Poems in the Attic

First published in Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America, 13:1, Winter 2017, pages 69 to 71. Originally written in October of 2016.

Poems in the Attic by Nikki Grimes, illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon. New York: Lee & Low, 2015. ISBN 978-1-62014-027-7, hardback, 9.25 x 11 inches, 40 pages, $19.95.

Haiku appear in numerous books for children, but it’s relatively rare for tanka to be featured. One such exception is Poems in the Attic by Nikki Grimes, six-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults. In Poems in the Attic, a young girl finds a box of poems written by her mother, each one from a different United States air force base in various places around the country and the rest of the world. They tell the story of the mother’s constant moving because of her father being in the military, and how hard it was for her to change schools and friends so often. The book speaks to the needs of children in a similar plight, offering a means of solace to them through the writing of poems.

The poems in this book use two forms. The voice of the young girl uses free-verse poems, which the author explains at the end by saying that “Free verse poetry can be the hardest of all forms because you have no set pattern to follow.” Here’s the book’s first verse, titled “Poems in the Attic,” in the voice of the young girl:

Grandma’s attic is stacked with secrets.

Last visit, I found poems Mama wrote

Before I was born, before I was even imagined.

She started when she was seven—same age as me.

The mother’s poems take the form of tanka, and all follow the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic arrangement. Again, at the back, Grimes says that tanka are five lines long, and that “The line-by-line syllable count varies in the modern English version,” adding that “Not every poet follows a syllable count for her or his tanka poems,” although she chooses to do so. Here’s the mother’s first tanka poem, titled “Cedar Box”:

I choose you to keep

all my rememberings safe,

poems about home,

no matter where that might be.

Each place is special to me.

Although tanka traditionally don’t have titles in Japanese, the titles here provide context, as this first example shows. What follows is an alternating set of poems, pairing the daughter’s free-verse poems with the mother’s tanka. Each tanka after the first is also given a city, state, or country that matches the locations of various air force base locations, with a story that fits that setting. For example, the poem set in California is titled “Cabrillo Beach” and describes the grunion run. The accompanying illustration, by Elizabeth Zunon, shows the father and daughter together on a beach with flashlights enjoying the grunion. All of the book’s tanka illustrations are vibrant with colour and storytelling, with a smaller illustration provided in an oval to go with the daughter’s free-verse poems.

By this alternation of poems, the author tells a dual story—the daughter’s and her mother’s. In the daughter’s narrative, her grandmother shows her how to make luminarias, which is the subject of the mother’s poem set in New Mexico:

I scalloped the tops.

Mom painted happy faces.

After we were done,

our brown bag candleholders

bloomed bright, lighting up the night.

The mother’s story unfolds all over the world. Other poems are set in Colorado (skiing), Alaska (aurora borealis), North Carolina (collecting sharks’ teeth), Virginia (kayaking), Texas (horseback riding), Germany (hiking), Japan (cherry blossoms and camping), Portugal (packing yet another suitcase), and finally Washington, D.C. (home). Here are the mother’s two Japan poems:

Spring! Kimono time.

I joined the parade of girls

strolling avenues

dusted with cherry blossoms.

I caught a few, like snowflakes.

My class camping trip!

Rhinoceros beetles and

dragonflies joined us.

We ate squid-on-a-stick, slept

At the foot of Mount Fuji.

At the end of the story, the young girl is motivated to write her own tanka and creates a new book that combines her poems with her mother’s, and gives them to her mother at the end. Here’s that final poem, titled “The Gift”:

I run to Mama,

tackle her with hugs, kisses,

then hand her the book.

Breathlessly I wait for her

to unwrap our memories.

Notes by the author at the back talk about the difficulty children have when their parents move a lot (even if not in the military), a challenge that many children face. This book will serve to help them, recognizing their emotional and physical upheavals, and inspiring them to record their transition experiences. “In my own life,” Grimes says, “it was writing that helped me cope.” Additional notes talk about air force base locations, and the free verse and tanka forms. While the young girl and her mother both faced challenges with frequent moves, it is also clear that they have both lived rich and fulfilling lives. As a story for girls, the book is especially empowering. This is demonstrated not just by the explorations and activities depicted throughout, but by “Boys,” one of the young girl’s short poems:

Guys at school tease me

for collecting rocks “like a boy.”

Next time, I’ll tell them to

gather sharks’ teeth “like a girl”!

I am pleased to note, too, that Nikki Grimes’ next book for children, Garvey’s Choice (Wordsong, 2016), is a verse novel that also uses tanka poems. I look forward to seeing it.