Books: A Call for Empathy

Henson's new book homage to an activist

Jimmy Heath

Michael Henson, author of Crow Call

Michael Henson's new collection of poems, Crow Call, is a continuation of the powerful and gentle voice first heard in his short urban novel Ransack and his remarkable story collection A Small Room with Trouble on My Mind.

All three are well presented by West End Press, which is known for its commitment to works that reflect on social justice and struggle. Henson's prose is poetic, taut and descriptive, rich with images that stay in the reader's mind, lingering like the aftertaste of a strong cup of coffee or the chill of a winter wind. And his poetry reaches further into the spirit, gripping the reader in a stillness that is often ironic and always mindful.

The poems never name Buddy Gray, Cincinnati's homeless activist, killed at the hand of a former client under circumstances that defy explanation (see story on the 10th anniversary of Gray's death on page 18). But this is an homage, and the keening cry of grief that rattles, tumbles and roars through these pages has a raw wildness.

In these words, and their patterns, one hears the defiant yet spiritual contemporary William Stafford, the elemental naturalist Gary Snyder and the metaphysical harkening to Theodore Roethke.

The poems read individually speak to injustice and the loss of a friend, while together they champion the meek and suggest that literary arts belong in the frame of social response.

CityBeat recently spoke to Henson.

CityBeat: As a poet writing about social justice, does the recent controversy over Cincinnati-born poet Nikki Giovanni spark a chord of interest?

Michael Henson: One of the things this book is about is finding a voice.

Buddy was such a powerful voice, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I hadn't written poems in a long time, and there were just so many things wrong, that have just continued to go wrong, and there was so much power behind all these lies that were being told and continue to be told, I needed to find a way to give voice to something else. And poems were the way. Nikki Giovanni? Yeah, she was rude and crude, but she told her truth. Ann Coulter says stuff that could get people killed. Liberals are traitors? What do you do with traitors? You line them up against a wall and you shoot them. She can say that awful stuff and she gets a gig with Fox News. Nikki gets it a little raw and she gets torn up in The Enquirer. I heard talk-radio people joke about how to kill the Dixie Chicks and they're still working. Nikki G. calls somebody a whore? That's tame, compared to Ann Coulter.

CB: How does Washington Park become more than just the neighborhoods'?

MH: I lived in Over-the-Rhine for a long time, and it has a home feel for me, but it's always been a place of great suffering. There's a wonderful photograph of Washington Park in the snow by Jimmy Heath that expresses the great sadness of the place. And that's what interests me. There are all these lives just full of various sorts of pain, and there are all these other lives that just glide by it and never know or care. So, yeah, a public voice for a public park, calling for empathy, solidarity, respect for each suffering human being. That's what I hoped for in that poem, but the reader has to read what they read.

CB: Silence is honored here in these pages. Talk a little about silence.

MH: I wrote the book because I couldn't speak. Literally. Every time I tried to talk about what I was feeling about Buddy's death, my voice would give out. So I wrote. First one poem, then another and so on until I realized I was writing a book. That's part of it. The other part is that I believe that the silence a poem creates is just as important as the words that frame it. Some truths only emerge in silence.

Michael Henson reads from Crow Call at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine.

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