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So Much Depends: On the Particular, the Personal, & the Political
Last November, on election day, on a flight from New York to Chicago, I reread William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All. I planned to assign it for a graduate poetics seminar I was teaching in the spring. I’d read it two or three times over the years. It always seemed like an evasive text to me, one whose meaning was difficult to grasp. This time, however, I found it fairly easy to follow. Williams’s thesis, which he circles around and reiterates several times, is that the unique power of the imagination can “give created forms reality, actual existence.” The artist rivals nature in his godlike ability to create these forms. And poetry is better than prose because its new forms are “dealt with as a reality in itself”: “prose has to do with the fact of an emotion; poetry has to do with the dynamisation of emotion into a separate form.” The poem, then, has the potential to make emotion real—if transformed by the imagination.
But more than Williams’s premise (which I think is interesting, and true), what stuck with me—long after my plane had landed and I’d taken an Uber car home and the results of the election had come in—was this detail from one of the lineated sections:
the broken plate
glazed with a rose
Later in Spring and All we have the iconic red wheelbarrow, which is also glazed, as everyone knows, with rain water, and which, as many times as I have seen it, has never felt as vivid as, or moved me as much as, this shard of decorated pottery (overlooked in previous reads).
Plucked from the whole, it has the aura of a fragment from Ancient Greek.
I’ve been a fan of the personal detail in poems since I first read, in the mid-1970s, Anne Sexton:
. . . I am on the top deck now
holding my wallet, my cigarettes
and my car keys
at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday
in August of 1960.
“These are my eyes,” she says. We see what she sees, and somehow (well, by the unique power of the imagination) feel what she feels. Her poem (a love letter on which we are allowed to eavesdrop) moves from sadness (having parted from a lover) to hope (the nuns she imagines flying up to “the gauzy edge of paradise” at poem’s end). “2 o’clock on a Tuesday / in August of 1960.” Williams would call this “that eternal moment in which we alone live.” And would add: “life becomes actual only when it is identified with ourselves. When we name it, life exists.” Isn’t this what everyone says about Frank O’Hara. That he names what he sees—the hum-colored cabs, the workers’ sandwiches and Coca-Colas, their yellow helmets, and so on—until everything on that New York street at “12:40 of / a Thursday” in 1956, all that teeming life becomes an ode to mortality, to “that eternal moment in which we alone live.” I would call both of these poems, Sexton’s “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound” and O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them,” in which details play a crucial, accumulative role, prayers.
Williams: “There is no end of detail that is without significance.” He demonstrates this for us in part XI. He names what he sees as he speeds by in his car: an elderly man, a woman in blue, an eight-year-old boy fixated on the watch chain at the middle of the man’s stomach—
The supreme importance
of this nameless spectacle
Williams’s broken plate brings to mind these equally memorable images (all discrete poems) of things old, worn, discarded:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
a little light one
Beans too salty
& empty plastic bags
An old T-shirt
Straw sandal half sunk
in an old pond
in the sleety snow.
(Buson, trans. Robert Hass)
we are bereft.
Williams: “no ideas but in things” (he says this in Paterson). Which the red wheelbarrow in Spring and All is meant to exemplify. So much depends on the thing seen, elevated into art by the unique power of the imagination. His red wheelbarrow realer than any wheelbarrow one might encounter in reality. If you Google “red wheelbarrow,” a slew of paintings illustrating Williams’s poem come up. People have even written Williams’s lines on actual red wheelbarrows. And tattooed them on their skin.
Ed Wickliffe: “Williams meant for poetry to focus on objects rather than mere concepts, on actual things rather than abstract characteristics of things. The mention of any object creates a visualized idea in our minds—we form an image of the thing. This does not happen at the mention of abstractions, like ‘truth,’ or ‘memory.’ Abstract words do not create images in the mind. Only ‘things’ create visual images.”
Without image I am bereft. I’m reading a poem by Contemporary Poet X and it’s nothing but abstractions, like “truth” and “memory,” like “despair” and “joy.” But wait! In the middle of all this abstraction is a blue dress. It’s this blue dress, and only this blue dress, that I’ll remember.
Fragments from Ancient Greek:
(trans. Anne Carson)
A charming short
(trans. Guy Davenport)
dye of sea-purple
(trans. J.M. Edmonds)
from Ann Stanford’s poem “Libraries”:
Always being burned by vandals
of whatever name
next to the temple
browned, curled, the paint flaked off
the secrets of the gods
a black smoke only.
A president who (proudly) doesn’t read books. Overprotective parents who police what their children read. Social media watchdogs who fight intolerance with intolerance (fire with fire). When the vandals burn the libraries, when hackers down the Internet, what fragments will remain of the literature we value? What concrete details will outlast our own time?
When I think of memorable details in poems, I immediately think of Ted Berrigan’s “Cranston Near the City Line.” A childhood poem in which Berrigan remembers peering at curios in a glass cabinet:
One clear glass slipper; a slender blue single-rose vase;
one chipped glass Scottie; an eggshell teacup & saucer, tiny,
fragile, but with sturdy handle; a gazelle? the lightest pink
on the teacup, a gold circle, a line really on the saucer; gold
line curving down the handle . . .
After a descriptive first stanza, the poet makes this bold assertion:
I never told anyone what I knew. Which was that it wasn’t
for anyone else what it was for me.
As readers we already know this. At least on a subliminal level. We know that this male child is unusual because he’s mesmerized by the typically feminine objects in the cabinet, finds them beautiful. Berrigan’s language is as delicate as the things he describes (“the lightest pink flowers / on the teacup”); he lovingly caresses each bibelot as he brings it forth from memory. His eye tells us that he is different from others, that he is a nascent artist.
The poet’s father then makes an appearance in the poem (“I could see him, his / long legs, quick steps, nervous, purposeful, coming & passing”), but it is for his grandfather, Pat Dugan, that he reserves his affection (“He was so jaunty, light in his eyes and laugh lines around / them”). The grandfather swings the child and sings to him: “it was his happy song, happy with me, it was 1942 or 4, / and he was 53.” Berrigan the child experiences a moment of gaiety (earlier in the poem he is alone and “serious”) as Berrigan the adult poet (writing in the late ’70s) fixes the memory in a real place and time (Cranston, Rhode Island, during World War II) as well as “that eternal moment in which we alone live.” That moment we all can now live, thanks to the openness/ generosity of the poet.
I place Berrigan’s chipped glass Scottie on the same shelf with Williams’s broken plate in my own cabinet of poetic treasures. Treasures touched by (chipped, broken) but transcending time (via the unique power of the imagination).
The first two details in “Cranston Near the City Line” appear in another poem Berrigan wrote around the same time, “Last Poem”: “My earliest, & happiest, memories . . . involve a glass slipper & a helpless blue rose / In a slender blue single-rose vase.” The reappearance of these objects makes them almost magical, talismans that represent the poet’s soul—the cabinet of wonders forever linked with his grandfather’s enchanting singing. In “Last Poem” Berrigan also makes this haunting admission: “that other people die [is] the source / Of my great, terrible, & inarticulate one grief.” I’ve never forgotten these words since I first read them in the early ’80s. They are the key to understanding Ted Berrigan. As playful and innovative as he can be, Berrigan is essentially a tragic poet. His poems are full of death. His list poem “People Who Died” begins with the death of “Pat Dugan . . . . my grandfather . . . . throat cancer . . . . 1947.” Berrigan’s new and selected poems, So Going Around Cities (published in 1980), begins with “Poem” (“Seven thousand feet over”), a beautiful, simple, 14-line lyric—a sonnet of a different sort than Berrigan is usually known. In an airplane over “The American Midwest,” the poet declares:
My father died today. I
Fifteen hundred miles away
Left at once for home, having
received the news from my mother
In tears on the telephone.
He never rode in a plane.
Though he achieved fame as an avant-garde poet, Berrigan’s sensibilities lean, it seems to me, more often than not, toward the personal. Taking the lead from Frank O’Hara, Berrigan created a handful of personal poems (“Personal Poem #2,” “Personal Poem #7,” etc.) chock-full of intimate details: time, place, and date (“It’s 8:54 a.m. in Brooklyn it’s the 26th of July”); poems he’s reading (“Paterson, parts / 1 & 2, poems by Wallace Stevens & How Much Longer / Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine Sepulchre / (John Ashbery)”); drugs he’s taking (Berrigan was frank about his pill addiction); what he’s eating and drinking (English muffins and Pepsi); the names of the friends that are on his mind (Ron, Pat, Dick, Bernie, Tom, Tony). Taking the lead from Gary Snyder, Berrigan crafted a handful of “things to do” poems—“Things to Do in Providence,” “Things to Do on Speed,” etc.—that engender a similar sense of immediacy. As does Train Ride, a documentary-style travelogue in which Berrigan lists the states, countries, and places where he’s had sex; accounts for money spent ($1.75 for a “terrible” hamburger, 35¢ for a Pepsi); and rags on his friends (Ron is “the tight-ass,” Bill “the spoiled snoot,” and so forth). These poems are always exciting because they always feel so real.
“I live here,” says Berrigan. That is, in the poem.
Once, at a dinner with a group of poets, Contemporary Poet Y put down Berrigan: “Everything but The Sonnets is garbage.” I disagreed, said that I preferred the personal, more vulnerable poems to the experimental/disjunctive work. Alice Notley, introducing an edition of The Sonnets, says that the fragmented nature of Berrigan’s sonnets “in this age seem[s] more like life than a bald story does.” I like The Sonnets, have read and taught it several times. It affords numerous pleasures. Berrigan’s cut-up technique has always reminded me of an interactive book I had as a child, where you could flip horizontal panels (eyes, nose, mouth) to create hundreds of different faces. But for me, the personal story, told directly and honestly, and of course artfully, seems more like life. “Cranston Near the City Line” is a perfect example of this type of poem. A heartfelt sincerity undercuts what elsewhere in Berrigan we might call irony or postmodern maneuvers (to evade exposure). But I contend that in general Berrigan wears his heart on the page.
Surrounded by your
scarf, tonight, how can I
ever be other
than personal poet? Your
It is the thing—the purple scarf—that makes the poet’s emotion real for us.
Not many poetry readers would think to equate Ted Berrigan with Anne Sexton. Beyond the surface labels (New York School poet, Confessional poet), I see similarities. They are both tragic poets. Neither was able to reconcile the fact of death. “Not to die, not to die,” says Sexton. Her poems are full of death. Unable to believe in God, she sought salvation in her art: “the typewriter that is my church / with an altar of keys always waiting.” Berrigan: “Love, & work, / Were my great happinesses.” (I see no evidence of spirituality in Berrigan’s poems; he comes across as utterly immersed in life.) Like Berrigan, Sexton is frank about her pill addiction (see “The Addict”). And they are both deeply personal poets, albeit Sexton obviously in a more consistent and deliberate way. Her self is her great subject. Even her retellings of Grimm fairy tales are autobiographical, possibly more so than her “usual” poems, as the safe mask of storyteller allowed her fiercest issues to break through.
Sexton’s ars poetica (“my kitchen, your kitchen, / my face, your face”) is akin to Williams’s “classic caress of author and reader.” “We are one,” he says at the beginning of Spring and All, “Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also ‘you’.”
I could talk at length about any number of Sexton poems as embodiments of the personal. A poem that has special significance for me, that I’ve never heard anyone mention, is “Christmas Eve” (from Sexton’s third book, Live or Die). Written on Christmas Eve 1963, the poem captures the essence of Sexton’s troubled relationship with her deceased mother. The first line cuts to the heart of the matter: “Oh sharp diamond, my mother!” The mother is hard-edged and cold, like one of the jewels on her fingers. Her portrait presides over a Christmas gathering of the family clan: her three aging daughters (Sexton had two older sisters) and twelve grandchildren. Each daughter avoids looking at the portrait. Finally, Sexton is alone:
Later, after the party,
after the house went to bed,
I sat up drinking the Christmas brandy,
watching your picture,
letting the tree move in and out of focus.
The bulbs vibrated.
They were a halo over your forehead.
Then they were a beehive,
blue, yellow, green, red;
each with its own juice, each hot and alive
stinging your face. But you did not move.
I continued to watch, forcing myself,
waiting, inexhaustible, thirty-five.
It can be difficult to come to terms with feelings about a parent, especially after they are dead. Sexton, drunk and middle-aged, is stuck with a fraught legacy. The Christmas tree lights actively symbolize her conflicted feelings: one moment they form a halo over her mother’s head (Sexton’s mother’s name was Mary), the next moment they mass into a swarm of stinging bees. She studies the portrait for hours (is she composing the poem as she does so?), until daybreak casts light on her mother’s image: “I saw you as you were.” This leads to savagery: “I thought of your body / as one thinks of murder . . .” The final stanza lapses into pathos: Sexton begs forgiveness for thinking such a thing, desperately thrashes about on the floor, touching a present for her own daughter, touching her breast as if “it were one of yours.” Sexton’s mother, who died of breast cancer, had attributed her illness to Sexton’s breakdown. From an earlier Sexton poem: “I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said. / And she never could.” Eleven years after writing “Christmas Eve,” when she killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning, Sexton was wearing her mother’s fur coat.
Historical context: Sexton wrote “Christmas Eve” just one month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Proof, as her detractors insisted, that she was self-obsessed? (Aren’t all poets self-obsessed?) Sexton seldom gets credit for writing such groundbreaking poems as “The Abortion,” “Menstruation at Forty,” and “In Celebration of My Uterus.” “America, / where are your credentials?” she asks in “The Firebombers.” I’d hardly call her non-political. And then there’s “The Assassin” (almost a decade after JFK’s death):
. . . with this gun
I take in hand the newspapers and
with my heat I will take him.
He will bend down toward me
and his veins will tumble out
like children . . . Give me
his flag and his eye.
Regardless, you can’t tell an artist what to write. It has been said of Emily Dickinson (by Thomas H. Johnson) that her “identification with issues of the day was slight throughout her life.” Yet she is more relevant today than most of the poets of her time. “Opinion is a flitting thing,” she wrote, “But Truth, outlasts the Sun –”
Dickinson also wrote (in a letter): “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person.” Shades of It’s not me, it’s the speaker so often heard in our workshops. Dickinson was a master of deflection. Having read all of her poems, I would say that this is not always the case. Dickinson frequently comes through as herself.
I rarely celebrate Christmas anymore. It has become a custom, however, to read Sexton’s “Christmas Eve” on Christmas Eve. I’ve done this for years. I find it comforting. To sit with her in her living room, everyone else in the house asleep, contemplating her dead mother, whose portrait is alive with the glow of Christmas lights, haunted by unresolved feelings about a relationship she will never be able to heal. I have managed (by some miracle of self-actualization and grace) to heal such primary relationships in my own life. But I like going back to that limbo-like place, that locus of emotional imprisonment, intensified always by the forced spirit of holiday cheer. It’s like looking at a photograph of my younger self, a self that has yet to find the way out. I have compassion for Sexton. Despite therapy, despite writing, despite adulation and fame, she never found the right tools with which to save herself.
Further Personal Reading
Elizabeth Bishop, “Electrical Storm”
Elizabeth, Lota, and their cat Tobias experience a Brazilian thunderstorm. “One pink flash; / then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.” Bishop’s image of the hail—“diplomats’ wives’ favors / from an old moon party”—is to die for.
Joe Brainard, “Some Train Notes”
The inspiration for Berrigan’s Train Ride. There is no end of detail that is without significance. “That house still has its Christmas decorations up.” “The snow is so blue today in the shadow parts.”
Raymond Carver, “My Dad’s Wallet”
A parent’s journey after death. The power of the metaphorical object: “All the life had gone out of that wallet. / It was old and rent and soiled. / But it was my dad’s wallet.”
Wanda Coleman, “Susannah Your Smallness & Cedar Hair”
Coleman’s last visit with her friend Susannah Foster, dying in the hospital. The poem as brief as the visit, and as poignant. Coleman’s signature use of all lowercase letters is in this instance most effective:
“i stood by helpless”
Emily Dickinson, “Within my Garden, rides a Bird”
ED and her dog Carlo encounter a hummingbird.
Tim Dlugos, “D.O.A.”
Dlugos’s real last poem (Berrigan’s “Last Poem” wasn’t). Dlugos, who is dying of AIDS, likens his condition to his favorite film noir, D.O.A.: “I can’t stop watching, / can’t stop relating”:
Somewhere in a dark bar
years ago, I picked up “luminous
poisoning.” My eyes glowed
as I sipped my drink. After that,
there was no cure, no turning back.
How it feels to walk among the living as if he were already dead.
Kimiko Hahn, “Where Can You Taste the Mother’s Fragrance?”
In things, naturally. This list poem reclaims the mother’s living presence through concrete scent memories: “rice vinegar / Wrigley’s gum—white wrapper / inside a leather handbag . . . Dial soap . . . cold cream”
Ted Hughes, “Robbing Myself”
Hughes disliked Williams, but here he proves his point. “In the blue December twilight,” he returns to the house he shared with Sylvia Plath, which comes to life as his eyes pour over their things:
The front room, our crimson chamber,
With our white-painted bookshelves, our patient books,
The rickety walnut desk I paid six pounds for,
The horse-hair Victorian chair I got for five shillings
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The house made newly precious to me
By your last lonely weeks there, and your crying.
Sylvia Plath, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”
“Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place / Separated from my house by a row of headstones.” The place is Plath’s actual property, Court Green, in Devon, England. She defines her idea of God through that environment.
James Schuyler, “A Blue Towel”
So much depends on the blue towel Schuyler and his lover take to the beach with them. It becomes a symbol of fleeting contentment: “why are not all days like / you?” In loving detail, Schuyler chronicles each moment of their time together:
You wore blue
trunks, and took off a
striped Roman shirt and kicked
off Gucci loafers (and you
think I’m hard on clothes).
We lay and watched and
Ann Stanford, “On the Way”
A day-after-Christmas walk poem: “I go down the hill. Things glisten. The clouds / Are clean-edged on painted blue . . . I pass Gogian’s Tire Honesty and the tracks / Where I have never seen a train . . . Three men are coming home from the moon.”
May Swenson, “Water Picture”
A workshop classic from the old days, “Water Picture” is a tour de force of imaginative transformation. Swenson details the upside-down scene she sees reflected in a park pond: “A flag / wags like a fishhook / down there in the sky.”
William Carlos Williams, “The Thinker”
WCW applies his red wheelbarrow theory to his wife’s new pink slippers and their gay pompons. “I talk to them / in my secret mind / out of pure happiness.”
Plath: “I live here.” That is, in the poem.
Denise Levertov is a poet that I respect and admire. Her poems can be mythic (“A Tree Telling of Orpheus”), personal (“From the Roof”), and political (“Life at War”). She was committed to “articulating the dreads and horrors of our time . . . in order to make readers understand what is happening, really understand it, not just know about it but feel it . . .” She was equally committed to articulating, for the same reason (to elicit readers’ identification), intimate human moments of tenderness, anguish, desire, outrage, and bliss. In an early 1980s essay, she discusses her dedication to political subject matter in a way that was unusual for the time: “It has been said that the personal is political. I’m not always sure what that means.” For Levertov, the opposite made more sense: “when I feel the political/social issues personally . . . I’m moved to write of them, in just the same spirit of quest, of talking to myself in quest of revelation or illumination, that is a motivating force for more obviously ‘personal’ poems.” She also felt obligated to act against “the great miseries” that political poems record.
It has been said that the personal is political. I’m not always sure what that means. These words surprised me. What’s not to understand? A woman writing about being raped, for instance. Or having an abortion. A gay man writing about his sexuality. Or dying of AIDS. A black poet writing about being marginalized because of the color of his or her skin.
I said Levertov’s poems can be personal. Yes, but not too personal. In a later essay (“Biography and the Poet”), she takes umbrage at poets who, in her opinion, have taken the autobiographical impulse too far. She denounces “the egotism of writers who assume the reader wants to know that . . . a sibling once deliberately pissed on them” (a potshot at Sharon Olds’s poem “The Takers”). As for the victims of “racism, rape, torture, incest, and other abuses and crimes,” Levertov allows that the “breaking of silence” may bring relief to the author and “[s]ome degree of liberation” to a reader who has suffered similar “acts of oppression and cruelty,” but appears dubious as to whether such disclosures are, ultimately, beneficial. Poems of this type must not “partake of the gratuitous and self-important.” Only those of “high integrity,” she says, should be published. Here she exhibits an aesthetically conservative (and even moralistic) streak that perhaps was there, under the surface, all along.
How many poets really put their selves on the line? Once you identify the poets who do, it’s easy to identify the poets who don’t. Williams vs. Stevens. Sexton vs. Lowell. Schuyler vs. Ashbery. Olds vs. Levertov.
Levertov: “Biographically speaking, Williams reveals almost as little as Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot.” I wrote in the margin: “It doesn’t feel like it.”
Eventually the life of the artist becomes inseparable from the work. How many poets resist this concept, deny this fact, while they are alive. After death the life becomes a lens through which we view the art. It helps to understand, give context, explain what otherwise might remain obscure. Obscurity for its own sake is the utmost deflection.
Ange Mlinko: “. . . for any poet worth his or her salt, the life is in the work.”
William Logan: “What are poets without their lives?”
One of Levertov’s most political poems, “The Day the Audience Walked Out on Me, and Why,” is also one of her most personal (or is it the other way around). Like Sexton and O’Hara and Berrigan, she situates us in time and place: “May 8th, 1970, Goucher College, Maryland.” Levertov is undeniably the speaker, the “me” of the title. She is reading poems in the college chapel as part of a memorial service for the students who were shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University four days earlier. After reciting two political poems (“Life at War” and “What Were They Like?”), Levertov addresses the audience:
. . . let us be sure we know
our gathering is a mockery unless
we remember also
the black students shot at Orangeburg two years ago,
and Fred Hampton murdered in his bed
by the police only months ago.
As she speaks, members of the audience (“girls, older women, a few men”) begin to get up and exit the chapel. Levertov persists, encouraging them to turn their mourning into action, “actions of militant resistance.” When the pews are nearly empty, a man stands up and says that her words have “desecrated a holy place.”
And a few days later
when some more students (black) were shot
at Jackson, Mississippi,
no one desecrated the white folks’ chapel,
because no memorial service was held.
The poem—a powerful condemnation of the racial double-standard, as well as religious hypocrisy, displayed by the crowd—speaks for itself. There’s nothing to interpret; it need only be experienced. How can we not get angry on Levertov’s behalf. We feel the affront, her indignation, the heat of activism clashing with intolerance. And the immediacy of the historical moment (which feels chillingly close to the present). The poem is unsparingly direct. It is what Notley would call “a bald story.” “Like this it happened,” Levertov announces in the first line. And proceeds factually. Her emotion is transmitted through the narrative, embedded in the specific. The reader is put right there; we share her point of view.
so where is true history written
except in the poems?
When I think of personal-political poems, I immediately think of Wanda Coleman’s “Coffee.” I think of Essex Hemphill’s “Family Jewels.” And Audre Lorde’s “Every Traveler Has One Vermont Poem.” All three of these poems were written by African-American poets, and are about race. I keep copies of them in a file of what I’d call “essential” poems. Other poems in this file include:
Walta Borawski’s “The Gentleman and the Lady in Me”
Melvin Dixon’s “Aunt Ida pieces a quilt”
Denise Levertov’s “Living”
Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937”
Stan Rice’s “Twelve”
Adrienne Rich’s “Prospective Immigrants Please Note”
Delmore Schwartz’s “Baudelaire”
May Swenson’s “How to Be Old”
These are poems that had such an impact when I first read them, I’ve never, in the decades since, let them stray very far from me. I’ve xeroxed them countless times. Shared and discussed them with students. Reached for them when I was feeling at odds with life and needed some solace (even though what they express is often unsettling). They continue to inform me (as in Pound’s “news that stays news”); they help me to live; they soothe.
I initially read Wanda Coleman’s “Coffee” in the late ’70s (it’s in her collection Mad Dog Black Lady). An adult speaker (I assume it’s the poet, as her work is unmistakably autobiographical) is drinking coffee at night in a “cold empty room as wide as my throat.” The steam from the coffee triggers a childhood memory of her Aunt Ora, who would make coffee in a “big tin percolator” in her kitchen and serve it to the speaker and other children in “thick / white fist-sized mugs” with “lots of sugar and milk.” The children “loved it better than chocolate.” The speaker’s fond memory is disrupted by the (remembered) intrusion of a neighbor’s comment about coffee:
. . . the neighbor woman used to tell [Aunt Ora] and us
it wasn’t good for young colored children
to drink. it made you get blacker
The poem abruptly ends there; we’re meant to feel the ending like a slap in the face. The neighbor’s trepidation potentially spoils the children’s enjoyment and makes them self-conscious about their skin color. The fact that the poem is (an unlucky) thirteen lines serves to reinforce the woman’s superstition. The details deliberately contrast black with white: the coffee is served in “thick / white fist-sized mugs” (which sounds threatening) and is lightened by “lots of sugar and milk.” Coleman turns a seemingly innocuous scene, a pleasant childhood association, on its head and leaves us holding a loaded topic: internalized racism. Her theme is specific to race and, at the same time, universal. It pertains to us all: how our beliefs are shaped by messages we receive in childhood; how we carry certain notions, usually negative, with us our whole lives. That Coleman’s adult speaker finds comfort in a cup of coffee (“steam rises over my nose / against this night”) suggests that she sees the neighbor’s remark for what it is, and that she embraces her identity as a black woman in a culture that teaches suspicion and distrust of its “blacker / and blacker” citizens.
I met Wanda Coleman in the Los Angeles poetry scene in the early ’80s. She had a fierce, intimidating persona, but could be warm one-on-one. We read together several times (at group readings), and I invited her to read at Rutgers in the late ’90s when I was teaching there. She died in 2013. In 2010, when I was a guest faculty member at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Akilah Oliver (who would die the following year) and I talked about Wanda. Akilah said that Wanda was bitter about her career as a poet, felt she hadn’t received the recognition she deserved. In my eyes, Wanda was extremely successful: widely known, well published, prestigious awards. There was no one else like her.
Essex Hemphill’s “Family Jewels” is dedicated to the city of Washington, D.C. The speaker (I assume it’s the poet, as Hemphill tended to write autobiographically) is trying to hail a cab to take him to dinner at his mother’s house in Southeast, where Hemphill was raised. Southeast, a predominantly black quadrant of Washington, D.C. known for its high crime rate, is bisected by the Anacostia River. “I’m not pointing to Zimbabwe,” the speaker says sarcastically, “I’m not ashamed to cross / the bridge that takes me there.” Then:
No matter where I live
or what I wear
the cabs speed by.
Or they suddenly brake
a few feet away
spewing fumes in my face
to serve a fair-skinned fare.
Impatient and angry at being discriminated against, the speaker mockingly describes himself as he imagines the cab drivers see him: first he’s a “criminal,” then “a weird-looking / muthafucka,” then a hulking, growling monster with “[s]haggy green hair” and “blood drip[ping] from my glinting fangs.” As headlights continue to flash past him, he grumbles:
My mother’s flowers are wilting
while I wait.
is cold by now.
The poem is punctuated by a changing refrain that holds Washington, D.C. (as the seat of government, and by extension the nation) accountable for the injustice the speaker is experiencing: “I live in a town / where…” In the first stanza, he sees the city as “bewitched / by mirrors, horoscopes, / and corruption.” Vanity, superstition, and chicanery rule the day. (“Horoscopes” could be a dig at Ronald Reagan, President of the United States throughout the ’80s, who, along with his wife Nancy, was deeply interested in astrology.) The fourth (and center) stanza implicates everybody in the problem: “I live in a town / where everyone is afraid / of the dark.” Hemphill acknowledges his vulnerability:
I stand my ground unarmed
facing a mounting disrespect,
a diminishing patience,
a need for defense.
In the final stanza, “corruption” is replaced by “blood”: “I live in a
town . . . bewitched / by mirrors, horoscopes, / and blood.” Blood is family background, one’s lineage. It refers us back to the title, “Family Jewels.” The speaker, as a black man, has inherited a town (and a country) under the spell of racism and “devices of cruelty.” This rightfully fuels his indignation.
Essex Hemphill was a fine poet, and an activist, whose work addressed concerns crucial to the African-American and LGBT communities. He died of AIDS in 1995. I never met him, though our work appeared in some of the same publications, and I reviewed his book Ceremonies for The Village Voice Literary Supplement when it came out in 1992. Ceremonies is, unfortunately, currently out of print. This is a pity. His poems retain their power, and remain relevant to current political conversations. I was going to say that his work can be found in Philip Clark and David Groff’s 2009 anthology Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, but see that it, too, is out of print.
Like “Family Jewels,” Audre Lorde’s “Every Traveler Has One Vermont Poem” depicts an overt instance of racism. Instead of a hostile urban setting, Lorde places us in the rural New England countryside. Traveling home on Route 91 in autumn, the speaker notices that, after only two nights of frost, the hills are beginning to turn from green to brown. She is “astonished” by the freshness of the morning. She sees “[s]pikes of lavender aster” and “sneeze-weed and ox-eye daisies / not caring I am a stranger / making a living choice.” These lines produce a double meaning; they imply that nature is unbiased and treats all people (strangers) equally, and that the speaker feels free and empowered in the moment: she is choosing to travel wherever she wishes. We’re then hit with the last stanza:
Tanned boys I do not know
on their first proud harvest
wave from their father’s tractor
one smiles as we drive past
the other hollers
into cropped and fragrant air.
It is a devastating ending. The expletive shatters the tranquility of the fall morning. Lorde deftly, in three brief stanzas, replicates (to again echo Williams) “that eternal moment in which we alone live.” She puts us in the car with her, shows us the landscape she sees, draws us into what she is feeling. Who among us does not wish to move freely in the world, to conduct their lives as a series of living (i.e., aware) choices. The scene instantly turns, like those autumn hills, from peaceful to vile. One of the boys smiles, indicating that open-heartedness and bigotry can exist within a single family. Hopeful, perhaps, but on the poem’s terms irrelevant. Ugliness gets in the last word. The poem successfully wounds us into outrage, into empathy.
Lorde may well be speaking as herself here, and just as important, the speaker is (as her title tells us) every traveler. Each of us has one Vermont poem. We’ve all been called names for being different from others. Different skin color, different sexual preference, different clothes, different mannerisms, different background, different weight, different hair length, different neighborhood, different opinions, different nationality, different religion. Because we wear glasses. Because we lisp. Because we’re left-handed. Because we’d rather read a book than get tackled in football.
Dickinson: “To be singular under plural circumstances, is a becoming heroism –”
Toward the end of her life, when she was battling cancer, Audre Lorde adopted the African name Gamba Adisa, which means “she who makes her meaning clear.”
Many poets seem to think that by trafficking in abstractions—“love” and “hope,” “grief” and “justice,” “joy” and “despair”—they will reach the largest possible audience, that more people will relate to what they’re saying, grasp a universal truth. But in fact the opposite is true. Levertov wrote that “it is fatal to go in deliberate search of universality—that way only pomposity lies.” Williams felt the answer was “[i]n details. Microscopically.” In Spring and All, he says it is “the feeling of reality” we obtain from a work of art that enables us to place “a value upon experience.” Abstractions only water down our sense of the real. Williams also admits: “I think often of my earlier work and what it has cost me not to have been clear.”
Tags: Alcman, Alice Notley, Anacreon, Ange Mlinko, Ann Stanford, Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, Denise Levertov, Ed Wickliffe, Elise Cowen, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Essex Hemphill, Frank O'Hara, Guy Davenport, J.M. Edmonds, Jack Kerouac, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, John Wieners, Kimiko Hahn, Lorine Niedecker, May Swenson, National Poetry Month 2017, Raymond Carver, Sappho, Sylvia Plath, Ted Berrigan, Ted Hughes, Tim Dlugos, Wanda Coleman, William Carlos Williams, William Logan
Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 3rd, 2017 by David Trinidad.