Nikki Giovanni—one of the great poets of any generation—still has much to impart in Make Me Rain, her hybrid autobiography of poems and prose.
Given the tumultuous aspects of 2020, the disruptions and dislocations of quotidian and public life, there’s a refreshing discordance in reading Giovanni’s newest and especially personal collection. Throughout the book, this iconic activist-poet contemplates her life, a variety of political and personal conflicts, as well as her continued place within the pantheon—“Make Me Rain // Let me be a part / Of this needed change”—with a softness of language and perspective.
Yet this isn’t an indication of its impact: silk is also soft, shimmering in the light and still one of the enduring filaments of nature. So, too, is this book; representing the accumulation of Giovanni’s experiences, presenting her strength in the beauty it reflects, the joys it seeks, as she considers her life, our times, and the challenges she, and we, face.
Giovanni writes: “I’m just a poet // All I have are words / And maybe a bit of hope”, and this colloquial collection relays a storied life at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement and beyond. Reading these poems feels like an intimate conversation with the writer in a sunlit room, with famous and familial names wandering through the narratives: Langston Hughes mingles with her grandmother, Tupac shares space with Sister Althea, and Aunt Cleota is at a long table with Malcolm X; in backyards, in churches, as well as in the streets where people continue to be senselessly murdered.
Odes to loves, and memories of those lost, are interspersed with commentary on current events, as in the unpunctuated “Vote”:
“Folks were lynched
Folks were shot
Folks’ communities were gerrymandered
Folks who believed
In the Constitution were lied to
Bought and sold
Because they agreed
All Men Were Created Equal
Folks vote to make us free”
Her “Song of Myself” questions Whitman’s pastoral utopia and the surprisingly-narrow multitudes it spoke to, while platforming the anonymous others whose stories have been buried:
“if ever there were leaves of grass they would be the captured
and enslaved…bought and sold…planted and sown…
made to be something they were not…yet growing and
blossoming…and finding a way…to re-create themselves”
And later in the same poem, she delicately but firmly pushes again the idea that Whitman was the first, or most important, of American voices:
“but he was not our first poet
those women who had to re-create themselves…and
therefore create this country…”
The mix of poetry and prose is a naturalistic hybrid, connected by the strong “I” of the author, with repetitions that underscore its conversational nature. These pieces don’t suggest an anonymous speaker or the individual as a poetic entity who represents a wider assemblage: they are clearly by and about Giovanni and her experiences, through the personal warmth and lens of woman with a vivid, storied life.
In “Short Bio of Nikki Giovanni,” she writes of a little girl who “ first fell in love with words, then they somehow seemed to fall in love with her.” She ends this piece: “There may be other things along the way but the words and the stars and the music are all that matter.” This book is indeed a love letter, a celebration, both musical and soft-spoken, that doesn’t shy away from politics or pain, but is, above all, hopeful and thankful.
Giovanni’s power is in her resilience and in her commitment to the word and her world, to her influences, peers and literary progeny. She names many of them in these pieces, connecting struggles past and present. In her essay, “We Write”, her manifesto is clear: telling stories is survival, as is self-love, as is unswerving determination. These works are shaped by her vantage point at this stage of her life, offering a resistance that is led by the indestructible power of love, community and language.
“We write because we have evolved to another century…We write because we are lonely and scared and we need to keep our hearts open…We who do words are doing what we do. We are not trying to get folk who are frightened of us to be calm around us. We are reminding folk who love us that this is a good thing…Black Lives Matter. Black Ink reminds us of why.”
History matters. Storytelling matters. Who we choose to be matters. Nikki Giovanni—this collection—reminds us of why.
Make Me Rain
By Nikki Giovanni
William Morrow & Company
Published October 20th, 2020
Mandana Chaffa is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and Editor and Senior Strategist at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies, as well as in The Ploughshares online, Chicago Review of Books, TriQuarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She was named a 2021-2022 Emerging Critics Fellow by the National Book Critics Circle. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.