Poetry for young people is often described as playful and fun, but this powerful novel in verse reminds us that it can also be a “dangerous tool,” a way to speak of what often goes unspoken. “Every word/ means more than it says,” according to Dave, an enslaved potter in the antebellum South. Dave knows he can be “whipped,/ or hung from the nearest tree” for daring to inscribe his short poems on the jars he makes, but he feels he will “die of silence” if he does not. Andrea Cheng takes the few historical details known about Dave and, in resonant poems and stark, expressive woodcuts, fleshes out his life from 1815 to 1870. During this time, Dave became one of the finest potters in Edgefield, S.C. Although Dave is the principal speaker, Cheng also includes poems from the perspectives of his two wives and various owners. This multivoice narration offers a wide lens on Dave, his artistry and events of the period, including his first wife’s grueling experience as a house slave and his final owner’s fears for his three Confederate soldier sons. Through precise imagery, Cheng conveys the consciousness of a man who enjoys the “short, clean strokes” of his work while also railing at the fate of his soon-to-be-sold stepsons, clinging “to their mother/ like baby possums.” A poem is a “valuable thing,” Dave says. Through her haunting, honed verse, Cheng has given readers a valuable thing indeed: the life of a quiet rebel.
ETCHED IN CLAY
The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet
By Andrea Cheng
Lee & Low, $17.95.
Ages 9 and up