Poets at the Crossroads
The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller and Something Like Beautiful by asha bandele
Review by Brenda M. Greene
Two poets, E.Ethelbert Miller and asha bandele (spelled with lower case letters) have new memoirs out, both examining the suffering that comes with the need for love. In both cases these are followup stories to earlier memoirs. Now Miller, in The 5th Inning (PM Press) and bandele, in Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story (HarperCollins) each explore a sort of Phase 2 of their lives.
For Miller, his new memoir is a reflection on middle age, marriage, fatherhood, career choices, death and failures as he approaches 60. His first memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martins Griffin) was published in 2001. In 2003 it was selected by the DC We Read for its one book, one city program. It presents a frank portrayal of his early life beginning with his childhood in the South Bronx and continuing with his days as a college student at Howard and his evolution into a poet, father and husband.
Miller is the author of nine collections of poems. His 2004 collection How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love was an Independent Publisher Award Finalist. He is also the editor of four anthologies of poetry, including In Search of Color Everywhere (1994) which was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland, Josephine Miles Award, and was a Book of the Month Club selection. A member of many literary boards and organizations and known for his commentaries on poetry and literature, Miller can often be heard on NPR.
In bandele’s case, Something Like Beautiful is about her journey from student to prisoner’s wife and single mother. A journalist, poet and novelist, bandele first gained recognition with her award-winning memoir The Prisoner’s Wife (Scribner, 1999), a deeply moving work that reveals the gripping tale of her decision to marry Rashid, the father of her daughter, and her struggle to hold on to a dream of a “normal marriage” upon his release from prison. Her novel Daughter (Scribner, 2003) depicts the consequences of the silences and secrets in our lives and presents a sensitively told narrative of the fragile and complexities of mother daughter relationships. bandele is also a former feature editor for Essence Magazine and the author of two collections of poems.
In The 5th Inning Miller expresses some beliefs about what it means to be a memoirist. The writer, he says, should not write to harm and should keep healing and the transformation of the self at the center of the narrative. The memoirist must decide what to include and what to leave out, for if not done carefully, he can bring harm to his loved ones, friends and supporters. Thus, the memoirist must be sensitive and committed to truth and to the courageous act of capturing those special or life transforming moments that present an authentic portrayal of his/her life.
Miller sees life in baseball metaphors, with the fifth inning possibly his last. “Everything comes down to balls and strikes,” he says. “You don’t need religion to understand this. One can keep a scorecard just like God” .
Although many youthful baby boomers may beg to differ, Miller believes that life begins a trajectory toward the end at around 50. On aging, he reflects that: ”Someone might ask about your diet or mention how you don’t look your age. But you know your age. You’re more aware of it each year when you complete an application. There are fewer boxes to check where it says ‘list age.’" And he ponders, “When do you stop reading horoscopes or simply accept the cards handed to you? How many times can you avoid death?”
He also says that as he gets older “the poems appear less and less. The personal is prose.” And he riffs on the lyrical nature of his memoir: “This memoir has a jazz feel to it. Is it BeBob? Parker and Diz? I like the energy that flows from one chapter into another.”
Central to his memoir is a quest for love. He asks which is the inning in which husbands stop talking to their wives. What happens when the passion leaves the marriage and one’s vows become “autumn” or the “fall? What is “. . . that moment when a man moves beyond desire? When he no longer needs to turn around to look at a woman?”
Miller is not afraid to display his frailties, his misgivings about the time spent with his son and daughter, and his own strained relationships with his mother, father, and brother. He is open about his failures and asks how do we cope with failure in career, marriage and life and how do we look at ourselves when we believe that we have failed as lovers, parents and friends.
Miller’s words to his son: are apt symbols for his life. He informs his son, who has kicked a basketball out of the park one day. “You don’t kick the ball! You never kick the ball! The ball is your friend!” As he sees it, wives, partners, sons, daughters and friends are our own “balls” that we should never kick away.
Still, it is bandele’s memoir that is the more despairing of the two, right from the opening line: “This is a book about love and this is a book about rage. This is a book about those opposing emotions and what happens to a woman, a mother, when, with equal weight, they occupy the seat of your heart.”
bandele paints a haunting picture of her evolution from a young woman who grew up in a middle-class environment and survived sexual and emotional abuse and the challenges of having a husband who was incarcerated, to one who learned how to love and heal herself and to establish a relationship with her daughter. Adopted as a baby, bandele harbors feelings of rejection from her biological mother and searches for love in the relationships she experiences. A victim of sexual abuse at a young age, she carries these traumatic memories into her adulthood, shaping her responses to men and perhaps affecting the men she chooses..
At times, you may wonder whether bandele is going to be able to achieve the balance she so desperately seeks. She describes depression as a drawn-out process that keeps pulling her in deeper: “At some point, it no longer seems strange to wake up each day and wonder how you will get through the first hour, the second. In the beginning it was wine every night and cigarettes that were my morphine. Eventually it was sleep. I could barely get out of bed, see friends. . . I went into what I can only describe as hiding.”
As her narrative deepens, bandele moves beyond herself and reflects on her role in her community and the larger global world, and how helping children in various villages and communities helped to save her. “The cliché is that children have as much to teach us as we do them,” she writes. “And like most clichés, those words rang empty to me until I lived them. I lived them all the way out. And now I know that they are true” She cautions the reader against self-medication in the form of drugs, alcohol and sex emphasizes the need to be fully present in the face of adversity, to accept that our lives will be filled with pain, loss, disappointment and to recognize that these elements are a natural part of our everyday existence.
Her memoir closes with a view into her mind’s eye of the reasons we have for living and of what must be done to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and educational problems in our communities. In her words:
“Renewal. Children, if life is fairly good to them, will not have to learn. This while they are still small. Adults, if we live any measure of time and with any measure of energy, will most certainly run headlong into it, that challenge to come back or not. Many of us will have to learn it over and over. We will have to figure out how to renew ourselves after the loss of a love or a job or a friend or a parent------or ourselves.”
"Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.