For the December reading selection at BHC, I decided to focus on a few poems rather than a single article. I’ve been procrastinating writing this wrap-up because I haven’t written about poetry since my first year of college—more than twenty years ago. In short, bear with me as I walk you through these titles.
The 6 poems selected ended up falling neatly into three pairs. I wish I could tell you I planned it that way from the beginning, but the truth is I got lucky. I selected poems looking for a variety of men and women, contemporary and recent and historical poetry and selections available online. By choosing that way, I ended up with the six poems grouped together like this:
• Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes (1936) + Hey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins (1974)
• Yet Do I Marvel by Countee Cullen (1925) + Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (1978)
• From Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing] by Claudia Rankine + From Citizen: “You are in the dark, in the car...” by Claudia Rankine (both 2014)
My small group of fellow travelers and I started with the pairing of Langston Hughes and Useni Eugene Perkins. In the Hughes, we remarked on the echoes of contemporary rhetoric: “Make America Great Again” rings like a hollowed-out, un-examined echo of “Let America be America again.” As a group, we lingered over the equivalence created between oppressed groups: poor whites, African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants in the stanzas that read:
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I was impressed with the economy of words used to convey the idea poor whites are divided from their own best interest by racist economic interests who divide and conquer. Hughes expresses all of that when he calls them simply, “fooled and pushed apart.”
Above all, my companions and I were struck by the contrast in the poem between the America of dreams and the one in reality. “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” This contrast grew sharper and more interesting when we next read Perkins title, “Hey Black Child,” with it’s final stanza “Hey Black Child, / Be what you can be / Learn what you must learn / Do what you can do / And tomorrow your nation will be what you want it to be.”
When held together, these two poems reminded us of the aspirational nature of this American experiment we’re all living through. We talked about how difficult reality is for the Black child addressed by the poem; how many obstacles stand between “Hey Black Child” and “you can be / What you want to be / If you try to be / what you can be.” Those obstacles, unnamed by the poet, nevertheless are present, not only through the repeated question “Do you know…” but also through the recognition of the aspiration of the final line. Just as the nation is not yet “what you want it to be,” the achievement of the titular Black Child is more complicated than the verses suggest—through no fault of that child.
The second pair of poems we read together was "Yet Do I Marvel" and "Still I Rise." I first read "Yet Do I Marvel" as a high schooler, studying the Harlem Renaissance. I recall the poem with a sense of deep sadness. In it, Cullen asserts God’s goodness, but goes on to enumerate creatures or stories that smack of unfairness, culminating in his own existence as a poet who is also Black. Cullen invokes Tantalus, the subject of a Greek myth, who must stand in a shallow pool below low hanging fruit. He is hungry and thirsty, and the fruit is always just out of his reach, and the pool’s waters recede whenever he attempts to drink. That which he desires is ever-present and ever-unattainable. It is his condition to which Cullen compares his own state when he writes,
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
Cullen’s misery with the obstacles his talents face is heart-wrenching—an outcry questioning the goodness of a God who would make him this way. It is in stark contrast to a poet forty years later who defiantly asks those obstacles “Does my sassiness upset you?” And lest her “sassiness” lead you to think Maya Angelou’s work is less serious than Countee Cullen, I would quote more of her work. The final three stanzas of the poem read:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Angelou is such a powerful response to Cullen in part because she embraces him in her defiance and her joy. Her “black ocean, leaping and wide” encompasses Cullen and his pain; She does not deny the pain of Cullen’s Tantalus, but she asserts that the pain is transformed and that it does not erase the humanity (the divinity?) within.
Our final pairing of poems were both written by the same contemporary poet, Claudia Rankine, and both can be found in Rankine’s award-winning 2014 volume, Citizen (which I highly recommend, by the way). Our little group of travelers first read "from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]." We read it out loud, each of us vocalizing a few stanzas. (Actually, we read all of the poems out loud—I like to experience poetry that way, when reading with others.) We spent a good amount of time talking through what is being described.
A person, a woman, “you” is on the train, looking for a seat. Another woman, probably a White woman, is standing on the train. This “makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one.” This other woman would rather stand than sit next to a man in the window seat. We can assume that this man is Black, or Muslim, or somehow Other. “The space next to the man is the pause in conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.” (We commented here, wondering, if, in fact, "you" have had a conversation with the woman in which she shared her fear and you upbraided her for it, or if the whole exchange is unspoken.)
That small action—sitting in an empty seat on a train—is the bulk of the “action” in this prose poem, and yet so much more happens. “You” think a great deal about the effect of the empty seat on the man sitting next to it. “The man doesn’t acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do. For him, you imagine, it is more like breath than wonder; he has had to think about it so much you wouldn’t call it thought.”
That turn of phrase struck me, and I pointed it out to my fellow travelers: “it is more like breath than wonder” the banality, the ubiquitousness of the racism that generates fear in others, that prevents strangers from sitting next to this man, is so common, it is more like breath than thought.
The character “you” try to break through that dehumanizing reality. “You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.”
By making the character “you,” by addressing the reader directly in the second person, Rankine forces readers who do not look like her—readers like me and my companions—to feel the reality she conveys. It is a powerful tactic she uses effectively throughout Citizen.
In the second poem from the volume, the constant pressure of mundane racism is expressed through a series of vignettes, again, mostly expressed in the second person, “you.” Again, my fellow travelers and I spent some time discussing what transpires in the “stories” of the vignettes (if you read as if “you” is a Black woman, the details of what transpires usually become clear).
We spent a good deal of time on 2 of the vignettes in the poem: the second one, and the final story. In the second vignette, “you” spend some time thinking about the physiological effects of racism. “you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high.”
In the midst of Rankine’s poetry (and our other selections), John Henry, the mythological Black man who, with his hammer and his strength, out-performed a steam-powered steel driver, and immediately died, seems an unfortunately apt metaphor.
Rankine closes “You are in the dark, in the car…” with a vignette that demonstrates the pervasive and traumatic nature of everyday racism. It is a powerful example of her use of the second person, and a deeply disturbing episode. I will allow her words to close this exploration of poetry from African American poets:
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.