The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

African American PoetryI was very excited about reading this book, and it started off strong. The introduction to both the book as well as the 50 poets included in this anthology were excellent. I was completely surprised by the slave poetry, having in my mind a depiction of slavery and illiteracy going hand in hand, which was not necessarily the case in the 18th century, though it quickly became so, as ignorance is one of the greatest weapons of oppression. One thing that has always been baffling to me is the spread of Christianity among slaves. Simone Weil, visiting Portugal in the 1930’s writes:

There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.

Phillis Wheatley, one of the first authors included in this anthology and the first African American to publish a volume of literature, was kidnapped at the age of nine. She later writes this poem, titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” calling her kidnapping and subsequent enslavement, a mercy of all things, because it was the means by which she met God:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

It has always seemed both strange and beautiful to me that slaves should adopt the religion of their oppressor. That despite the brutal beatings and rapings and lynchings, as the hypocrite opens his mouth, they are captivated by the beauty of God. The suffering Jesus was true even when introduced by a liar. The God willing to enter shame, enslaved to the Father’s will, was irresistible.

Like all anthologies, I discovered some authors whose poems I loved and many I didn’t care for. The slave poetry and that of the Harlem Renaissance were my favorites. The poems in this anthology do carry a common thread, found in the subtitle to the book: 200 years of vision, struggle, power, beauty, and triumph. (Though I would say struggle and beauty were the two most pervading themes.)

From this anthology I enjoyed a renewed love for the greats: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. But I also discovered a new love for James Monroe Whitfield, Frances E.W. Harper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Robert Hayden, and Lucille Clifton, all of whom I hope to read more of, and soon.

A New Endeavor

In my last post, I wrote about how I have started writing again. No one was more surprised than myself to find poetry coming out. It was utterly unexpected, and brought with it joy unprecedented. I don’t always have the time to devote to a long piece of writing. Poetry has offered me a chance to work on a piece and actually finish it; to hold in my hands a completion- an accomplishment of a kind, no matter how small.

Writing can be such a lonely endeavor, but in the sharing of it, it becomes less so. I have found such encouragement from friends; those in my physical life, and those of you who have followed this blog. Thank you! I hope you have been able to connect to something in the poems I share.

My family and I celebrated this weekend the publication of two of my poems: Grandpa George, written about my favorite farmer, a man so connected in my mind to the earth and its fruits, that every time I see open fields he is found in them. And a different version of There’s No Hiding In a Closet, though I like the version here on the blog better- proof that I am learning the process of revision. All my thanks to Sleeping Panther Press for publishing these pieces in the 2017 Panther City Review.

I am learning as I go and trying to get better. For that reason, I have taken down some of my poems due to submission guidelines. In the future, I won’t be posting any poetry until it has reached publication or been sufficiently rejected. Either way, I can’t wait to share with you more. I am still writing, sometimes more slowly than I would like, but there is still joy in the process and rest in the room it creates inside. Thank you for being in it with me.

 

 

Attempts for Dreams: A Trade of Regret

I lost you as a game of chess
waged on a battlefield
square patches of dark and light.
In the end they blurred to gray mist.
Oh chess, my downfall!
Where any game safely played
is never won.
You, my Queen,
I surrounded with pawns
unwilling to test our limitations.
I didn’t want to know them.

You would not be risked,
not even for victory.
Never underestimate the comfort
of untried possibility.

But now, having lost so
slowly, so
inevitably
I have come to think it would have been better
losing you in a sudden stab at glory!

Irony

Dear God,
Can I wonder with you?
You fashioned my mind,
made it
pulse with curiosity,
made it
question the answers,
and yet
when I wonder I ask
not looking to know
but just wanting to journey with
another curious mind who
doesn’t have the answer.
A mind as limited as mine.
And that’s not you
is it?
Can I wonder with you?
Your answer that unchanging Yes,
but mine is No
because I don’t know how.

Booked: literature in the soul of me

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by [Prior, Karen Swallow]Dear Karen Swallow Prior,

I think, had we grown up together, we would have been friends. And I wish we had been, because then you could have let me ride your horse and introduced me to some of the great books you read, thereby pulling me away from John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks sooner. As a teen, the best literature I read was for English class, but as everyone else complained, I relished in my homework for once.

No, I didn’t enjoy them all. Grapes of Wrath, for instance, kept me napping like a champion. But when it was finally finished, I could appreciate it. You introduced me to another of this sort, because this is how I felt about Madame Bovary, though I don’t even have words for its impact on me, nor the timing of its message. I have never appreciated a story more, nor enjoyed reading it less. I bonded with you over a love for Charlotte and Jane- good, sweet, gentle Jane- a favorite heroine of mine. I was challenged by the characters of Tess and Pip, ruminating over the perplexities of their situations. You introduced me to Milton’s Aeropagitica and John Donne’s metaphysical poetry and I took a bath in them- my two greatest treasures from you.

But you shared more than books as you weaved them through the memoir of your life. You shared your own story, and I was equally pleased with that. It made me feel ordinary, in a good way- in the way of camaraderie.

Gratefully,

Kate

P.S. I’ll be reading your other book, Fierce Convictions, in October, and it can’t come fast enough.

 

There’s No Hiding in a Closet

There is a place for everyone
where you can breathe your fill,
sit in peaceful silence until
the demands of the world call you back again.
A place where you are utterly alone
but not lonely- an escape of only
minutes and seconds counting down.
Mine is found in the smallest of rooms:
the unaffected space of my closet.

For when I was young, my closet
had a treasure chest inside it,
holding my most valued things.
Then older, my closet
gave space to my solace.
I closed all the doors
on my way to just being.

But now, my closet
is where I undress.
Peel away the
hiding rags like
invisibility cloaks
til I’m bare.
Just me, as I am.
No more, and no less.

There’s no hiding in a closet.
Eight feet by eight
the borders and corners
already claimed.
Silent and still
this truth-full reflection
only feels safe
as my sole companion.

Capturing Words

I tore the boxes open with haste, because I could not wait to see in black and white the six years I have lived with my children. The idea was given to me by a high school friend’s mom. I had run into her at Blockbuster (remember those!) just weeks before we were all leaving for college. She told me she was making finishing touches on a journal she had kept for her son. She wrote him letters, from the time he was a baby until now, as he was being launched upon the world at eighteen. I stored this thought in my mind, and nine years later put it into practice. I had just come home from the doctor’s office, having watched on a flat screen against the wall the little kidney bean that was new life inside me. I watched that little bean intensely, like a seed planted that would break forth in life and beauty, as the sound of rapid heartbeat filled the room like music. I ran by Barnes and Noble on the way home to buy a journal, broke its binding at my desk, took up my pen and began my first letter to my first child.

Now seven years, two more children, and twenty-five letters later, these books arrived at my door. I hadn’t been able to keep up with hand writing all the letters, so I had moved to a digital format. The company I was using to print them is going out of business. I had to order quickly or lose all my work. They arrived, and I read through them and as I read, hundreds of forgotten memories became crisp and clear, almost tangible. I could hear my daughter’s two-year-old voice, reliving some of the most special moments of her youngest years. In that way, the books are gifts to myself as much as they are to my children, maybe even more so.

And this is one of the reasons I love to write. If I work quickly, I can capture a moment in my mind and let it spill out in language that years and years later can transport me back to that place and time. I can hear and see and feel all the things for as long as I’m able to read. I have been studying haiku….not my favorite type of poetry, but every style of writing has it’s advantages, and this one to me is like having a camera at the ready. It reads like a snapshot. I have been teaching myself to play the piano, and it is slow going. Music theory is hard enough, not to mention making my hands do what my mind is learning to read. My kids are completely satisfied with hearing “Lavender’s Blue” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Greensleeves,” but I am not. So for our ten year anniversary, my husband got us tickets to one of the Van Cliburn performances. It was beautiful and exhilarating to hear this master play Bach and Chopin. There is one image from the night that has stuck in my mind, and with a haiku I am able to take a snapshot and relive the music.

Night with Richard Goode

Ten fingers leap like
two spiders dancing ballet
across ivory keys

And Mrs. Rainey, you are a gem. You had no idea in Blockbuster that you were planting seeds in me that would bear fruit for my own children. Thank you.

Elegy to Innocence

Life doesn’t thrive in darkness
which is maybe why you feel dead.
Dark eyes in a dark room doing dark deeds.
The only light, a computer screen.
Dirty mattress on the floor,
bars over windows, locks on doors.
You wait to be seen.

Led down a staircase, tripping
over a shoelace you are
too young to tie.
You brace to meet the face
of your next admirer, knowing
it’s no use to cry.
His erected affection leaves no
room for objection.
This is subjection of the basest kind.

How to breathe? How to swallow this
air of dirt and sweat and fear?
So you close your eyes, remember:
A time where no shadows blocked the sun.
When you ran and sang, and what was that word?
Fun? Brothers, friends, mama, hens…
flash through your days of old, and then
it is over. He’s done. A tear falls, he runs.
You close your eyes, whisper:
Goodbye.

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Grandpa George

I still think of you when I taste
the tart of a fresh raspberry.
Imagine it covered in cream and sugar
until it’s so sweet you could drink it.
You left memories with all of my senses
So that I can close my eyes
and remember you with my whole body.

Tight smooth skin when I reach
the shine atop your head,
the unassuming blue
of kind eyes,
Or nuzzling in the crook
of your neck, breathing in
sweet tobacco and sweat, the
ripeness of a day’s labor.
And with my head against your chest,
the beating of a pacemaker
tapping the tune to your song
as you rock me slowly to sleep
singing “bye oh bye oh baby bye oh
bye oh bye oh baby bye”

I grow taller as you bend over
under the weight of ninety-four years.
The last time I see you, you’ve traded
your overalls for a black suit.
There are potholes in your skull
breaking smooth lines.
Your blue kindness hidden
behind closed lids.
Tobacco and sweat erased by
formaldehyde, and in the silence
I strain to hear your song, but it’s gone.
Because you’re gone.

So I repeat our last conversation,
where you told me good-bye, with a smile
I asked if you were scared, no
sad, no
ready, yes oh yes, so tired
So I pretend you lay your head in my lap
and I rock slowly,
sing you to sleep.

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Under the Willow Tree

inside-the-willow-tree

You waited for me under the willow tree
but selfishness kept me away.
Then sorrow, then fear, as everything dear
ushered me slowly, slowly, to today:
I parted the leaves, stepped into the shade
with no hope- I was there to get closure.
In the name of Freedom I’d walked my path
and it had wrecked me over and over.

I look into green flowing knots above,
strange to see from the angle of my love-
my daughter, who, happy and dry and fed,
used warm hands to draw my face to her head.
My hair fell around us, as nose touched nose,
wild spirals that, like a curtain, closed
us in together- all sound was made dim
as I kissed her features: cheek, nose, and chin.
In each other’s eyes we smiled, we dined
And the seconds, generous, took their time
to let us sing in this glad warm chorus.

Now I see- you’re here! I survey your face,
drink the green sunlight as fear is erased.
“How long” I ask, “have you waited for me?”
“You know. You see. I never left this tree.”
Both with nothing and everything to say
we remember back to the very day
twenty years ago when you made a vow
which you have kept from that day until now.
My wandering heart cannot bear the shame
of leaving you here, not taking your name.
And the wind shakes the leaves to weep with me.

“Can you take me now or has love gone cold?”
“For joy you are mine! I never lose hold-
forever I will burn white hot for you!
I am unchanging and I make it true.”
I inched in, a caterpillar, a worm
to cocoon with you in the tree, and turned
into a butterfly, a creature new-
transformed as one: you in me, I in you.
Consummated then as husband and wife,
giving your faithful, long-suffering life,
and we danced to the song of the redeemed.

Think back to it now, fifty years more gone-
lifted from my midnight into your dawn.
Love, my sunrise! Fill my life with your light!
Lead me into ever increasing height!
You, always you! You’re the head of this heart,
so we were, are, will be, never to part.
Bow my head low, let the canopy fall.
My hair forms the branches closing out all
but you- my husband- my life in that tree.
With you I am truly, endlessly, free!