
In other poems, I stared through time. Met a quiet, subtle, humble, leggy, long-haired and loving little Diva Doll. She didn’t care for mirrors and flowing hair, studio hours and smile struggles. The little miss would much rather hold up in the library and keep secrets in poetry.
The collection’s poems sing with memory, reflection and creativity. Variety thrives. Phrases and stanzas invite memorization. Details regale. Howard’s voice is hypnotic. Her poetry’s emotion ties neat bows around my heart. I am standing in “rented summers in Atlantic City.” I see her “hollow eyes” peering like their “porcelain counterpart,” “buried in pale pink lace, on a rose plum clay platform.” I observe her smile, as she “sews seams around jagged hearts,” her “lips wired shut.”
And I love them both, the Diva and the Poet.
Although most of the poems are a mother/daughter dance of childhood, coming-of-age and learning to love, in others JP Howard’s activism shines a light on issues close to her heart.
Trayvon breathes, babies drift to the bottom of the bay, broken mamas let go, Bessie’s blues bleed, poets hurl lifelines, Ella wails, cycles of sadness spiral and lovers leave. Actually, the multiplicities of life stare up at readers from each page, in each poem, like a natural woman. There is even a poem, “Family Secret,” that takes the shape of a woman’s breast; in it, the daughter explains what it feels like to be five and watch a mother trying to slip away quietly.
My favorite poem is “Ninety.” I love the Diva’s unwavering audacity to love herself through the youth and the “silver ponytail slicked back.” But the striking reality in the sheer complexity of the poet’s mama hums in the stanza:
“there are no roadmaps for aging Divas
just self-portraits lining walls
costume jewelry overflowing and
full-length minks, frayed now.
it is easier to live in the past
than in an aging body.”
The collection’s Achilles’ heel is its length. I want more, a Part 2. More of the poems. As many of the vintage Ruth King photos that would fill a coffee-table pictorial. I place my wishes on the wind. There will be another JP Howard collection of poetry soon. For that matter, the work of her inspiring sons may make a guest appearance in an upcoming offering.
I feel a tremendous connection with SAY/MIRROR: POEMS AND HISTORIES. One reason may be because I, too, am a Black lesbian mother and poet. And I, too, am the daughter of a transitioned Diva Mama, whose presence once set room’s aglow. Although my mother passed before her ninetieth birthday, like Ruth King, Clementine Young Moss was beautiful, complex,
loving and pained. Both women were Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
The nuances of meaning in the poetry collection’s title enamor me.
JP Howard looks in the mirror of the past and explores her voice, yesterday and today. Ruth King gazes in the mirror and asserts her worthiness to break beauty barriers of her time. The mirror is symbolic of a Diva Mama’s legacy not only in the outside world, but also in the intimate world of us, mother and me, me and mother, Juliet and Mama, in their Sugar Hill, Harlem apartment. In the mirror, the Diva eyes her Diva Doll, an object of a beauty she wasn’t, and the Diva Doll peers back at the beauty standard she is and wants to be her mother’s pretty. In the end, The Diva reminds the mirror, “I altered the perceptions of African-American fashion models of our time.”
If poignant poetry whets your palate and you have been away from poetry for a while, Howard’s SAY/MIRROR will take you by the hand and walk you home.
Reviewed by Claudia Moss