When trying to review poetry, I try to look for skill and artistry insofar as I’m (still being a student) able to interpret. After all, if you’re going to offer any kind of qualitative analysis, you need some way to measure a piece’s worth.
While value in poetry is not as easily measured as distance, the subjectivity or “personal taste” argument only saves so much effort, especially when you’re trying to tell people whether to read something or not.
Once is a good reminder that, at the end of the day, the reader is a human being connecting with another human being through the product of a creative journey. Once is a human book, not a lofty ethereal one. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re travelling through a cryptic philosophical version of an Escher print (here’s looking at you, Paul). Once doesn’t ever make you reach for the dictionary or sift painstakingly for grains of meaning.
The poet says exactly what she means. Each line is piercing and swift without being simplified or overly pithy, and if you’re down for the emotional journey, it can be read all in one sitting. This all makes Once especially accessible for people who might be new to verse, or who are just exhausted by the practice of decoding the more esoteric kinds of poetry.
The collection opens with vignettes the author wrote while visiting Africa and is fleshed out by pieces she wrote while studying at college. Many of the poems find their source in suffering or injustice, but the author’s language is never passively melancholy, nor is it jarringly angry. Emotion is given an articulate voice in Once, almost Plath-like in rawness and energy, but without the chaos.
Once was the author’s first volume of poetry, as well as being her first published piece of work. It is a strong foundation to what has become a four-decade-long (so far) career in literature, poetry and nonfiction. Out of the author’s body of work, Once is among the personal. There are points where you almost feel like you’re reading someone’s personal diary, which lends empathy to content that some people might otherwise find challenging to confront.
For the author of Once was Alice Walker, known primarily nowadays for the novel The Colour Purple.
Walker wrote Once in the 1960s, some of it when she was deep in depression. A great deal of her experiences, while skilfully translated, won’t speak as keenly to white readers born in the 90’s or 00’s (disclaimer: I can’t evaluate their relatability to non-white readers), which is not the same as saying that contemporary readers don’t have anything to learn from the volume.
Once is not just valuable as a window into a prolific writer’s early work. It is valuable as a window into a social climate that is still recent enough to bleed into the modern cultural narrative. Sure, we’ve evolved, but that only makes it scarier to read some of the lines and verses in Once and recognize scenarios that cropped up in the news just last week. Part xiii of Once, the poem for which the collection is named, tells of a black child hit by a van. The case of Elijah Doughty immediately burst into the forefront of my mind as I was reading.
It can be hard to know what to do with the feelings that come from reading about another person’s struggles, especially if that person is many degrees removed and the struggle is both in the past and reincarnated in the present day in a way that we cannot always clearly see or understand. Once, while it makes you care, is not a dissertation or an instruction manual. It is an extremely readable collection of poetry which does not mess around.
We’re taught growing up you should always imagine what it’s like in someone else’s shoes, and the best way to do that is to listen to them. Once is a sorrowfully beautiful, succinct, cogent statement of what it’s like in someone else’s shoes. It might make you sad or frustrated, but it will make you care.
Once is available on BookDepository, or alternatively you can order it through a local bookseller.