Today’s poem in our Poetree Calendar is Sea by Rebecca Kai Dotlich (@Rebeccakai), the opening poem in the thoughtful and poignant anthology Traveling the Blue Road: Poems of the Sea, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, and illustrated by Bob and Jovan Hansman
Traveling the Blue Road explores over 500 years of migration across seas, following the different experiences of adventurers, slaves, refugees and migrants simply wanting to find a better life for themselves. 14 poems by a wide range of poets (perhaps largely unfamiliar to UK readers, as this is a US import) reflect on historical events which caused migrations (both forced and voluntary), including the Irish potato famine, the slave trade and the British transport of convicts to Australia, honouring those who undertook these often frightening and dangerous journeys.
Despite being a US import, I would nevertheless argue that this is an essential anthology here on the other side of the pond, for it provides enormously valuable context to one of the biggest issues shaping European politics in the past few years; the migration of people across the Mediterranean (indeed, there’s a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye which directly addresses this). If you already share Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, Gill Lewis and Jo Weaver’s A Story Like the Wind or Michael Rosen and Annemarie Young’s Who are Refugees and Migrants? you should definitely add this book to your tools for spreading understanding and encouraging empathy.
First and foremost, the poems are almost universally wonderful. I’ve read a lot of anthologies in preparing for our Poetree Calendar, and not all anthologies are created equal. Of course, the question is, “What makes a poem wonderful?”
For me, I guess, it somehow speaks to me, opens my eyes and touches my heart. And in the case of this anthology in particular it takes an event or episode which seems distant, and perhaps even previously unknown, and makes is relevant and beautiful (even if that beauty is full of sadness) and makes me want to learn more about the real-life stories that sparked these poems.
Some poems are stark and challenging; I shall be very interested to see how my half-Dutch girls respond to Cargo by J. Patrick Lewis, about the Dutch Slave Trade which opens:
Dutch ships were paid to violate the sea
through passages bound for oblivion.
Their openless cargo, black humanity.
Kidnapped by Aliens by Marilyn Nelson pulls the rug from under your feet by making surprising connections that immediately click and shock you. Whilst sometimes I think there is no fate worse for a poem than to become part of the school curriculum, Lee Bennett Hopkins’ own poem, Titan, will enrich every primary school child’s well worn topic work on this bit of maritime history.
With an atmospheric palette of dark blues and an almost ever-present sense of the vast night skies above oceans or the white caps on a seemingly never-ending ocean stretching to the horizon, the mixed media illustrations by Bob Hansmann and Jovan Hansman (do read how the pair met; it’s surprising and inspirational) tell stories of their own. What are called “archival” images, as if snipped out of historic documents, mingle with more abstract imagery, visually reminding us that real events are behind these poems which act as both witness and tinder for the imagination.
Rich back matter is the icing on the cake with this anthology. There are notes on the historical context of each poem, brief biographies of the 12 poets featured, as well as interesting information about how the illustrations were made, and even on the different fonts used throughout the book. Such attention to detail extends the rewarding experience of reading these poems, reinforcing the respect and thoughtfulness that forms the backbone of each poem.
Glorious poetry, eye-opening history, and a heart-expanding experience. What a book!