Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Trailblazers -- a National Poetry Month book review

Another day, another poetry collection. With one more to go, by the way, before I run out of recent purchase anthology fodder.

Today's entry? Trailblazers: Poems of Exploration by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Carin Berger

The premise behind this one is pretty cool -- Bobbi Katz decided to do a crapload of research about explorers throughout history. She starts with Adam and Eve, then moves forward through time to examine explorers of all sorts, from world conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and Hernando Cortés to mapmakers like Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Lewis & Clark and Champlain to adventurers, like Matthew Henson and Robert Peary, Ernest Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, to astronauts, cosmonauts and deep-sea explorers.

Here's a taste of one of my favorite poems early on in the book. It's entitled "From The Rihla of Ibn Battuta", credited to Ibn Juzayy, and dated Fez, 1354

When I was but a child,
seeds of twin desires
took root in my heart:
&emsp &emsp to make the
hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca,
&emsp &emsp to visit Medina, site of the Prophet's tomb.
As I grew, so grew they.
At age twenty-one,
I braced myself to quite my dear ones.
Forsaking home,
&emsp &emsp as birds forsake their nests,
I left Tangier,
&emsp &emsp alone
&emsp &emsp &emsp on a donkey:
&emsp &emsp &esmp &emsp without family
&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp without friends.
But I found generosity.
Scholars shared their thoughts with me.
&emsp Some offered hospitality
Time was never an object.

Other particularly strong poems are "What Manner of Men Are These?", a poem about Vasco da Gama, and "The Lady Who Works", about Maria Sibylla Merian, an independent European woman in Surinam. Also excellent, a concrete poem entitled "Summiting", about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, told from the sherpa's perspective. It's read from bottom to the top of the "peak," echoing their climb of Everest.

All of the poems I've picked out to mention thus far are free verse. The rhyming poems are, in my opinion, far less successful. Because the collection is dealing with serious historical people and events, much of the rhyme reads as dismissive, which is not a good thing. Here's one of them that works well, in my opinion:

A Letter to Cristobal Columbus

Greetings to you, Worthy Sir,
&emsp I applaud your grand wish to go
&emsp to find those lands,
&emsp those wondrous lands,
&emsp where precious spices grow.
&emsp Martinez of Portugal,
&emsp a favorite of the king,
&emsp has set his heart, as you might know,
&emsp upon that very thing.
&emsp So I send you the same sea chart
&emsp as I recently sent to him
&emsp with a letter
&emsp in which I suggest
&emsp the way to reach the East that's best
&emsp is to set your compass
&emsp &ensp toward
&emsp &ensp &ensp the West.
&emsp May Good Fortune smile on you.
&emsp May you accomplish what you wish to do.

This poem is "signed" by Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, and dated 1474.

You may have noticed all the indents in this one -- and truly, coding it was a bit of a bitch. Yet most of the poems have wandering margins. Sometimes I think it works, particularly in the aforementioned climbing poem attributed to Tenzing Norgay and discussing summiting Everest. And perhaps it makes sense that the text of "Sylvia Earle: Deep Ocean Explorer" wanders back and forth, as if bandied about by sea currents. But, like some of the rhyme, it got to feeling gimmicky after a while -- since all of the people profiled were explorers of a sort, there was travel and/or wandering involved for most of them, and so the wandering nature of the margins made less of an impact as I proceeded through the book.

The illustrations, such as they are, don't add as much as they could to the book -- while, as best I can tell, they were probably originally cut-paper silhouettes collaged with newsprint, since they are black and white and grey all over, mostly they resemble clipart of maps and globes and mountains and such, there to fill what would have been white space on the pages -- they seem more like an afterthought, and less like an integral part of the package.

My final thoughts on this one? The poems, like their topics, are quite a mix. Some are more successful than others, and overall I'd have to call the collection uneven. Still, the idea is so solid, and the successful poems are so well-done, that I definitely see this one having a place on the shelves of kids obsessed with history and/or geography, and on the shelves of school libraries.

1 comment:

nepalwriter said...

To learn more about the Sherpa tribe that makes climbing Everest possible, read Beyond the Summit by Linda LeBlanc. Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter's point of view.

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to

Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
Richard Blake for Readers Views.

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest.

A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc's vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there.

This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended."
-- John (college professor)

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialogue. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

The book is available from,, Barnes & Noble and Borders Stores,site for an autographed copy.