Buzzed Books # 53 by Amy Watkins
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History
Near the end of my MFA, a new writer friend asked the topic of my critical thesis. I launched into a long and not particularly coherent description of the 20 or so ideas–all inextricably related in my mind–that had almost coalesced into a workable subject after four months and 30-odd pages of writing. The other writer laughed and said, “You must be a poet.” All good art is about more than one thing, but we poets seem especially inclined to the mental leaps that link ideas, cross disciplines, and complicate our elevator pitches.
Camille T. Dungy is best known as a poet and editor of the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. We often say that poets bring a poetic eye or ear to their prose, but I would argue that Dungy brings a poetic mind to her collection of essays. Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (Norton, 2017) includes some beautiful, lyrical moments, but it is most poetic in the way it interweaves experience, history, family stories, scientific research, and naturalist lore.
On the surface, the book is about Dungy traveling to speaking engagements around the country with her baby daughter, but that subject quickly becomes more complicated as Dungy brings her full poetic intellect to bear on each situation. A conversation about movies, a hike through unfamiliar terrain, a layover at a small airport with a restless baby, a walk through her own neighborhood prove equally promising starting points for reflections on race, American history, conservation, and academic life, as well as more personal concerns. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Dungy’s essays remind us that all these subjects are simultaneously scholarly and personal.
In “Bounds,” a multi-part essay near the middle of the book, Dungy tells a story about her daughter learning to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” With scientific attention to detail, Dungy observes how the toddler develops her new skill in stages–humming the tune then singing nonsense words then losing the tune temporarily as she acquires each word of the lyrics then, finally, combining language and melody. An essay that meticulously charts the development of the writer’s child could easily become sentimental, boring, or both, but Dungy brings all her intellect, knowledge, and curiosity to the subject. She weaves in research on neurological development and linguistics, memories of her own childhood, and lyrical musings on the nature and purpose of language to create an essay at once intimate and intellectual.
Besides enhancing individual essays, this richness of ideas in a book about and by a new mother directly contradicts the obnoxious notion that parents–mothers in particular–become so narrowly focused on their children that they lose their intellectual curiosity or drive. As Dungy puts it in “Bounds”:
When I seem to be focused on a narrative about my daughter’s childhood, I might shift to a memory of an event that happened years before I was born because we live through multiple domains of relation at once….once a domain of relation is available, there is no guarantee that it will ever fully cease to influence us.
This complexity is what makes Guidebook so engaging. It’s also a main point of the collection. The domains of race, history, and nature are available to Dungy, even as she explores the new “domain” of motherhood. Hers is a poetic intelligence at work at masterful prose.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.