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Black History Month, day 11

Joy and I once stayed in a great little B&B in Maryland whose rooms each had a literary theme. (We fantasize about running a place like this sometimes. We’d make it a mystery B&B, with rooms devoted to different authors and sprinkled with clues from their works. We will never do it in this lifetime, because nothing about running an inn appeals to us except brainstorming about how to decorate the rooms. I wonder where you get a Maltese Falcon?) Ours was the Langston Hughes Room: art deco furnishings, a big portrait of Hughes, and, since this is the Book Lovers’ B&B and they know rooms need books, books about Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a period I love: its music, poetry, and art. The rebirth of course points to a death and dearth that preceded it: who were the Duke Ellingtons, Langston Hugheses, and Romare Beardens of a generation earlier, whose work was never played or published or shown in a gallery?

Here are three poems from that great flowering of the 20s and 30s.

Angelina Grimke: Trees

God made them very beautiful, the trees:
He spoke and gnarled of bole or silken sleek
They grew; majestic bowed or very meek;
Huge-bodied, slim; sedate and full of glees.
And He had pleasure deep in all of these.
And to them soft and little tongues to speak
Of Him to us, He gave wherefore they seek
From dawn to dawn to bring unto our knees.
Yet here amid the wistful sounds of leaves,
A black-hued grewsome something swings and
Laughter it knew and joy in little things
Till man’s hate ended all. –And so man weaves.
And God, how slow, how very slow weaves He–
Was Christ Himself not nailed to a tree?

Countee Cullen: Incident

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Jean Toomer: Evening Song

Full moon rising on the waters of my heart,
Lakes and moon and fires,
Cloine tires,
Holding her lips apart.
Promises of slumber leaving shore to
charm the moon,
Miracle made vesper-keeps,
Cloine sleeps,
And I’ll be sleeping soon.
Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters
where the moonwaves start,
Radiant, resplendently she gleams,
Cloine dreams,
Lips pressed against my heart.

And that last one makes me have to leave my keyboard and go upstairs to look at my sleeping daughter.


Black History Month, day 10

A highlight of last fall’s church schedule was the service in which the poet Everett Hoagland spoke. I don’t think I can describe the value of his poetry better than brother UU blogger Patrick Murfin did: “I commend the essential bravery of Hoagland’s work, which connects the intimate and personal now to the vastness of a historic and global outrage . . . . This is self-knowledge on an epic scale. All of us, regardless of our origins would do well to come to such grips with the long shadows of our own histories.” (Mailbox, UU World, June 2004)

Every time I hear a poet read aloud, I remember that that’s how poetry should be read. When I forget and try to read it silently, it loses at least one dimension, maybe more like two or three. So I urge you to read these poems aloud.

At East/West Beaches

The day night was born
we searched for time and sea-
smoothed fragments of blue, green,

brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-
and woman-
made fire

and sand
made from
stone, made
from rock, made
from cosmic dust. We

fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles trans-

lucent as sucked rock
candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into

a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged
night opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
into camp

by duned scrub
beach rose. The night day
was born we turned
around and found
no footprints.


“necessary and inevitable
like the ‘inevitable’ slave past
through consciousness like the present”
—Augustino Neto, “The Path of the Stars”

Gorée ten miles off shore beckons
from the western horizon like the landscape
of the troubled dream and we sleepwalk to the ferry.

Twenty thousand-thousand gone through the Gorée trade alone
we are told.

This is a Catholic isle off a Moslem land.
This the church where truth was chained.
Here Jesus died and rose again.
The beads we say are knots of blood.
Here they force-fed us after the trek in chains.
Here men were sold by size, nubile women penned
and prized for comeliness. Mulattoes conceived here,
and their mothers, were boated back to the main-
land to buffer tides of rage. Here children’s
chains are sold as souvenirs; they anchor history
and the mind. Here they took, selected the best;
the rest: lame, old, small and sick were helped
to die.

The writing is on the stockade walls: poster sized
revolutionary rhetoric, Pan-African credos, race
pride logos, reminders, challenges and warnings
written in black by the descendants
of the survivors of the dried blood red walls
of the pastel colonial buildings’
shuttered silence.

We’ve had to come all the way
back to see poetry kill people, blind them,
cause them to cough blood and be crippled
in a French provincial palace of mind,
with a court, an overmonied ten percent
of the population, prospering lords and ladies,
fronting masks. Eighty percent of each dollar spent
on the slave factory island, on a ROOTS tee shirt
goes to France. “See Your Roots” cotton
shirts off bony backs are hawked by hungry hustlers
inside the barracoon’s walls. Bloods at its
doors trade cowry shells for your money or
urge on you a brand new djudju bag—

for fifty Central African francs.
At sunset on Gorée Island, where scavenging
brown hawks wheel above the huge metal cross
atop the island’s highest point, the volcano
sleeps silent as the broken cannon pointed there
over the Middle Passage. . . .
down a long dark corridor a doorless doorway
to the past and future opens
to the surf’s wash and soft thud on the black
boulders. The blue-eyed horizon of this eastern
shore . . .
You are your shadow silhouetted in the rectangular
frame that is the grave of time, where so much went
underground. You had to, had to, you
had to come all the way back
to the rock fortress, to the slave pens,
get down
on your hands and knees and crawl into
the stone oven of a cell
where the African rebels’ yells and defiance were kept
in solitary. Compressed by silence and circumstance
to diamond-hard blues. Completely black
inside the cell alone, one sees and hears things
clearly in the deep darkness. Overhead are heard
the voices of African-American tourists
calling their mates to, “Come look at this
Tyree. Come see this Dee. . . .” One hears a sea
of twenty thousand thousand voices at once

but also this from the shadows that always crowd
your view-finder, even in the dark:
“Do you tan? The native women are
charming. Does he take MasterCard? How
can they be so resigned? Gee, Gorée is neat fun!”
Inside the cowry shell you hold to your ear
you hear your name and heartbeat;
you finger the humming walls of the
cubicle and chip the tactile darkness
for a keepsake to put in your
djudju bag: ancient black lava rock.

You crawl out into the light
of the setting sun, face the western horizon
and, stripping as you go, hanging your watch
and jeans, western shirt and shoes on your white
shadow, you wade into
the east shore of the Middle Passage—
the hyphen between African
and American—
the surf hisses and steams off you
like water around white hot iron.
You walk out farther, level with your
heart. Farther, until the edge of life
is just over your head. You hold your
breath under water, open your eyes, clench
your fists and let the bellow bubble out
of you.
But you bound off the sand and obsidian
bottom and beat your breath back to the surface. . . .

As we board the ferry back to Dakar
the ghosts of twenty million swarm the wharf;
waifs with open palms and eyes closed by
disease and blindness, with ringworm in their
rusty dreadlocks, beg
for fifty Central African francs.

The Paris of Africa.

At sunset, the sea around Gorée is red;
it recedes revealing twenty thousand-
thousand gone and western rigs drilling
offshore for new black gold.

Later, alone in the bush, squatting
at the base of an ashy baobab, you contemplate
it all: your blue jeans,
the same old cotton, under
the same old sun,
the same old so-called “communes,”
the same old mules,
the same gaunt shadows lengthening
in the light. And how
oppression always
smells the same, looks the same, how
poverty personified is always full
of the same self
hate and hospitality.

You look at, listen to
the little whirlwinds, dust devils
swirling on the dry red road
and think of goopher,
think of vévé.
You take a twig and score
your name under a poem
you are able to read in the deep
red dust:

We are dust.

Rock is the placenta of time.
But rock can be shattered.

You cannot break dust;
it defies the hammer.
Chisels cannot carve up-

on it. Its stuff will not
make good statues of your heroes.
Heroes are made of it. Blown up?
Explosives never destroy it.
It cannot be slung or thrown.

but it can kill you.

“East/West Beaches” and “Gorée” are two in a sequence called “Homecoming,” which you can read here, where there is also a link to his books. You can hear the man himself read here:

(image in the public domain)

Black History Month, day 4

Tomorrow our service will include centering words from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American, Unitarian poet, essayist, lecturer and activist. She worked on the Underground Railroad and wrote and lectured about abolition, then, after the Civil War, lectured widely through the south to educate and inspire former slaves, as well as promoting Reconstruction. She was also very involved in women’s rights and temperance work. Just looking at her picture makes me wish I could sit in a meeting house and hear what she has to say.

Harper was also a popular novelist and poet. Her poetry is conventional for its day, which is to say it is not to my taste. Nineteenth-century popular poetry was very sentimental. But she used that sentimental format to portray the humanity of slaves: a mother’s heart breaking as she loses her child at auction, the thrilling story of an escape from slavery, etc., supplemented the rational arguments she made on the lecture circuit with the emotional appeal that might open some ears.

This, too, is a conventional lyric with a moral, but I like it:

“The Careless Word”

‘Twas but a word, a careless word,
As thistle-down it seemed as light,
It paused a moment on the air,
Then onward winged its flight.

Another lip caught up the word,
And breathed it with a haughty sneer;
It gathered weight as on it sped,
That careless word, in its career.

Then Rumor caught the flying word,
And busy Gossip gave it weight,
Until that little word became
A vehicle of angry hate.

And then that word was winged with fire,
Its mission was a thing of pain,
For soon it fell like lava-drops
Upon a wildly-tortured brain.

And then another page of life
With burning, scalding tears was blurr’d,
A load of care was heavier made,
It added weight that careless word.

That careless word, O how it scorched
A fainting, bleeding, quivering heart!
‘Twas like a hungry fire that searched
Through every tender, vital part.

How wildly throbbed that aching heart!
Deep agony its fountains stirred!
It calmed–but bitter ashes marked
The pathway of that careless word.

Poet Everett Hoagland will be speaking in the service tomorrow morning. Usually our two services are the same, but he’s going to share two different poem cycles, one at 9:30 and one at 11. We have great music that fits his themes of the cosmic journey and homecoming, and I get to enjoy the service from the vantage point of Worship Associate. Our Worship Associates give a 3-5 minute reflection.  I was brought up with poetry as one of our family’s religions, with our household gods bearing names like Shakespeare and Frost, and it’s been fun to reflect on how that has affected my religious and ethical life. I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing this poet in person.

This is hard to say, because Unitarian Universalists generally treat Thou Shalt Adore the Poetry of Mary Oliver as a commandment, except that we don’t do commandments, but I need to confess. Oh wait, we don’t do confession either. (Though we ought to. That’s for another post.)

Never mind. The point is, I think Mary Oliver is mediocre. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when the lovely images are drawing to the inevitable conclusion, the moment when Oliver says “Look” or “Listen” and then starts asking us rhetorical questions. It’s like coming to the end of a fable by Aesop.

I am not a person who believes that poems should have morals tacked on to the end. In my experience, the best poems, the ones that eventually turn my life inside out and, like Rilke’s Apollo, inform me that I must change it, are rarely the ones that tell me in plain language what I ought to do. They are more likely to make me say “huh?” I have to read them many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it. Oliver’s poems are, in a word, obvious. When she says, or implies, “Look!” I want to say, “Hey, you’re the poet. Don’t tell me to look. Just give me something to look at, something so compelling that I don’t need to be told what to do, and scoot yourself out of the way so that I can see it.”

I once came across an essay on the internet that said better than I can why she isn’t a very good poet and, damn it, is too good not to be a very good poet, but the internet being what it is, I have no idea where to find it again. It expressed my central frustration with Oliver: that someone who can evoke the experiences of the senses so well with words, who seems so perceptive and grounded, who can see the world with clarity, and yet stops short of creating really complex art, is very disappointing.

However, the failings of her poetry make it an excellent source for liturgy. In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again (though in our contemplative midweek services, we sometimes do each reading twice). They can be layered, but they also have to be very accessible. They can’t have a very big “huh?” factor. This is why I seldom use my favorite poems in services. Those require absorption; they require analysis and reflection, and many rereadings; then they take off the top of your head, to quote one of my favorite, profoundly “huh?”-inducing poets, Emily Dickinson. You often can’t get them on the first go-round. Or you might pick up something of their wisdom, but you’ll grab on to the easiest bit. Like that last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which sounds like a moral and seems easy to grasp. But having grasped it, we still need to spend more time with the poem in order to have any sense of why, how, a headless torso can see us so penetratingly that we know we must change. At least, I did. Rilke’s language is easy (a German speaker once told me it is notable for its simplicity) but his meaning is not. Spend a little time with this poem and you may see what I mean.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Of course, you can use readings in a Sunday service that will have meaning on first hearing and then also repay further reading and reflection. But those are harder to find. The poems that offer most on the surface are seldom the ones that offer much more on reflection–that are, in short, great poems. Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with “Wait, I didn’t get that bit.” They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s exactly what I need when I’m sitting in a worship service, or shaping one.

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