By: Nikki Finney, ed.
Reviewed by: Jessica Hume
The University of Georgia Press, 2007
The idea of a ringing ear often connotes certain sensory reactions: curiosity, intense listening, and persistent musicality so inherent in one’s being that it refuses to leave. These connotations are what make The Ringing Ear the perfect title for Cave Canem’s anthology of black poetry released in the spring of this year. The anthology, fully titled The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and edited by the estimable poet Nikki Finney, is a fresh and enrapturing collection which embodies the sensuality of the South, in all its beauty, tragedy, ugliness, and wonder.
In this anthology, Finney has presented us with a group of poets and poems as various as the plants in a southern summertime garden. What is wondrous is that they have all shared moments which have acted as agents to listening. They have pursued their curiosity about their relation to the South as black poets; have smelled magnolia blossoms, tomatoes, and peaches; felt dust upon their worn faces; and looked down both bleak and inspirational roads so they can bring all that to us in the form of one single ringing note that will not go unheard.
In her introduction, Finney claims that part of the purpose of the anthology is that black poets need “to lay eye and ear on each other.” The book accomplishes all that and more, allowing all readers to see the images black poets see of the South, and to lay our ears to a harmonious chorus of integral American poetic voices.
The collection is graceful in many remarkable ways, the most notable of which is the bold yet delicate way in which the issue of racial tension is addressed collectively. These poets expose racial issues with fearless clarity, sometimes raw brutality, and tender, probing integrity, as in Remica L. Bingham’s poem “Simmie Knox Paints Bill Clinton for the White House” when the speaker initially says, “We talked about growing up in the south / in turbulent times but remembered things / differently….” The final stanza concludes, “I thought of my own fading mother and then finally / saw him clearly. His face creased and stained as any other / human face. I picked up my brush.” Poems like this give us a sensual anchor for the strange and swampy ground where race, culture, past, present and humanity intertwine.
Overall, the collection fills the promises of its title by presenting us with works of black poets who have listened carefully and used each precious word to capture our ears and all other senses, leaving us, in turn, listening.
Jessica Hume is a poet, a teacher, and a recent graduate of the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.