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Journal, Day Four

By Tracie Morris


Okay, the week’s almost done and I have a confession—not a confessional poem mind you but, tell the truth, I’ve been talking about these poems I like and oftentimes they aren’t the easiest to understand. The authors often have a reputation for being off the beaten poetry path. Not because they’re so deep mind you, but because they’re obtuse, non-transparent, odd.

So far, most of the people I’ve referred to in this little journalblog have been somewhat—what’s the euphemism?—experimental. I realize this may put people off, but I have a couple of things to say to defend this choice, especially after talking about poet-ways of seeing, sharing this vision and the notion of community. My first comment about it is, quite frankly, they don’t seem that strange to me, being a bit . . . hmmm, to put this diplomatically, different myself. Another note I want to make and that I’ve referred to before, is that one is allowed, encouraged to take time to get into a poem and that’s good. One can get into an accessible poem in time too, and it can be deep. I guess that one thing we as super-consumers don’t get enough of is subtlety and time, so I wanted to encourage at least a peek into the door of non-transparency.

I also think that it’s fun to go back over stuff. And that’s probably what leads me to begin looking at slightly more unconventional work. For instance, it took a long time and multiple readings of The Raven to realize the speaker was batty! I mean, the bird comes in and says one thing, one word throughout the whole poem and this guy asks the most depressing leading questions one can think of! Now I’m not going to type the poem in this entry but it is publicly available on line and I’m sure many of you know it. Here are a couple of little sections indicating that the speaker just “is not right”:

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered ‘Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow will he leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’

‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

Okay, the bird had some great timing but still . . . I mean it took like, my 200th reading to get the batty angle. Now, as it says on the Poetry Foundation website archival page on Poe, he did develop horror and short story fiction, so even though his words are knowable and (at least some of) his points in his works are clear, he did experiment with conventional usages of text at that time. In the easily consumable and quickly bored culture of short attention span/instant gratification-ness of our hip today life, is it the worst thing to be a bit puzzled or at least question what the words are doing? The satisfaction of having a totally new (for me) read on Poe, or the consideration of Brooks, Kaufman, Rankine, Harjo and even Shakespeare (in the context used) is worth temporary frustration or the false sense of security I initially brought to the poem.

One of my favorite poems by Etheridge Knight “messes with” this presumptive sense of knowing I had as I started reading it. It’s still one of my very favorites and I teach it at all possible opportunities:

On Seeing the Black Male Being #1 Sex Object in America

There / are / Black men in the south
Of America who / are soooooooo pretty
That their beauty
Sucks in fat gulps the breath from your mouth.
In Nashville, Memphis, Jackson, Lil Rock,
In spots that / are / just dots
On the hi / way to the south and sun—
Tall, “male” men—
Wearing flashing red caps, and hats
With wide brims in bold green, grin.
Black men in the south
Of America / are / soooooooo pretty—
In bright jeans, in tight jeans, bulging;
Shining their cars,
Hanging in the bars,
Leaning on the corners
Where the snow / janes pass
Stroking the Black male asses
From behind dark glasses,—
Where the crow / janes pass – and wonder too
And stroke too and gulp too and know too—
That it / is / true:
Black men in the south
Of America / are / soooooooo pretty
That men, and women, hide
Under sheets and masks and ride
And plot under the Alabama moon
How to “cut the nut.”

At first blush, this poem looks “out there” even before you read it; you see it. But once inside the poem, there is reliance on conventional, “unsophisticated” even stereotypical language allusions to make the breath-taking (literally) point at the end of the piece. I don’t know if one would call this an ‘experimental’ poem, but it does work with unconventional-ness as well as convention.

Another poem, untitled, by Wanda Coleman in her book African Sleeping Sickness, starts with the unconventional but uses conventional language to make it effective:


she was the perfect woman
until he discovered she had a mania for flesh
he’d come in late at night. she’d be gnawing away at it
under the covers

she kept jars of it in the medicine cabinet
and when she kept telling him she had a headache
he would lay there looking up at the ceiling, knowing what
she was really doing

sometimes she’d snatch a bite in public
one day they were visiting mutual friends
she dropped her purse, it fell open. all that red
bloody black flesh on the carpet. it was embarrassing
so that night he decided to tell her that it was no good
over, finished

and as he mounted the dark stairwell leading to her living
quarters he hesitated. but no, he thought. she loves me

she had crouched behind the door, and as he walked past
she sprang

she stored some of the fresh meat in the drawer by her
typewriter. she put some chunks of it in
the bowl by the bed stand so she could
munch on it while she watched tv
she wrapped the rest of it carefully in tin foil
and stuck it in the freezer

looking into the mirror she let out something like a bark
well, she thought, i never lie to them. i always tell them
what i am. they never believe me

One of the things that encouraged me to write more experimentally myself, wasn’t a sort of desire to be “different.” It was the presentation of the extraordinary, the new vistas of the implausible in the realms we know. Poe was a tremendous influence on me meditatively: he let me feel satisfied without the happy ending. His work and Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War, freed up my nascent poetic personhood by not assuming that there had to be a neat little bow at the end of a literary piece. The poems/stories I like, and love to teach, have a resonance long after they’re done. They like “messing with us.” The experimenting that’s going on is to a certain extent with the poem but is more so with us. The poems have us go back again even if it’s to hope that what we read wasn’t really there.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, March 30th, 2006 by Tracie Morris.