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Dave Wood's Book Report, Jan. 16, 2008

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"During this long travail

our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,

and tried to make you life in our song

but now it matters not at all to me

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whether you know what I am talking about -- or not;

I know why we are not blinded

by your brightness, are able to see you

who cannot see us. I know

why we are still here."

Harlem journalist and author Herb Boyd leads off his new book "Baldwin's Harlem" (Atria Books, $24) with the above quote from Baldwin's "Staggerlee Wonders."

Perhaps no black writer of the second half of the 20th century better portrayed the anger and the passion and the frustration than Baldwin, a cultural icon of the Kennedy era and beyond.

Baldwin grew up in Harlem in a big family and Boyd says he remembers him as a teenager with a book in one hand and a diaper in the other.

In his new book Boyd links Harlem and Baldwin as never before. My generation remembers Baldwin as the expatriate in France and Italy and a boon to the publishing houses of midtown Manhattan.

Boyd reminds us that no less a black poet than Countee Cullen was Baldwin's French teacher back in Harlem.

And digs back into that era to tell about Baldwin's editorship of the student lit magazine at Frederick Douglass Junior High School.

Here's a book with real guts, a welcome relief from the hoity-toity biographies of Baldwin that preceded it.

Pulitzer Prizewinning poet James Wright made a big hit here in the upper Midwest when he taught at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College.

So it's very appropriate that two of his former U students, Bruce Henrickson, former editor of the New Orleans Review, and Robert Johnson have edited a festschrift "From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright" (Lost Hills Books, $14.75).

Although many of the poems written by poets from all over the country make no direct reference to Wright, his influence shines through.

As in the case of Minnesota poet Sharon Chmielarz, who writes of her experience as his student:

The Professor

Three times a week he passed by

my chair, in dusty Fowell Hall.

Three times his small planet

revolved around the great sun,

Shakespeare, in that room,

pulling toward the light, picking

up underdogs in his orbit, the

fairies, Falstaffs, fat girls, drunks,

kings of lost kingdoms, three times

a week he tagged along in that

gravity, that fragile path he paced

through words and their long comets

I couldn't get enough of, though

he gave and gave and gave;

mistaken as ice, his hot surface.

I didn't know his poetry then,

the inclination planets have

toward the sun, how their paths

throw sun's light on all.

Thus seeds grow. Thus we see

how our shadows lengthen.

What a tribute!

Dave Wood is a past-vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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