Books by Colleen J. McElroy

Released: Oct. 1, 1999

McElroy (A Long Way from St. Louie, 1997, etc.) recounts her visit to Madagascar, where she hunts and gathers the island's oral traditions, tapping both the journey and the stories for their sense of magic, their "ancient time." The University of Washington poet went to the African island country to immerse herself in the fables, legends, myths, and song-poems of village folk artists, not as ethnography but out of love and appreciation. Most of the tales she retells are quick on their feet and short-lived and, not rarely, obscure in an untroubling way. As with most folklore, they contain elements that require listeners to suspend disbelief and accept a certain level of magic at play in order to garner the story's gift, which often revolves around examples of bravery, morality, responsibility—the wisdom of ancestors. The stories also encompass origin myths, or pose as brief expressions of larger truths: why dogs chase cats, how a child should speak to an adult, how tricksters plot revenge, how places get their names, why and how spouses cheat on each other. Included as well is a sampler of contemporary Malagasy poetry. Cradling the stories is the filigreed narrative of McElroy's journey through the island. She displays a fine talent for description—the wealth of colors in a clouded sky, "the suddenness of open space," the bustle of a cattle market, "the waxy scent of dust" in a drowsy noontime square, the way "the sun, filtered through mist, washed the houses in bloodstreaks"—her words, like the landscape, lush to skeletal, allowing readers to call up each place and fix it in their mind's eye. She also displays a tart humor about all the many vexations of travel, giving her memories an enviable buoyancy. A piquant glimpse into Malagasy storytelling, set to advantage by the kind of poised writing that makes one slow down, read carefully, savor. (Color and b&w photos) Read full book review >
TRAVELLING MUSIC by Colleen J. McElroy
Released: Aug. 1, 1998

Widely published in a number of genres, this Univ. of Washington English Professor last recorded her travels in the memoir A Long Way from St. Louie (1997), which prefigured the many poems about travel here: longish narratives that follow the poet through the Balkans, which she seems to loathe, Japan, which inspires some hermetic lines, and Paris, where the writer mistakes an Arab pickpocket for a flirt. Ischia reminds her of her father's wartime service in Northern Africa, and the beach at Split bears history's scars as well. She mocks the friendly Slavs for seeking approval for their jazz and exults in R&B on the radio in Madagascar. McElroy's strongest poems are her portraits in black—the fascinating rhythms that underpin deft homages to Josephine Baker (spying in wartime Tangiers), Florence Mills and her legendary shimmy shake, Bill Robinson's legacy to tap, and a superb sonnet to Dorothy Dandridge, spoiled only by its dubious last line. McElroy empathizes with nature's outcasts: a dog trotting aimlessly on a deadly road; winter flies banging at the window; monkeys abandoned in Florida by Tarzan movie crews; and crows, which carry a strange cultural heritage of their own. An admitted —old protest poet,— McElroy indulges in some lame agitprop: a mild poem lamenting the defunding of the arts, and much more incendiary verse about the L.A. riots, which she commemorates with sociological clichÇ, sentiments that also find expression elsewhere (—Heavy in the S Curves—): —we have all learned to be victims.— A disagreeable traveler, McElroy only swings when she's 'styling with flash,— not filigree. Read full book review >
A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIE by Colleen J. McElroy
Released: April 30, 1997

A lovely, lyrical memoir of an African-American woman's travels through life. McElroy (Queen of the Ebony Isles, etc.; English/Univ. of Washington) is a professor and poet with a yen for travel that goes back to her youth as an army brat and has continued throughout her life. Looking back at that life now, McElroy finds much that is amusing, thought-provoking, poignant, and above all beautiful to relate to her readers. This is not so much a travelogue, as the author herself admits, as a rumination, a meditation, a poem. McElroy tells us about learning to dance in St. Louis, about her experiences as a university student in postWW II Germany, her encounters with butterflies and intestinal ailments in Mexico, the limitations of tour groups and guides (``Here is the burial place of Saint What's-his-halo, and in that crypt, What's-his-sword the Great''), the difficulty of getting to Ulcinj in Yugoslavia (``An interesting place . . . but no one ever goes there''), and the importance of a smile in Japan (``a land where everything was compact and space was at a premium''). She writes prose poems about the midnight market in Lima, Peru, and a series of lyrical pieces, ``The Moon and Malaysia,'' that flow in and out of time and space. And through it all, McElroy's marvelous sense of humor shines out and her deeply felt sense of her otherness—as an American abroad and as a black woman everywhere—colors her musings, giving them texture and depth. This is a stunning piece of writing, and a fitting summary of a life led to the fullest. Read full book review >