Monthly Archives

June 2020

BLACK LIVES IN POETRY

June 9, 2020

I don’t remember meeting or having a conversation with anyone black as I was growing up in Salt Lake City, even though I see a few African American faces in my high school yearbooks.  My friends were mostly white, but also included Greeks and Italians (considered exotic for the time and place), Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans.  What little I knew must have come from books, but I’m not sure which ones–To Kill a Mockingbird, at some point, a few others by white authors.  I was really curious to know what black lives were like, but I didn’t know where to look.  I had no sense of details, just the largest generalizations–slavery, prejudice, Jim Crow south, segregation.

I wanted to know what they wore, how the ate, how they dressed, what their houses looked like.  I think the first poem that gave me a glimpse, a little window into actual lives, was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters.”  I could picture that couple, and their little apartment.  I liked them, and wanted to know more.  Sometime later, Robert Hayden’s poems did the same, then Lucille Clifton’s filled me with joy and anguish. I went back in time: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen.  Then forward from them: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Al Young, Nikki Giovanni.

Then all the way back to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and terrible story.  She was kidnapped from her home in West Africa in about 1760,when she was eight years old, and brought to this country on a slave ship.  In Boston, John Wheatley purchased her–I can barely make myself type that–as a servant for his wife Susanna.  When they realized how intelligent she was they gave her a classical education and encouraged her to write.  She was the first African American woman to publish poems here, and her work was widely known.  Almost all of it is based on her education in western history and mythology, except for one piercing passage in a poem titled  “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.”  I think these are the only lines in her work that speak out of that moment when a stranger stole her from her life and family, and out of the unbearable pain and loss that rang through the rest of her life.  I wonder if her work would have been so popular if she’d written more of her story.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

*

In recent years there’s a dazzling range of black lives in poetry, from Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Tretheway, Elizabeth Alexander, Derek Walcott, Claudia Rankine, Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Tim Seibles, Danez Smith.  The list goes on and on and on.  Here are just a few examples.

 

THE BEAN EATERS

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Gwendolyn Brooks

*

(there is a girl inside)

 

there is a girl inside.

she is randy as a wolf.

she will not walk away

and leave these bones

to an old woman.

 

she is a green tree

in a forest of kindling.

she is a green girl

in a used poet.

 

she has waited

patient as a nun

for the second coming,

when she can break through gray hairs

into blossom

 

and her lovers will harvest

honey and thyme

and the woods will be wild

with the damn wonder of it.

 

Lucille Clifton

 

*

 

CAUCASIAN DINNER

 

(Kittery Point, Maine, 1958)

 

Mama’s rented a colonial house

a block from the ocean, in a village

where we’re the First Negroes of everything.

We’re the First Negro Family in Town,

the First Negro Children in the Town’s School.

The Baylisses live in the house next door;

their mantel has photos of dead people

in their coffins.  Uncle Ed sits all day

in their bay window with binoculars,

then comments on what we had for dinner.

Aunt Flossie asks us over for cookies.

Sometimes Mama lets me and Jennifer cook.

Tonight we made a Caucasian dinner:

cauliflower, broiled cod, and mashed potatoes.

 

Marilyn Nelson, from her memoir in poems about her childhood, How I Discovered Poetry

 

*

 

WIND IN A BOX

 

This ink.  This name.  This blood.  This blunder.

This blood.  This loss.  This lonesome wind.  This canyon.

This / twin /swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming

an inch above the carpet–.  This cry.  This mud.

This shudder.  This is where I stood by the bed,

by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.

How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?

How deep, how often have I been touched?

On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:

Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.

Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet

and incomprehensible. This ink.  This name.  This blood

in the body.  This wind in the blood.

 

Terrance Hayes

 

*

 

WHITE DOG

 

First snow—I release her into it—

I know, released, she won’t come back.

This is different from letting what,

 

already, we count as lost go. It is nothing

like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what

losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:

 

I love her.

Released, she seems for a moment as if

some part of me that, almost,

 

I wouldn’t mind

understanding better, is that

not love? She seems a part of me,

 

and then she seems entirely like what she is:

a white dog,

less white suddenly, against the snow,

 

who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,

I release her. It’s as if I release her

because I know.

 

Carl Phillips

 

*

 

summer, somewhere (first section)

 

somewhere, a sun.  below boys brown

as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

 

in the air & stay there.  boys become new

moons gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

 

-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least

spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.

 

history is what it is.  it knows what it did.

bad dog, bad blood, bad day to be a boy

 

color of a July well spent.  but here, not earth

not heaven we can’t recall our white shirts

 

turned ruby gowns.  here, there’s no language

for officer or law, no color to call white.

 

 

if snow fell, it’d fall black.  please, don’t call

us dead, call us alive someplace better.

 

we say our names when we pray.

we go out for sweets & come back.

 

 

Danez Smith

 

 

Poems of Despair

June 2, 2020

Yesterday I did a few things to try to make myself feel better while my country is on fire in the midst of a pandemic. I worked out–on facetime–with my trainer. Then I went for a walk–sunshine, blue sky, beautiful blooming things. I was listening to an early Joan Baez album, nothing political, folk songs about love gone wrong. But then she hit a few piercing high notes, and I started to weep. And there was no solace–not in the blue sky, nor the poppies nor the peonies, not in the wisteria vines nor the clematis draped over fences. There was no solace anywhere. And when I said so later to friends they all offered bits of hope–things are about to change, wait until fall, it’s bound to get better. Everything sounded like tired bromides. When I refused to be cheered one said, “Well, I’ll leave you to your despair.” And I thought, yes, please. There are times when we need to just sit with it, and with its cousins grief and helpless rage. When I read poems written in the midst of despair it’s as if an understanding stranger is sitting with me for as long as I need. Maybe some of these will do that for you. And I’d be grateful if you want to add your own suggestions.

 

#340

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

 

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

 

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

 

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Emily Dickinson

*

 

ASPEN TREE

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother’s hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Paul Celan

*

 

SHEEP IN FOG

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Sylvia Plath

*

CHARLOTTESVILLE WINTER

Tomorrow is history, lead singer of nothing;

unfurnished spirit, chair

selected from the curb–

little manual on

my desk, the oven door.

Franz Wright

*

SMALL PRAYER

Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day

May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes.

Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen,

That time may find its sound again, and cleanse

Whatever it is that a wound remembers

After the healing ends.

Weldon Kees