Thursday, March 17, 2011

Social Studies Poetry: The Brothers' War by J. Patrick Lewis

Bibliography –
Lewis, J. Patrick. 2007. The Brothers’ War. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society. ISBN – 9781426300363.

Critical Review –
This collection of eleven American Civil War poems and photographs should be in every secondary social studies class and every secondary library looking for poetry anthologies to support the social studies curriculum. Lewis creates emotionally compelling poems and packages them in a remarkable resource on the American Civil War. Attention is given to every detail of this work. He uses authentic photographs from the Civil War era to accompany each poem. The layout colors of black on gold add to the emotional impact of the anthology. He introduces the collection with a very poignant two line poem that conveys the theme which he explains in the author’s notes section to be “glimpses of the war experience, especially its emotional side.” Poetry is the perfect vehicle to convey the emotional side of war.

Additionally, Lewis includes study aides that contribute to this work being a valuable social studies resource. He has an informative table of contents at the beginning which includes a listing of all the rich resources, such as, the poems, a map, timeline, notes on the poems, notes on photography, and a bibliography of books for beginners studying the American Civil War. In the introduction to this collection, Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the totality of disaster in numbers but still maintains a focus on individual lives touched by the war. Each page has a historical note to add perspective on each photograph and each poem. This anthology is a tremendous resource on the American Civil War for secondary students.

Besides the wealth of resources provided by this anthology, Lewis always creates poems with power points of view through imagery, dialect, dialogue, and repetition. For example in his poem, “Boys in a Brothers’ War”, he has the imagery, “stopped a Union bullet with his face.” The reader is hit in the face with emotion when reading these words. On pages 22 and 23, Lewis pairs two poems written in dialect. One is a letter from a father at home to a son in a prison camp, and the other is the return letter from the son who is in the prison camp. In the poem, “Blood of Our Fathers, Blood of Our Sons,” Lewis uses dialogue for his emotional punch when he says, “Roy whispered, ‘Father…Why?’ before he died.” Yet another example of emotional impact is in his poem, “Passing in Review,” in which Lewis uses repetition of sounds through rhyme and assonance to establish a rhythm that imitates marching or possible the beating of a heart. Each of these techniques creates the inescapable emotional impact of war. Below is a poem from this collection.

Nathaniel Gwinnett - Shrapnel Wound
by J. Patrick Lewis

My head no longer held
A thought without a doubt.
This ragged heart had swelled,
The fire was burning out.

I loved to trade on talk
But never heard the words.
They let me out to walk-
I'd fly among the birds.

My brothers rode to war
Into Confederate flak,
Their wives had known before
they'd not be riding back.

And I, who loved love most
With every fractured breath,
Was giving up the ghost
To welcome Mr. Death.

Gathering up my things,
And very like a loon
On agitated wings,
I flew against the moon.

Kid Connection –
This collection is probably best for older children in grades 5 through 12. To introduce the poem, read the historical note at the bottom of the poem as the students look at the picture on the opposite page. Then, read the poem for the students emphasizing the rhythm and rhyme. Next, have five student volunteers read the poem by stanza. Allow time for the students to discuss their reactions to the poem. Have the students explain what words or elements Lewis uses to make the poem have an emotional impact on the reader. As a follow-up, have the students use the Internet to locate a story about a soldier stationed in Afghanistan. Then, have the students write a poem about the soldier.

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