The Primacy of Poetry in “Make Me Rain”

When reading poetry I look for a glimpse into the poet’s mind, a chance to see the world as they see it, to slip into their experience. I wait to be invited in by a compelling image or captivating voice. In her latest collection, Make Me Rain, Nikki Giovanni’s title poem warmly invites readers in and holds them close:

make me rain
turn me into a snowflake
let me rest
on your tongue
make me a piece of ice
so I can cool you
let me be the cloud
that embraces you
or the quilt
that gets you dry.

The entire collection of poems and prose is marked by an accessibility and intimacy of voice, as if the reader is talking to a friend, a very frank friend who is sharing her passions and memories and commenting on current events.

“I Come from Athletes,” is a wandering essay that calls out the exploitation of Black Americans during segregation while offering up the story of her parents’ courtship. She brings us into modern day when she compares the kneeling of her father proposing to her mother to the kneeling of Black athletes, calling out Donald Trump in this way: “I sincerely dislike that man who occupies the White House trying to take the love and faith of our athletes who are kneeling and asking the Constitution: ‘Will you be mine?’”

Others are pieces short and to the point, like those poems that deal with the narrowing of focus to the things that sustain us as we age — namely good food, warm clothes and good company — like in the poems “America” and “Vegetable Soup.” Giovanni’s America sports a diversity of flavors and colors: “Strawberries / Blackberries / Blueberries / Cheese / Eggplant / Yellow Squash / Boiled Corn / Beets” — fitting for a poet who has never shied away from America’s struggles with inclusion.

Giovanni, the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, has always been a chronicler of her times. Her early poems are responses to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Robert Kennedy, and explore the rising Civil Rights Movement. In her latest volume, she continues calling out injustices in the same way that made her one of the leading poets of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.

Her poems celebrate the modern Black experience, including the Million Man March of 1995 and the life of Tupac Shakur. Her outrage at injustice explodes in the prose piece “Ferguson the Musical: Starring Michael Brown with a Special Chorus of the Unarmed,” which portrays a white police officer getting off on the act of murdering young black men using short lines that echo the cadence of gunfire.

Her most expansive piece is “Lemonade Grows from Soil, Too,” which explores poetry and its importance to the Black experience. She begins asserting the primacy of poetry, “We hear poetry from the moment we are conceived.”

Her credo “We are Poetry. Poetry is us” is in keeping with the plain-spokenness of her words in this volume, the warmth that radiates from the often homey images of quilts and soup, and the straightforwardness with which she tackles even the ugliest of human experience.

For Giovanni, poetry is a living, breathing, evolving art that grows like a child, “adding whatever is needed.” In the end she deems poetry “the soil that keeps us all growing / So that lemons will fall from the tree / And Beyoncé can make Lemonade.”

In the essay “We Write,” Giovanni asserts the importance of the written word in honoring the lived experience of Black people: “Black ink should be a soup or a drink or something we can embrace with pride. Black Lives Matter. Black Ink reminds us of why.”

With people on the march for social justice today as they were during the turbulent 60s when Giovanni started writing, her collection brings us back to the essential truth of the power of words to remind, celebrate, encourage and inspire.

Make Me Rain
By Nikki Giovanni
William Morrow
Published October 20, 2020