on Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History, by Camille T. Dungy (W.W. Norton)

“I can count seven women writers who told me that having a family cost them at least one book,” writes the poet Camille Dungy, “because of the ways they had to reorganize their lives to accommodate having children.” Dungy was clearly determined not to be the eighth. The lucid essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers suggest that her motivation to create increases as the stakes rise. She projects a candid personality resolved to succeed as a writer and teacher and to pay attention to everything, especially the presence of her daughter Callie Violet who is five years old at the end of the telling.

ok-to-Relative-Strangers_978-0-393-25375-7-1.jpgPart travelogue, the book begins with Dungy attending an artists’ retreat in 2003, and later recounts more recent trips for readings around the country. She recalls, “I hoped to nurse Callie through her second birthday, and my long trips away would make that logistically difficult unless I kept her with me. Until she turned two, she could fly with me for free, as a lap child.” Dungy’s mother cautions her, “Back in our day, our children were the center of our lives. It seems like it’s so different for your generation. You just keep doing what you were doing before the baby arrived.” Dungy, who teaches at Colorado State, replies that a poet must maintain a public presence and build credentials for tenure – and these, too, are reasons for the appearance of Guidebook.

But ultimately, the motive for memoir here is the desire to be recognized on her own terms – a person among a people who have been marginalized (“the same story for as long as anyone can remember”) and also, a person who has been changed by the birth of her first child. At the artists colony, someone tells her, classically, “I don’t see you as a black woman. You’re just who you are.” Guidebook exists to correct poor vision by sticking close to its own ordinary materials – actual life. The maternal becomes the material because it matters most.

Unknown_2.jpegDungy begins as someone who says fretfully, “I was now a mother and a wife. In my mind that meant something separate, meant I’d become someone separate, from the person who wrote books.” She emerges through the trials and amazements of parenthood as someone with an integrated vision of the allied or disparate parts, the co-presences of joyful gratification and worrisome consternation.

“I think that what we are watching when we are watching Callie is a most remarkable and transparent overlaying of domains,” she says. “At once, and not necessarily in chronological order, she is a mewling newborn, an eye-locker, a crawler, a cruiser, a babbler, a talker, a proto-adolescent, and power player, a mortal body.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Guidebook itself is an overlaying of domains – social history, family lore, travel tale, cultural critique, childhood development observation, professional profile, personal manifesto. The child’s “mortal body” nurses and matures at the center – and the long history of punished bodies lurks in the landscape, the places through which the poet travels. “I am black and female,” she writes, “no place is for my pleasure. How do I write about the land and my place in it without these memories: the runaway with the hounds at her heels; the complaint of the poplar at the man-cry of its load; land a thing to work but not to own.” Meanwhile, a stranger’s remark about Callie’s hair yields a complex reaction: “Usually I choose to believe people are simply overwhelmed not by the surprising beauty of a black baby but by the beauty of my particular child.”

images_0.jpegMany of the “relative strangers” she mentions become essential to her well-being and endeavors, offering support and advice. Early in the book, Dungy discloses her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis – though it becomes a shadow-fact as the essays progress. In Guidebook, difficulties and challenges are not expected to dissipate even if our awareness and empathy grow. As much as she appreciates others’ considerations during travel, she is quite capable of getting annoyed when somebody else’s child acts up in the seat next to her (“What I deserve for my lack of mercy is a merciless seatmate on every flight I take with my lap child”). Her own “worst traits” aren’t hidden: “disorganization, self-centeredness, flakiness, a tendency toward lateness, messiness, a sense of superiority.”

At the beginning of her essay “Lap Child,” Dungy takes us along with Callie into the cramped plane lavatory. “There is the awkward negotiation of toilet paper to contend with,” she says. “Then I have to squat, jutting my tailbone out and dropping my chest, thus allowing the BabyBjörn-bound baby to fall away from my torso so I can pull my pants back up.” I was reminded of an air travel poem in her poetry collection Trophic Cascade, also published this year:


Is it difficult to get away from it all once you’ve had a child?

I am swaying in the galley – working
to appease this infant who is not

fussing but will be fussing if I don’t move –
when a black steward enters the cramped space

at the back of the plane. He stands by the food carts
prepping his service. Then he is holding his throat

the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. My God. What they did to us.

I am swaying lest my brown baby girl make a nuisance
of herself, and the steward is crying honest man tears.

Seeing you holding your daughter like that – for the first time,
I understand what they did to us. All those women sold away

from their babies, he whispers. I am at a loss now.
Perhaps I could fabricate an image to represent this

agony, but the steward has walked into the galley
of history. There is nothing figurative about us.

I admire the clarifying, salvaging toughness of that last line. We can lament the history because it is lamentable -- or because it hasn’t passed. Dungy shows us this much when she takes us on the road and remarks on our sordid inheritance. But Guidebook to Relative Strangers is a companionable reference text about us and the actual moment. We’re not figurative. We’re our troubling but potentially changeable selves.

[Published June 13, 2017. 288 pages, $25.95 hardcover]