April 2009

Jason B. Jones

poetry

I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings by Elizabeth Spires

For many years, Elizabeth Spires has published children’s books as well as volumes of poetry. Frequently the children’s books are on poetic themes, such as The Mouse of Amherst, and sometimes the poetry can, at least in description, sound a bit like sophisticated children’s verse, as in her recent volume, The Wave-Maker. In her latest project, I Heard God Talking to Me, Spires has produced something like a coffee-table book for children. The book has gorgeous photographs of William Edmondson and his sculptures, paired with poems in which Spires lends words to the carvings.

William Edmondson was a black folk artist from Nashville who had religious visions for most of his life. In the 1930s, he said that God told him to begin carving, and so he embarked on a 15-year career of carving tombstones, sculptures, and other decorative items. Although his first patrons were his neighbors and the Nashville African-American community, by 1937 his reputation was such that he became the first black artist to have a one-person show at MOMA. I Heard God Talking to Me splices together four different texts: photos of Edmondson’s carvings; photos of Edmondson himself by Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe; four poems assembled from interviews with Edmondson; and original poems by Spires.

Spires has tried to match the simplicity of Edmondson’s carvings with simple poems. Typically, she gives voice to the subject of the carving. For example, “Rabbit” looks back on the moment of its creation:

Old Will seen me where I hid. . .

He thunked me with his hammer.
He scraped me with his knife.
He reached in his fingers,
caught hold of my ears,
and drew me right out
of that chunk of limestone!

In other poems, the engraved animal or person thanks Edmonson for freeing her, or questions some failure of verisimilitude. One poem, “Three Crows,” even hangs on the inability of viewers to determine the species depicted in “Three Birds.”

Spires’s poems are earnest and generally uplifting. While the facts of Edmonson’s life -- the son of two former slaves, with his own memories of sharecropping -- are presented, it’s usually in the mode of praising his creativity and humanity. In one poem, a reflection on “Adam and Eve,” Spires even imagines Edmondson as a more benevolent god -- one who doesn’t begrudge an apple, and who has made “a different kind of Eden, / arms thrown open to Creation, / and nobody’s perfect here, / and nobody tries to be!”

It’s slightly hard to predict who will be the audience for I Heard God Talking to Me. It apparently started as a children’s book, but Farrar, Straus and Giroux make no mention of this in their marketing materials. Most of the poems could easily be read by children, although a few require a bit of historical knowledge to grasp fully. They’re not really “children’s poems” as such, however. It is an immensely likable book -- although in the main this is because of the photography. The poems struck me as pleasing, though ultimately slight, captions, rather than complementary works of art.

I will say that the book’s cover completely freaked out my five-year-old -- not because of the striking picture of Edmondson, but because of the title! He doesn’t want to worry about the prospect of God addressing him directly, and so he insisted I keep the book out of sight. And while I’ve done that, I’m half-inclined to teach him a poem Spires has cobbled out of Edmondson’s interviews: “It’s wonderful when God / gives you something. / You’ve got it for good, / and yet you ain’t got it. / You got to do it and work for it.”

I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings by Elizabeth Spires
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374335281
56 pages