Tell Me If

There is no such thing as happiness. Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may isolate them.

Jean Toomer, Cane

Tell Me

By Jean Toomer  (1894 – 1967)
Tell me, dear beauty of the dusk,
   When purple ribbons bind the hill,
    Do dreams your secret wish fulfill,
Do prayers, like kernels from the husk
Come from your lips? Tell me if when
    The mountains loom at night, giant shades
    Of softer shadow, swift like blades
Of grass seeds come to flower. Then
Tell me if the night winds bend
    Them towards me, if the Shenandoah
    As it ripples past your shore,
Catches the soul of what you send



By Jean Toomer 
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones   
In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done,   
And start their silent swinging, one by one.   
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,   
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds.   
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,   
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade

Hurled By Hurricanes To A Birdless Place

Hurricane Michael hours before landfall 10/10/2018

Sonnet III

by Ted Berrigan

Stronger than alcohol, more great than song,
deep in whose reeds great elephants decay,
I, an island, sail, and my shoes toss
on a fragrant evening, fraught with sadness
bristling hate.
It’s true, I weep too much. Dawns break
slow kisses on the eyelids of the sea,
what other men sometimes have thought they’ve seen.
And since then I’ve been bathing in the poem
lifting her shadowy flowers up for me,
and hurled by hurricanes to a birdless place
the waving flags, nor pass by prison ships
O let me burst, and I be lost at sea!
and fall on my knees then, womanly.

I was just out of the reach of Hurricane Michael this week in Tampa Florida. A reminder of how local weather is, even extreme weather. Parts of the Florida panhandle were devastated yesterday while downtown Tampa got very little rain, almost no wind and only a small rise in sea levels channel side.

Storm Ending

Jean Toomer (1894 – 1967)

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

Ted Berrigan, “Sonnet III” from The Sonnets. Copyright © 2000 by Alice Notley, Literary Executrix of the Estate of Ted Berrigan.  Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

What’s Important

Jean Toomer

“Modern thought and literature begins with the invention of the sonnet.”

Paul Oppenheimer in The Birth of the Modern Mind

Banking Coal

By Jean Toomer (1894 – 1967)

Whoever it was who brought the first wood and coal
To start the Fire, did his part well;
Not all wood takes to fire from a match,
Nor coal from wood before it’s burned to charcoal.
The wood and coal in question caught a flame
And flared up beautifully, touching the air
That takes a flame from anything.

Somehow the fire was furnaced,
And then the time was ripe for some to say,
“Right banking of the furnace saves the coal.”
I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up,
Never strong, to anyone who cared to rake for them.
But roaring fires never have been made that way.
I’d like to tell those folks that one grand flare
Transferred to memory tissues of the air
Is worth a like, or, for dull minds that turn in gold,
All money ever saved by banking coal.

Curiosity is the only lens anyone has into the life of another human being.  What I enjoy about poetry is that it wipes away the differences that may appear to divide us and aligns all of humanity around our common dreams, the innermost whispers that make us all the same.


The sonnet may feel to some like a straight jacket of literary convention. If you look deeper, its history is one of rebellion. The sonnet was the first lyric form intended for self reflection.  Throughout its history, the sonnet has been used as a radical vehicle to share the poet’s self-consciousness and self- conflict through the brazen use of first person.

The sonnet is far from settled as a literary form and Jean Toomer’s poem Banking Coal is a great example of that flexibility. Toomer utilizes elements of the sonnet structure to connect to a deeper literary history.  The sonnet is a vehicle for self-discovery and self-definition that cannot be defined by a single racial or gender identity.

Toomer was fiercely independent and refused to be categorized during his lifetime as strictly an African American writer, although his publisher played up his connection to the Harlem Renaissance movement in part to increase sales.  Toomer moved continually between black and white societies and did not allow himself to be bound by race in his personal or professional life. Toomer claimed to be an American who represented a new culture, a mixing of American society.

His novel Cane was widely acclaimed as a new voice in literature. In it Toomer combines poetry, short stories and theater dialogue into a fluid vehicle for story telling.  Cane is written in a unique style that broadened the idea of the modern novel.  The sonnet below is an excerpt from Cain.

On a side note, Toomer and I have something in common, in that we both studied Agriculture at a land grant University, in his case the University of Wisconsin.

November Cotton Flower

by Jean Toomer

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.