Poems can reveal multiple layers of the past in ways that prose often fails to do. The recently published I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery illustrates the particular power of the genre to shine a light on myriad aspects of people’s experiences.
Cynthia Grady, a quilter as well as the middle-school librarian at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., has turned her poet’s eye to the past and presents a well-crafted collection of 14 poems for ages 10 and up.
Each poem, ranging from “Log Cabin” to “Basket,” is named for a traditional quilt pattern and employs ten lines of ten syllables, mimicking the square shape of a quilt block. In the process, the poems reflect the “patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America,” as Grady notes in her preface. Beneath the poems, she provides brief, interesting notes that weave in relevant references to spirituality, music, or fabric.
One of the poems that seems most evocative to me is “Basket,” spoken in the voice of a woman who takes out her work basket after a long day. Listen to the lyrical biblical language: “my thimble, thread, and needle comfort me./I lay my stitches down and troubles fall/away.” The accompanying acrylic painting by acclaimed artist Michele Wood (I See the Rhythm, 1998) is also the book’s stunning cover image. Employing vibrant colors, folk-art motifs, quilt-related patterns, and multiple historical references such as the image of the man plowing with a mule, the artist deepens the reader’s experience.
With its moving testament to the hopes and sorrows of those who lived in slavery, I Lay My Stitches Down is a must-have title for home or school libraries.
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