After the Night Years: On "The Sun Came" by Etheridge Knight and "Truth" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our pennsoundarchivewriting.upenn.edu/pennsound. Today, I’m joined here in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers House in our third floor garret studio by Josephine Park, a colleague here at Penn, director of Asian American studies, who’s book Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics reads a history of American literary alliances with East Asia from Walt Whitman to Myung Mi Kim. And Herman Beavers, long time colleague here at Penn, dear friend of The Writer’s House, who teaches a poetry workshop, is a professor of English and Africana studies, author of Wrestling Angles into Song and A Neighborhood of Feeling, who’s poems have been published also in Callaloo, Crossconnect, and elsewhere. And by Tracie Morris, multi-disciplinary poet, who’s work in theatre, dance, music and film, who’s known as a musical poet, has toured and performed world wide and who’s great PennSound page includes a recording of among other things, her sampling based Cubistic voicing of stentorian Afro-Shakespearean, a piece called “It All Started” which I’d happily recommend to everyone. Welcome back all three of you to The Writer’s House. Welcome Tracie, thanks for making the trip down from New York.
Tracie Morris: Always happy to be here.
Al Filreis: Glad you are. And Jo, thanks and welcome to Pome Talk for the first time.
Josephine Park: Thanks Al.
Al Filreis: And Herm, pal, it’s great to see you.
Herman Beavers: Great to be here.
Al Filreis: Today our poem is Etheridge Knight’s “The Sun Came”, which was written as a direct response to a poem called “Truth” by Gwendolyn Brooks. The text of “The Sun Came” can be found most easily in The Essential Etheridge Knight. The PennSound recording of Knight’s poem comes from a 1986 reading that in fact was introduced by Gwendolyn Brooks. In her preparatory remarks, Brooks mentions and quotes from our poem, so we’re going to listen to the introduction before we hear Knight performing the poem. Here now is Gwendolyn Brooks and then Etheridge Knight.
Gwendolyn Brooks: Etheridge Knight is perceptive. His vision is merciless. He spares himself nothing and he spares you nothing. Etheridge I wish, I say here, I could order your entire program. Don’t let us lack hard rock. Don’t let us lack the heart catching odd beauty, the nourishing heartbreak of the idea of ancestry. Long ago, I wrote a little poem called “Truth” identifying truth as sunshine. The opening two lines of which were “And if sun comes, how shall we greet him?”. Well, Etheridge replied to that. “The sun came Ms Brooks, after all the night years. He came spitting fire form his lips. And we flipped, we goofed the whole thing. It looks like our ears were not equipped for the fierce hammering”. Will you forgive me Etheridge for reading that much of it? If you choose, you can read the rest of it. I’d like to read it all, but that would be too cruel. Many many visions visited your cell, Etheridge Knight. And they educated you, they vaulted you. Come here and open your mouth.
(LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE)
Etheridge Knight: The Sun Came
The sun came, Miss Brooks,—
After all the night years.
He came spitting fire from his lips.
And we flipped—We goofed the whole thing.
It looks like our ears were not equipped
For the fierce hammering.
And now the Sun has gone, has bled red,
Weeping behind the hills.
Again the night shadows form.
But beneath the placid face a storm rages.
The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain't like before.
The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
(Though ain't no vision visited my cell.)
Al Filreis: Those are two voices … I wonder if anybody wants to start by saying something about Etheridge Knight’s voice. I assume it helps a lot to hear him perform. Herm?
Herman Beavers: This is not the first time I’ve heard Etheridge Knight read, but I’m always struck by … there’s a lot of living packed into his voice. It comes through very clearly.
Al Filreis: Jo, what do you think about the voice? Either of the voices?
Josephine Park: I was so struck by how you could hear the rhythm of the poem obviously, but when I read “The Sun Came Up”, I was so struck, there’s this iambic pentameter in the middle of it. “The rays of Red have pierced the deep”. The way he read that, it really captured that rhythm.
Al Filreis: Tracie, we get the privilege of hearing Gwendolyn Brooks read the first line. She reads it more as a rejoinder to herself; “The sun came, Ms Brooks”. And he reads it a little straighter I think.
Tracie Morris: Yeah, he reads it a little more like a lament. It’s such a beautiful contrast. She still has this instructional tone. She always has a very authoritative tone, and you think of somebody with a Jo Williams voice of poetry like Etheridge Knight, and a relationship with Ms Gwendolyn Brooks, it’s teacher and student. I just loved hearing the relationship they had in their voices. She never relinquishes her authoritative voice, her old school, I’ve had black teachers when I grew up type of voice.
Al Filreis: What’s the last line of her introduction? “Come here and open your mouth”. That’s an imperative.
Tracie Morris: It actually segues into something I want to say about the religiosity of both of these poems. He’s talking about Malcolm as Jesus Christ here, and that’s what she’s invoking him to do, speak about Jesus.
Al Filreis: Interesting. Let’s go back just for a second and look at some language of “The Sun Came”. At a certain point, I’m going to invite Herman Beavers to actually read the Brooks poem so we have that in play as well. What do you think he means by “And we flipped—we goofed the whole thing”. Goofed? What is goofed?
Herman Beavers: I think it’s a double entendre. On the one hand, “goofed” means a mistake. But I’ve seen this word in other Knight poems, and in other Knight poems it means you don’t take it seriously, you are putting on, you are signifying, you are performing a role. So that really ramps up the poem at that point, because part of what I interpret that as saying at that point in the poem is, we weren’t prepared to take that seriously so we took on roles in order to put on the appearance of understanding what was being said to us, but we really didn’t understand. Therein lies our mistake.
Tracie Morris: I also think there’s the term flipped, especially for people who’ve been incarcerated has an entendre of betrayal. There’s a connotation of betrayal, we betrayed his message, we did not take care of him, we did not look after him also segues into the idea of betraying the son of God. That’s another reason why I think there’s this articulation of we didn’t know who we had until we lost him, or we didn’t appreciate who we had until he sacrificed himself for our sin.
Al Filreis: Herman Beavers, would you like to read to read the Gwendolyn Brooks poem? It’s called “Truth”.
Herman Beavers: Yes I would, thank you for doing that.
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.
Al Filreis: Jo, you take the first crack at this. What is Etheridge Knight saying in response? Is he saying yes, yes, and here I have something more to say? Or is he making a argument of any kind?
Josephine Park: It’s so interesting, in the Brooks poem it’s a personification of sun, of truth as sun. But in a way it gets more impersonal by the end of the poem. “The dark hangs heavily over the eyes”. But then you get with “The Sun Came” you get this intensely personal response, this interpersonal response with “Ms Brooks” and the dialogue between them, and I think that also ends with this distance, the eyes, and the ear that comes roaring in in Etheridge Knight’s poem. In contrast to that moving impersonality, in “The Sun Came” we go into his cell, into the interior in that small world that he had.
Al Filreis: Which we don’t know about until the very end of the poem, which is I think something we’re going to have to wrestle with.
Etheridge Knight: The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain't like before.
The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
(Though ain't no vision visited my cell.)
Tracie Morris: It’s kind of hard to overstate the impact of Malcolm X in the black imagination, in the black consciousness, and his significance. I think Etheridge Knight is articulating that, the formidability of that, especially for somebody in prison. He wrote a lot of poems about Malcolm X, and he emphasized the danger inherent in Malcolm as well as the danger around him. He always talked about red, his nickname was Detroit Red, but he talked about his red red beard. He talked about Malcolm X a lot in the context of redness. I think the excruciating loss and the stillness of thinking about that loss in prison, like in his haiku poem when he says “The wire fence is tall, the lights in the tower flick off one by one”. It’s like this perpetual night for Etheridge Knight, but then he saw the sun. But it didn’t get to him, it didn’t reach his cell.
Al Filreis: Overall, I would say Malcolm is associated with the potential of light, liberation from dark to light, but in the poem when you look at it you realize that Malcolm is associated with the night of steepnesses and the shadows.
Tracie Morris: I’m glad you brought that up, because it really struck me with the recording how he said Malcolm’s name.
Al Filreis: How did he say it?
Tracie Morris: “Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm”.
Al Filreis: I’m hearing puns all over the place. First of all, Knight / night is a definite pun, this is a night poem. Also, Malcolm. And if sun comes, he came, Mal-come.
Tracie Morris: Absolutely. In addition to Malcolm the pun on come with the last part of his name. It’s also the way that he says “mal” like something wicked. It’s not that that’s Malcolm is the wicked part, but that the wickedness is around him. Here’s Malcolm and here’s this badness.
Al Filreis: Then he goes back to the “The sun came Ms. Brooks” and at that point I feel that he’s being ironic or maybe even bitter.
Herman Beavers: Well, if there’s an element of rebuke in this poem I think it’s in that last stanza. It’s almost as if he’s saying to Brooks, “He came and you missed it”.
Al Filreis: And you missed it.
Tracie Morris: I don’t know. I don’t think this is targeted at Gwendolyn Brooks. I think it’s targeted against self reflection in the black community. I think the sense of regret and the way that I feel it was staged to make it look as if it was just another aspect of black on black crime is what he’s talking about. It’s not targeted against Gwendolyn Brooks who’s from Chicago. I think it’s targeted, it’s a self-reflection about we didn’t know what we had and we lost it, and now we’re sad and now we’re lamenting. But we didn’t know how great he was, this is who he was.
Herman Beavers: I think there’s a kind of levelling. What the poem retains is his respect for her. She’s not Gwen, she’s Ms Brooks.
Al Filreis: That can cut both ways too.
Herman Beavers: Yeah, but when I think about her, she elicited Ms. Brooks. Maybe there was some people who called her Gwen, but to me, I met her several times and she was always Ms. Brooks. One of the things I think the poem does by levelling is to say look, in the space of the time that’s passed between when you wrote your poem and when I’m writing this poem, the sun came and I’m in a position to comment on all the ways in which that possibility was not realized. Where Brooks is speculative, Knight is reflective in a way that really gives him an authority. And the fact that he’s writing it in prison I think underscores that. He has a level of authority that Brook’s reading of the poem does not have access to.
Al Filreis: Jo.
Josephine Park: It’s interesting though, the authority here. Before the parenthetical about my cell, the “I think”. It’ unsure, it’s uncertain at the end. And it says, “The darkness ain’t like before”. What is this new darkness like? Is it darker? Or is it less dark? I don’t know how it ends.
Al Filreis: Jo, let’s look at the end of the Brooks poem. “To sleep in the coolness of snug unawareness”. She’s essentially saying that night is safer, easier, to be oblivious, to be unaware. But she’s not doing it in the political context. She’s doing it in what context? In a way, her complaint against unawareness… His poem seems to be more overtly a complaint against unawareness and it’s association with night. She’s I think much more open minded about night and unawareness, it seems to be a natural state for her. Where do you think that takes us Jo?
Josephine Park: Truth is personified here, but she’s also revealing a truth about how comforting it is to be unaware. There’s a kind of comforting repetition that comes to play in the Brooks poem. That does not work in “The Sun Came”. When he repeats “The sun came Ms. Brooks” that’s a horrible repetition, a dangerous one.
Al Filreis: I’ll just add historically that in 1949 if she’s associating the sun with a banging on the door, “Hear the fierce hammering of his firm knuckles hard on the door? Shall we not shudder?”, I mean, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the racist fascists. I’m afraid of somebody hauling me away. I think she’ basically writing at a different time, saying the sun has a lot of fear associated with it. She talks about fleeing into night. In a way, Knight is turning that around and privileging day as something we must face and not miss.
Gwendolyn Brooks: The sun came, Miss Brooks, — / After all the night years. He came spitting fire from his lips. / And we flipped — We goofed the whole thing. / It looks like our ears were not equipped / For the fierce hammering”.
Al Filreis: Let me just ask one more big question and then we can go around and get final words on this poem. The night years, the phrase and the idea, immediately makes it clear that we’re not just talking about a single night turning into a single day, it’s not that kind of traditional poem. At least Knight’s isn’t. But this is some kind of metaphor. Dark night of the soul, or something. Night years. How politically should we read the night years? I think it’s fairly easy to do that for the Etheridge Knight poem. More interestingly, how politically do we need to read it in the Brooks poem, because she uses the same phrase? Is this a reference vague in her case and more specific in his case, to civil rights? To the era we hope we’re emerging from at the time of the poem?
Herman Beavers: I think part of this poem is saying even when we are in the dark, we’re still facing the sun. We still have to face the truth. Post-Malcolm, we’re empowered to do that. We understand that there’s not much different between the two states. His night years I think is different from Brooks’ night years.
Al Filreis: Can you spell that out?
Herman Beavers: I think in a poem that references his time in prison, it may start as something personal. But I think it may move out to something that speaks to the longing for somebody to take us from darkness, and sort of working out the narrative of what happened when that longing was fulfilled. And we goofed.
Al Filreis: Brooks was one of those who wrote to him in prison and supported him. The poem is based on her poem. The poem’s saying who’s going to help us with the day? And it’s addressed to Brooks, but it’s Malcolm who’s providing the force. I can’t help but think that Knight is saying, you’ve brought us to a certain point Miss Brooks but now we’ve got to go in a different direction.
Tracie Morris: Yeah, we’re going to have a different in opinion here. The more that I look at this, especially in the context of the way he decoupled night and years, as Jo mentioned the M dash between night and years with Gwendolyn Brooks that Etheridge Knight does not have. The way that it’s framed out, it’s almost a parenthetical phrase. “The sun came Miss Brooks — / After all the night years. / He came spitting fire from his lips. / And we flipped — We goofed the whole thing”. If we just set that to the side for a second, it’s “The sun came Miss Brooks / We goofed the whole thing”. To me, that sounds like a confessional. Especially at the end when he says, “But ain’t nobody visiting my cell”. I think of somebody who’s sitting there thinking, we had Malcolm and Malcolms not here. Miss Brooks, you asked us this question before he even came, and he got here and we messed it. I’m confessing to you, as my mother nurturer etc —
Al Filreis: Okay, I withdraw my suggestion of antagonism. I think that the anger in the poem, not directed at Brooks, and yet somewhat dissipated in this marvelous reading which is introduced by Gwendolyn Brooks — it’s about as complicated a poetic legacy as you could possible imagine. It turns out to be beautiful too. You’re looking at me cross-eyed.
Tracie Morris: No, no I’m just listening. I’m just listening. There’s no contest here, she’s the Queen mother, he’s the Prince. But there’s no contest.
Al Filreis: Even the fierce hammering, which is the perfect emblem of the sound of the poem, he borrows from her.
Tracie Morris: Yes that’s right. She brought him in a way out o this cell”.
Herman Beavers: You also have to think about the fact that part of the dynamic that’s there is she also wants Etheridge Knight’s love and respect. Her relationship with that generation of poets is, she changed how she wrote to relate to that generation of poets. Part of what I read Knight’s poem doing is something very complicated which is, Miss Brooks, you issued the call and here’s the response. I’m up to it. It’s not the way you would do it, but I think that’s what you want, for me not to do it the way you’d do it. It’s not a rebuke, it’s actually, I’m honoring your influence for taking this a direction you wouldn’t take it.
Al Filreis: I think my favorite moment in the introduction is Brooks’ charming way of reading a third of the poem, and then saying I’m sorry, I’ve read you poem but you can finish it if you want. Which is a nice metaphor, or localization of the whole problem of his wanting to finish the job, his wanting to update the problem of the sun. It’s all set up in a way. I mean, they didn’t plan it. But he went up and read the poem. But we can go on and on talking about these two poets and the issues, but I want to give each of you, starting with Jo, a chance to just say you final thing that we didn’t get to. An observation of any kind, large or small that you want to add to the conversation. Jo Park.
Josephine Park: I’ll just say that I love the idea that Tracie brought up of “The Sun Came” as a kind of confession to Brooks. I think that captures that relationship just as Herman suggested of the call and response, and the religious fever that seems to be transmitted from one to the other. I think it’s really, really beautiful between the two.
Al Filreis: Thank you Jo. Herm?
Herman Beavers: The political sophistication of the analysis in the poem. I don’t know if I can think of a more supple reading of Malcolm X’s impact on the community than what we find in this poem.
Al Filreis: With all it’s complication.
Herman Beavers: Right.
Al Filreis: Thank you. Tracie Morris?
Tracie Morris: There’s too much to say, but this sense of the loss, the physical and spiritual loss and how this impacted a particular person who was incarcerated, who went part way through a very similar experience that Malcolm had and how that affected a particular population, and for him to be able to go and say it, and talk about that. it’s such a unique perspective, it’s such a great gift.
Al Filreis: This is a guy who went away potentially for a long time. I think he got 20 to 25 years for petty theft. He served less than that, but one can imagine what you had to reach out to read and think about when you’re in that situation. We like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, a chance for us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good, to hail or commend something or someone in the poetry world. Tracie, what do you recommend?
Tracie Morris: I mentioned Sekou Sundiata. He has a really beautiful record called The Blue Oneness of Dreams. It came out a while ago but it didn’t get nearly as much attention as it should have, so I would highly recommend that record.
Al Filreis: Fabulous. Jo Park?
Josephine Park: Well as I was reading this it made me think of this poem by Theodore Reothke, “In A Dark Time”. So I would recommend that.
Al Filreis: Alright, that’s all the fierce hammering we have time for time for today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks to my guests, Tracie Morris, Herman Beavers, Josephine Park. And to Poem Talks director and engineer Steve McLaughlin, and to our editor the self-same Steve McLaughlin. And thanks to the estate of Etheridge Knight and to the folks at The Watershed Tapes for giving us at PennSound permission to make available the recording of Etheridge Knight’s 1986 reading. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for Poem Talk.