Cedric Tillman’s poetry collection Lilies in the Valley has vision and faith. It looks and believes. These poems look deeply into human concerns with vivid details and rich, sometimes amusing descriptions. What they always do, for me, is draw me to look deeply at my own life. Tillman explores our various identities as family members, citizens, and people of varying levels of faith. The beauty of the poems is so strong it invites us all to the same exploration. For this, we can be grateful to Cedric Tillman and to Willow Books for getting these fine poems into our hands. I’ve been enjoying this collection for a few months now and I know I will return to it again and again.
The cover of Lilies in the Valley stands out among poetry book covers. It’s clearly authentic. It foreshadows the accurate details the poems will offer us. This book will be about Sundays, family, squinting in the brightness of the world. There is nothing “doctored” about this cover– nor the poems within. And that’s a good thing.
Lilies in the Valley divides into three sections. “This Little Light of Mine” offers reflections on family, identity, who we are. “Parables” is a rich section of poems with religious images, spiritual questions. “The Ways of a Man” explores relationships, men and women, how we love and don’t love. One of the strengths of this book is that it contains more poems than many poetry collections. It’s not overwhelming by any means, but there is a great deal to savor and appreciate.
The first two poems of this book are especially strong. “Naps,” the opening poem, is not about sleeping. It’s about hair. It’s about the struggle to write, to say what one needs to say.
I pull my hair out.
You can tell I must’ve struggled.
Right now there is a ball of hair
in front of the flat screen.
Between this aging computer
and the rummaging for words,
I had time to pull out quite a pile.
The collection’s second poem, “The All-American” locates the speaker, the poet, in a personal, religious, athletic, and political world. Tillman moves us from:
The Yankee fan,
The Carolina fan.
I am a fan of nothing ignoble.
I am a fan of the teams people like me
Should be fans of.
I am a fan of the teams
that a man would be a fan of
If he’s been where I’ve gone.
…my American mother
Her hair a science project mushroom cloud
Bore me to an American father…
to a spiritual reflection:
I am Baptist.
I am African Methodist Episcopalian Zion.
I am probably African Methodist Episcopalian
Without the Zion.
I am non-denominational.
I stayed out of the closet the skeptics
Made me for their convenience.
I listened to them,
They forbade me wine,
They forbade me women…
…I am a Christian in America,
And I am very often tried
But rarely by a jury of my peers.
In “Portrait of a Family” he describes the kinds of family photographs we’ve all seen:
A tall, cool yellow man in a tilted hat
stands beside your dark narrow figure
as you reach down to keep
three sullen milk-eyed little boys
in the picture.
Your stubborn hair only half remains in a ponytail
and you stare into the camera,
eyes wearied with having just enough
but not so much
you could become the teacher you wanted to be…
It’s details like these that enable us to enter a family reunion with the ability to stop and think and observe– details like these make this collection so rich. As a reader, I want to know this family. I want to dive deeper into their joy and sorrows. Cedric Tillman shows us glimpses in the way only fine poetry can.
“Americana” is one of my favorite poems in this collection. This poem takes a wide, amusing, and thoughtful look around Tyson’s Corner, a huge shopping mall complex just outside Washington, D.C. In five sections, we get a look at a Muslim woman, of very high fashion, doing her shopping. We are warned not to
...mess with the Asian dude.
His folded arms are warnings.
When he needs you
He will call you.
At checkout, he will be tax-exempt.
We view a Latina shouting, an anchor store, a congressman. We hear a boss telling his workers:
…let’s make these numbers, be really aggressive,
probe the customers, let’s sell ’em something.
At the end of this expansive poem, the speaker, viewing women passing by,
…oblivious in their hurried little heels…
reflects on it all:
All this I see,
and I fondle my wedding band
One of the most powerful poems in Lilies in the Valley is “Thin Air (for Trayvon.” This poem muses on fear, on options, on America.
It’s probably better to run–
so there’s someone left
to tell our side of the stories.
Part 4 of this poem muses, in some of the most beautiful language I’ve read in a long time:
I live in America,
and I tell my son the street lights mean
I don’t plan to see his mother flailing her arms
beyond the embrace of ushers
charged with keeping this much of us
out of the casket.
Another favorite of mine here is “Cana,” a poem reflecting on the Gospel of John, Chapter 2, verses 1-5. In this delicate poem, first Jesus speaks. He worries:
…history will remember this first miracle.
There will be enough cynics.
Then Mary, Jesus’ mother speaks:
Now I am widowed and my eldest
defies me with coarse speech,
his sharp tongue swaddled in scorn.
If “swaddled in scorn” isn’t a perfect phrase, I don’t know what is.
Two poems in the book’s last section stand out to me. “in memory of a dark girl” is a worrisome poem about race and love. But its language is tender.
I am missing you a little
More than I thought,
and more than I should.
But your spirit hovers over me.
You must stop playing with my halo.
I should stop letting you.
Shoo, gone now.
“A Few Years In” near the book’s end, leaves us with a gentle picture of love over time. Those of us who have been in love for a while, know the textures and truth of this poem.
When I squeeze too tight
she never pushes back
like she needs room.
Sometimes I show love like
I don’t want her to wonder
if there’s anything more to know.
Every so often in the stillness,
More work comes down
This is a beautiful book of poems which anyone can enjoy. These poems are crafted and accessible. Moving and human. I hope you’ll buy a copy and support this fine poet. I’m hopeful too that there will be more books to come from Cedric Tillman.