Wednesday, August 27, 2008

PIRATES - a book review

Today, I'm talking about pirates. Not talking like a pirate, although those of you who are so inclined will want to mark your calendars now because annual "Talk Like a Pirate" day is coming soon: it's September 19th, just like every other year. But I digress.

Pirates by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr, is an interesting and pretty wonderful sort of poetry collection, and a really fabulous book to look at and hold. First off, the book is square (okay, it's within .4 inches of being square, which is close enough for me), which somehow makes this book feel far more "right" than it would have been as a rectangle (in either direction). The back cover of the book jacket features a skull and crossbones, the front features the lovely art you see here (which looks almost photographic, and very glamorously pirate-y), and the flaps include images of coins (pieces of eight, perhaps?) and pearls. The one thing missing from the front of this book and flap copy is any mention of this being a poetry collection, which I have to assume was a deliberate choice. (The flap copy at one point says "this collection", but it doesn't say it's a collection of poems. Even the "short title page" only reads "Pirates". The long title page says "Poems by David L. Harrison". I think the publishers were/are hoping to sell the book based on the subject and excellent package. I think that they were worried that if they said it was poems about pirates up front, folks might not open the book and be seduced by the artwork and actual poems, is what I think.)

Take a second to go to Dan Burr's website and look at some of the pirate art that's in the book. There are four spreads you can see by hovering over thumbnails, although I should note that the third one (with the title info) appears differently in the book. First, it lacks the author and illustrator info., and second, it's on a yellow background, and third, the font and coloring of the word "Pirates" is different. Here, however, is the artwork for the first poem in the book, "Pirate Nest". The Text is in white lettering over the smoke to the left on the painting.

The poem, "Pirate Nest" is in free verse, in four stanzas. Here are the first and last stanzas, so you get a feel for the tone of the book:

Times were hard for some men.
They slept in place
roaches would snub,
ate when they were able,
drank what they could.

  .   .   .

Men like that nursed
their bruises with their beer,
brooded, plotted revenge on life,
decided that dying as a pirate
was better than living

The poems begin and end on land. proceeding from "Pirate Nest" through "Signing on a Crew" and "Making Ready" to setting sail and everyday ship life with "Ship's Rules", "Another Day at Sea", "Table Talk" (bemoaning the lack of a cook), "Cat-O'-Nine-Tails" (with a chorus of "Unh!") to the actual act of pirating with "Sail in Sight!", "Through the Glass", "Coming for Your Gold", "Fog Attack". Then the book includes a poem about a particularly famous (and infamous) pirate, which kind of breaks the narrative arc that the poem flow had set up because it's about Blackbeard. The poem, "Blackbeard", works well as a poem, but up until now, you could have been following one particular pirate ship, and it seems odd to wait until you're 12 poems in to mention that he was the captain of the ship. Plus, Blackbeard isn't in any of the other poems or pictures in the book. So in a way, having "Blackbeard" the poem in the middle of the book kind of took me momentarily out of the "story" of the collection (what it was like to be a pirate or to be in the company of pirates) to focus on a particular individual (who Blackbeard was). And yet, if you were going to include a poem about Blackbeard (or any other pirate chief) in the book, this was the logical place to do so.

With the next poem, we're back to what pirates did with a rhyming poem in four stanzas entitled "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?" It's a poem in which a pirate addresses the captain of captured ship. Here are the first and third stanzas, so you get an idea of the poem (and how much fun it would be to read aloud in a menacing, taunting tone):

Excerpt from "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?"
by David L. Harrison

Nice and easy, Cap'n.
Do nothing ye'll regret.
We're helping ourselves to all your gold
and we're not finisihed yet.

  .   .   .

What'll the king say, Cap'n?
Seems ye lost his loot!
Seems ye lost your pistol, sir,
your knife and rings to boot.

Having claimed their loot, the pirates set ashore for a bit. The first thumbnail over at Dan Burr's page will show you the illustration that accompanies the next poem, "Trouble". I particularly like the farmer's pirate's tan on the guy in the foreground with the limes, who is wondering where the guys in the distance are off to with that chest. "Trouble" is followed by "Gentlemen on the Beach", in which a squabble has broken out. The art looks a bit like this, only with a completely different setting (trees instead of sky, flat horizon instead of the cool mountains):

If I'm completely honest, I like the image on Dan Burr's site better than the one in the book, because I like that vivid blue sky and the rocky islands or mountains in the backdrop, and I like that the guy on the left has his shirt untucked and that the captain has a pale vest. In the book, the guy on the left has a red sash around his waist and the captain's vest is red, too, plus it's a bit less photorealistic, if that's a word. But hey, I am certain the editors and book designers had their reasons for wanting the change. Moving on.

The next few poems include "Marooned" (a single man left alone), "On the Run" and "Last Battle" (about chase and battle with a British Navy ship), "Captured", and "Farewell" (one pirate's last words).

The book includes a prefatory page entitled "Warning! Pirates Ahead!" that clearly establishes that pirates were bad guys: "Real pirates robbed people. They looted and burned waterfront cities. They plundered ships, and people often died. Many books, movies, and plays make pirates seem like heroes. Real pirates were never heroes." The book also has a two-page spread following the final poem ("Farewell") entitled "Here's How it Was", written in first person plural and addressed to the reader. It provides additional information about pirate life and about the "glory days of pirates", which ended in the early 1700s, and about particular pirates, including Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts and Captain Henry Every (the only major pirate captain to retire with his wealth and disappear).

The book includes a bibliography which consists entirely of adult titles, several of which are from university presses (including Harvard, Cambridge and Yale), which shows how seriously David Harrison took his research. It also has "A Note on the Making of the Book", which came about in a rather unusual manner. Dan Burr had long wanted to illustrate a book on pirates, and so it came to pass that the editor at Wordsong made the introduction and a collaboration began. Some poems started with a sketch from Dan, others with a poem by David in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas.

I was quite excited to see this title in the latest Boyds Mills Press catalogue when it arrived, particularly because I spotted it just after returning from the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Franklin Institute, which includes a lot of stuff salvaged from an actual pirate ship wreck. Based on what I learned at the museum, this book got most everything right (although the exhibit led me to believe that pirate fights over booty were not particularly common, even though it makes a great poem and spread for the book). And after receiving a copy of the book from BMP and reading it, I am more excited still because it is good. The poems are solid, the illustrations are phenomenal, the entire "package" looks and feels wonderful in one's hands. In fact, apart from my nitpicky comment about the fact that the good poem about Blackbeard kind of jolted me out of the overarching "life as a pirate" arc (which is, I admit, quite a nitpicky comment!), I've got nothing at all negative to say about this title.

Who needs this book:
1. Anyone interested in pirates, naturally.
2. Anyone who wants a poetry collection that will appeal to boys.
3. Libraries interested in nonfiction books about piracy, rather than more Captain Jack Sparrow books for the fiction shelves. And yeah, it's a poetry collection, so it probably gets an 811 number in most libraries, but its contents could just as easily go in 972 with the other books on pirates if it weren't a poetry book.

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