Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night
Written by Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Rick Allen
Houghton Mifflin 2010

Well, Joyce Sidman has done it again! She has written another topnotch collection of nature poems. This time her focus is on the flora and fauna of the woods. This time she examines her subjects through the lens of night. She brings the dark forest to life with her words and imagery. In her poems, Sidman illuminates the nocturnal actions of the snail, primrose moth, great horned owl, orb spider, baby porcupette, cricket, oak tree, mushrooms, eft, tree bat—and provides insight into the moon’s thinking. Dark Emperor is a "must have" book for teachers who enjoy connecting science with poetry/literature--and for kids who are budding naturalists!

Joyce Sidman explains how this book started . . .

I used to be just the teensiest bit afraid of the dark. I loved the concept of the nighttime, its mystery and dark beauty, but the reality was a different story. For us humans—diurnal, sight-oriented creatures that we are—the darkness is alien and forbidding, especially in the woods (which already have dark, mythic undertones). But there are all sorts of creatures that prefer the dark, that thrive in the dark. Why? And how? This book is my exploration of those questions. And you know what? Now that I know so much about these fascinating night creatures, I'm not as afraid of the dark anymore!

Welcome to the Night

Welcome to the Night, the first poem in the collection, is a poem of address. In it, Sidman speaks to woodland creatures and invites them to immerse themselves in their habitat and to use their senses to experience their world after dark:

Come feel the cool and shadowed breeze,
come smell your way among the trees,
come touch rough bark and leathered leaves:
Welcome to the night.

To be sure, Sidman is also welcoming readers to immerse themselves in her poems. She takes readers on a sensory field trip. We experience night in the woods along with the flora and fauna. Sidman even has certain animals, an oak tree, and the moon relate their poetic tales in their own voices.

A young porcupine describes its life after the sun has set:

From I Am a Baby Porcupette

I am a baby porcupette.
I cannot climb up branches yet.
While mom sleeps in the trees I curl
beneath a log till sun has set.

I am a baby porcupette.
I nibble in the nighttime wet:
a sprig of leaves, a tuft of grass,
in hidden spots I won’t forget.

In Cricket Speaks, the winged insect expresses its desire to sing “till the branches tremble/and life/swells/to a single/searing/unstoppable/ sound” when midnight—the trilling hour—arrives.

In Oak after Dark, a tree describes how it carries on its business when most may think it’s merely resting:

As nighttime rustles at my knee,
I stand in silent gravity

and quietly continue chores
of feeding leaves and sealing pores.

While beetles whisper in my bark,
while warblers roost in branches dark,

I stretch my roots into the hill
and slowly, slowly, drink my fill.

In Dark Emperor, a small creature (a mouse) beseeches a great-horned owl to let it be: “O Dark Emperor/of hooked face and/hungry eye: turn that/awful beak away/from me; disregard/the tiny hiccup/of my heart/as I flee.”

Sidman is most adept at incorporating poetic devices and figures of speech and of using language in creative ways in her work. One example: She employs repetition to great effect in a number of her poems. In The Mushrooms Come, she uses it to reinforce how the ubiquitous mushrooms spring from many different places in the forest—moss, loam, crumbling logs, musty leaves—and to help capture a soft and fluid rhythm.

From The Mushrooms Come

Unbuttoning the forest floor,
the mushrooms come,
the mushrooms come.

Like noses pink
in midnight air,
like giants’ ears,
like elfin air,
like ancient cities
built on cliffs,
the mushrooms come,
the mushrooms come.

Each two-page spread in the book contains a poem, an elegantly written informative paragraph about the subject of the poem, and large and small linocuts. The book also includes a glossary that explains such terms as echolocation, stridulation, and omnivorous.

About the Art: Rick Allen uses muted colors and abundant black lines in his illustrations to capture the forest after dark. His pictures draw readers into the woods…into the night…and into the nocturnal goings-on of animals and plants.

(Note: I think kids would really enjoy examining Allen’s illustrations to find all the animals he's included in them that are not clearly visible at a glance.)

Rick Allen informed me that he “never tired of her [Sidman’s] words over the eighteen months or so that we worked on the book.” That’s evident. Allen’s illustrations are perfect companions for Sidman’s words. Both poetry and art enlighten and shed light on a dark world that most of us are unfamiliar with.


I asked Joyce if she come tell me more about Dark Emperor. Here’s what she wrote:

Dark Emperor is part of an original "trilogy" of books I wanted to write, about different ecosystems. Water Boatman was the first (pond), Butterfly Eyes was the second (meadow), and this is the third (woods). I can't really remember when I decided to set it in the night time. It was fascinating to learn how different organisms cope with, and thrive in, darkness. As always, I learned a lot as I researched and wrote the book. One other tidbit: "Ballad of the Wandering Eft" was written to the tune of "Dark as a Dungeon" by Merle Travis. I'm hoping at some point some kid will perform it on You Tube and I can listen!

Good news for Joyce Sidman fans: Joyce and Beth Krommes are working on a picture book for younger children called Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, that will come out in fall of 2011!

Note: I would like to thank Joyce Sidman for providing me with information about Dark Emperor and for the news about her next book. I also want to thank Rick Allen for his quick response to my request for images of illustrations from the book.


Dark Emperor Book Trailer

Dark Emperor Reader’s Guide

At Blue Rose Girls, I have a poem by Wislawa Szymborska titled Photograph from September 11.
Anastasia Suen has the Poetry Friday Roundup at Picture Book of the Day.


Tabatha said...

I think Oak After Dark is my favorite, but I don't know, the mushroom one is in a close second place. The illustrations are wonderful. Swirl by Swirl sounds great, too. Thanks for the heads-up!

Amy L V said...

This is stunning. Thank you, Elaine. I am ordering it right now. I just wanted to sink into those poems and illustrations too.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Tabatha & Amy,

DARK EMPEROR is definitely another winner! Sidman is a master poet without doubt.

jama said...

Wow! is all I can say. Another tour de force from Joyce. Love all the sample poems you shared, and the linocuts are simply gorgeous. I'm especially looking forward to reading this because I live in the woods, and always marvel and am curious about all the creatures. Thanks for the fabulous review, Elaine! I am in love ♥...

Toby Speed said...

Excellent review, Elaine. This book will be mine soon. All of Joyce Sidman's books are going to be mine, mine, MINE! She is so good. Great illustrations, too.

Mary Lee said...

I agree with Tabatha about Oak After Dark. Definitely my favorite so far...but I'll have to get the book and inspect every poem to be sure!