Grit and grace – traits necessary when planting and harvesting delicate fruit; similar characteristics to describe Annette Hope Billings’ third book of poetry, “Just Shy of Stars” (Spartan Press, 2017)

In this collection, you will find the familiar substance for which Annette is known. “Blueberry” is full of imagery and sensuality, reminiscent of earlier published works like “Peaches.” New poems, “Feast” and “Women Well” continue her celebration of self acceptance and acknowledgment of positive body imagery. With that said, “Just Shy of Stars” yield as a whole, is different in overall theme and tone; a distinct voice arises.

As full time writers often do, the poet is openly grappling with the content of her work. Should they continue to write agreeable work to appease the audience that helped garner their success or do they write what must be written during turbulent times for the sake of change and progress?
Annette’s decision is clear and evident. In the first poem, “A Case for Poetry” Annette reminds us that she is prepared to reap what she has sown, “A poem is content to inhabit meager space, /still it knows it can cover vast ground.” The poet is surveying the current landscape surrounding Kansans. First through the eyes of a mother searching for her slain child at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL in “Endless,” a stark reminder that hate has no boundaries.

Then looking back at 1963 Birmingham, AL and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by members of the KKK, in the poem “Black Girls, Gone” and to today with “Now What?” she presents a rebuke of 45. Annette reminds us of how far we have come, in the poem “Haiku” with the lines “They have come for us/ Tiki torches proudly lit/ this time without hoods.”

This work, in its entirety, is a (w)rite of passage – a poet firmly planting their feet in the creative landscape of Kansas. Annette is a poet whom, “when the time came for their poetry/ to be of injustice and equality”, she was willing to toil and produce. This is what you write when “hard truths plead for verse.” She not only shows us Kansas cultivates talented poets, she demands, “it must be a good place to grow black girls too.”
This book of poetry is a compelling read, but more importantly, it is a work we should be discussing. “Well and Good” makes the case for socially conscious poetry, “But, sometimes a poem is supposed to be/ a rock in the heel of your shoe/ a lash that falls into the whites of your eyes.” Annette Hope Billings’ collection of poems “Just Shy of Stars” reminds me that poetry can have purpose, as well as appeal.

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