Monday, December 4, 2017

A Gee's Bend Christmas

One of the sweet moments for me at NCTE in St. Louis was attending the Awards Luncheon and hearing THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND by Susan Goldman Rubin named an Orbis Pictus Honor book. I couldn't wait to get home and order a copy for myself!

And I *meant* to mention the book in my talk later that day, that focused on how the practice of poetry influenced my writing of LEAVING GEE'S BEND.

Me, speaking.
LEAVING GEE'S BEND actually started as a poem entitled "The Quilts of Gee's Bend." That was the first piece of writing I did as I was first feeding my obsession with the quilts and the quilters and their stories.

Later, when I was struggling to find the narrator for my story, I used poetry to learn more about Ludelphia -- and that exercise was the key to me finding my way. I used George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" and allowed Ludelphia to write her own version. Here it is:

I Am From

by Ludelphia Bennett

I am from Mama’s wide hips
and a sliver of hickory
that went flying from Daddy’s ax,
then had to go and land
square in my eye.

I am from a cornshuck mattress,
afterbirth buried beside the cabin,
newspaper plastered walls,
rain running straight through the roof,
Aunt Doshie and broken eggs.

I am from a curve in the Alabama River
orange dirt that likes to settle
right between your toes,
cotton and sorghum and corn
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot on Sundays.

I am from quilts strung on a line
a triangle of denim over my right eye
scraps of cloth and feed sack,
the sash torn from Mama’s calico apron
and ripped into strips.

I am from Every quilt tells a story
Ruben’s fishing pole
and Etta Mae’s yellow dress,
Big Mama’s story
about them red flags on the slave ship.

I am from Delilah braying
like there’s no tomorrow
and in my pocket a needle
and thread and bits of cloth
giving me a reason to keep on going.

Also, my background as a poet has everything to do with my (heavy!) use of figurative language in LEAVING GEE'S BEND. I shared with the group a book gifted to me by Homewood Middle School entitled "The Language of Gee's Bend." Even I hadn't realized how much figurative language was in that book!

Here are some examples:
Mrs. Cobb... looked just like a hog that's done ate too much.

Then the door swung wide creaking like a chorus of frogs.

A sharp breeze caught the tail of her apron and made it fly up like a kite. 

"Delilah can wait just a minute," Mama said, her voice coming out jagged as a saw blade.

She was holding herself tall and stiff, her face blank as a cotton field that's ready for seed.

My mind was empty as a plate that has been licked clean.

Her voice turned to syrup.

Her hair... was caught up in the short braids she liked, the ones that always reminded me of blackberry brambles.

It was like the sky opened up and poured sunshine out of a honey jar.
Me, quilting.
So, obviously, poetry and Gee's Bend is a big part of my writing story, and my LIFE story. Which is why I am thrilled to see this beautiful book receiving recognition and hopefully finding a bigger audience. It features many of the FSA photos that I share when I give presentations. It includes a pretty comprehensive history of the area -- the struggles and successes -- told in an accessible way. It's got actual words from actual quilters. And there's a 'how to make a quilt square' tutorial in the back. I so hope this inspires some young folks to learn to quilt!

And guess what book is the perfect companion? Yep. LEAVING GEE'S BEND. Happy reading!


  1. So fun to see this post. I managed to attend the now once-a-month book club meeting at the middle school on Tuesday (had to get a sitter for Jack), and the librarian had a copy of The Quilts of Gee's Bend. I thumbed through it and your post reminds me I need to request it from the library. I love Ludelphia's "I Am From" poem and my favorite quote? "It was like the sky opened up and poured sunshine out of a honey jar." And I can hear your voice as I read those words.

  2. Love your poem, Irene! Your figurative language is so spot on!


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