By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
Doubt not
the artist and his age
(though bald as the pilled head of garlic),
married or divorced
and even vying downstage,
are both aware
that God or Caesar is the handle
to the camel’s hair.
Ye weeping monkeys of the Critics’ Circus
(colorless as malic acid in a Black Hamburg grape),
what profit it to argue at the wake
(a hurrah’s nest of food and wine
with Auld Lang Syne
to cheer the dead),
if the artist wrought
(contrary to what the black sanders said)
for Ars’,
the Cathedra’s, or the Agora’s sake?
No critic a Gran Galeoto
between the Art-lover and the work of art,
the world-self of the make-
believe becomes the swimming pool of a class,
the balsam apple
of the soul and by the soul and for the soul,
or silvered Scarahaeus glass
in which Necessity’s figuranti of innocence and guilt
mirror themselves as they pass.
If brass,
in the name
of Id or Sinai or Helicon, wakes up the trumpet,
is it to blame?
the moment’s mistone
and the milieu’s groan
sharp an unbearable ache
in the f of the age’s bone,
this pain is only the ghost of the pain
the artist endures,
—like Everyman—
The artist
a zinnia
first frost
blackens with a cloven hoof;
an eyeglass
—in the eye of a dusty wind—
to study the crosses and tangles in warp and woof;
an evergreen cherry
parasitic upon a winter sun;
a paltry thing with varicose veins
when the twelve fatigues are done.
Under the Lesbian rule of the seeress Nix,
blood and black bile
in the second of a bestiary-goat’s caprice,
the artist’s undivorceable spouse
a Delilah of Délice
a Xanthippe bereft
of sonnets from the Portuguese.
In Chronos Park
the Ars-powered Ferris wheel revolves
through golden age and dark
as historied isms rise and fall
and the purple of the doctor’s robe
(ephemeral as the flesh color of the fame flower)
is translated into the coffin’s pall.
The St. John’s agony
of the artist
in his gethsemane
without a St. John’s fire—
the Vedic god of the snaky noose discovers;
his far far cry,
like the noise of block tin,
crackles the sky:
“Wayfaring man
unneighbored by
a wayfaring tree
(though one may rue
this bark of the Moreton Bay laurel),
it is true
a something trans-Brow or cis-Brow
—or both—
wills one to the wings of the eagle,
or to the teats of the sow.
Yet, no lip need sneer to the beard of an ape of God,
‘Thou thing of no bowels, thou!’
So, I say as the Sire
who chastens and rewards,
‘Let thy blue eyes
resist white stars of red desire.’”
Like the shape of Africa,
the raison d’étre of Art is a question mark:
without the true flight of the bat,
it is a hanker in the dark.
Not as face answers face in water,
but as windows answer each other,
one viewer,
lyrical as Hafiz in his cups,
discovers a lark;
his companion,
flat as an open Gladstone bag,
spies out an ark.
The blow of a fist on the nape,
this question came from a Dog,
“What color can escape
the fluky flues in the cosmic flux?”
Perhaps the high-C answer lies
in the wreck the sea sucks
back into her bowels. Let
the Say be said:
“In Philae the color is blue;
in Deir-el-Baheri, red;
in Abydos, yellow—
and these are by the ravens fed.”
is not barrel copper easily separated
from the matrix;
it is not fresh tissues
—for microscopic study—
one may fix;
unique as the white tiger’s
pink paws and blue eyes,
leaves her lover as a Komitas
deciphering intricate Armenian neums,
with a wild surmise.
At once the ebony of his face
became moodless—bare
as the marked-off space
between the feathered areas of a cock;
then, his
spoon-shape straightened.
His glance
as sharp as a lance-
olate leaf, he said:
“It matters not a tinker’s dam
on the hither or thither side of the Acheron
how many rivers you cross
if you fail to cross the Rubicon!”
He was robbed and murdered in his flat,
and the only witness was a Hamletian rat.
But out of Black Bourgeoise came—
for John Laugart—
a bottle of Schiedam gin
and Charon’s grin
and infamy,
the Siamese twin
of fame.

Melvin Tolson, "Delta" from Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Source: "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (University Press of Virginia, 1999)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Living, Disappointment & Failure, Life Choices, The Mind, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Melvin B. Tolson


Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Disappointment & Failure, Life Choices, The Mind, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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