cover image The Other Side: Shorter Poems

The Other Side: Shorter Poems

Angela Johnson. Orchard Books (NY), $15.95 (60pp) ISBN 978-0-531-30114-2

Decorated with blurred photographs from a family album, this touching collection focuses on the denizens of Shorter, Ala., a town that is due to be leveled because of ""some big company wanting to make a dog track."" The 14-year-old narrator returns at the bidding of her grandmother (""Come see your past before it's all/ dust, baby""), and her journey back is the impetus for a series of nostalgic poems that describe her experiences at various ages--a disastrous attempt at piano lessons, the smell of soap at the Wash-a-Teria, leaving the South for the Midwest. The swift, thumbnail character sketches are almost entirely devoid of metaphors--as if these family stories had been broken into line lengths to be read aloud like eloquent monologues (e.g., ""Me and Kesha Cousins used to dance to hip-hop music/ in the woods""). The African American narrator's use of poetry to portray the townspeople gives the reader a sharply defined view of a disappearing childhood. Images of her great-great-grandmama (""a voodoo woman who knew potions./ All kinds""), the scar her uncle received when he tried to order from a lunch counter in Montgomery (""how terrible it was/ and how beautiful/ it made him""), her father's Vietnam nightmares (""he/ used to yell that he couldn't/ get the blood off"")--all offer readers an unforgettable view of an insightful young woman growing up in the South. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)