I Know My Soul

Terrance Hayes

“If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer / A nail, you ain’t thought of the nail correctly.”

Terrance Hayes

I See A Part And Not The Whole

by Claude McKay

I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.


American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin
[“Inside me is a black-eyed animal”]

by Terrance Hayes

Inside me is a black-eyed animal
Bracing in a small stall. As if a bird
Could grow without breaking its shell.
As if the clatter of a thousand black
Birds whipping in a storm could be held
In a shell. Inside me is a huge black
Bull balled small enough to fit inside
The bead of a nipple ring. I mean to leave
A record of my raptures. I was raised
By a beautiful man. I loved his grasp of time.
My mother shaped my grasp of space.
Would you rather spend the rest of eternity
With your wild wings bewildering a cage or
With your four good feet stuck in a plot of dirt?

That’s All That I Remember

El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

Malcolm X

El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)

by Robert Hayden

O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son

I

The icy evil that struck his father down
and ravished his mother into madness
trapped him in violence of a punished self
struggling to break free.

As Home Boy, as Dee-troit Red,
he fled his name, became the quarry of
his own obsessed pursuit.

He conked his hair and Lindy-hopped,
zoot-suited jiver, swinging those chicks
in the hot rose and reefer glow.

His injured childhood bullied him.
He skirmished in the Upas trees
and cannibal flowers of the American Dream–

but could not hurt the enemy
powered against him there.


As much as America is divided there is one thing that unites us currently in a troubling way – anger.  Anger seems to abound on all sides of the political spectrum in ways not seen since the 1960’s.  I think many of us that tread somewhere more centrist in the political realm are growing alarmed at the widening gap of hostility between the right and the left.  

I find it disturbing that wrapped within the current GOP rhetoric of absolving Trump of guilt in the impeachment trial for the insurrection at the Capitol is this tit for tat argument on the equivalency around the violence of the Black Lives Movement in cities across America this past summer.  It’s like GOP pundits believe one justifies the other.   I see no such equivalency, despite my community being directly impacted by the terrible violence last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death.  There is a darker side to that violence that is getting very little press; the fact that numerous indictments have been handed down in Minneapolis to white supremacists from outside the local community, some from outside the state, who used the cover of the George Floyd protests in the days following his death to cause anarchy, increase the level of violence and damage, and steal with impunity. 

Embedded within the tragedy of what happened in Minneapolis, is the fact that there was a highly coordinated right wing anarchist component that only wanted to enhance the violence for their own purposes; to confuse, to radicalize the right and justify their actions, like the attack on the capitol in January.   It feels like there is a coordinated media response within right wing politics to incite their base by playing the fools game of who committed the greater wrong.  It’s a game no one wins.  

What continues to be so troubling for me around Trumpism, is the inability of the GOP mainstream to stand up to the racist attitudes that are fueling some members of their caucus with conspiracy theories that have no basis in reality.  Conspiracy theories that dehumanize their opposition to give credence to their hate.  It’s one of the reasons I think poetry can be an important tool in this discussion in America, particularly  angry poetry.  Poetry that speaks of perspectives that make white Americans uncomfortable may be an easier entry into a broader discussion on things that make all of us uncomfortable.  For equity to progress, we must move beyond conversations that dwell on the fringes of both sides, and  address the causes of the anger, without losing sight of each other’s humanity or what profoundly limiting lessons our children learn from hate. 


Incident

by Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
.   . Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
.    . Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
.     . And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
.     . His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
.    . From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
.    . That’s all that I remember.

I Don’t Do That Kind Of Work Anymore

Jericho Brown

““When I kill me, I will
Do it the same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me.”

― Jericho Brown, The Tradition

Odd Jobs

By Jericho Brown

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore.
My job Is to look at the childhood
I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

Jericho Brown TED Talk on The Art of Words

Life

by Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1917)

Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun
From cycles of eternity. And yet,
What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret
Of tangled purposes and hopes undone!
What affluence of love! What vict’ries won
In agonies of silence, ere trust met
A manifold fulfillment, and the wet,
Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun!
What struggle in the web of circumstance,
And yearning in the wingèd music! All,
One restless strife from fetters to be free;
Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse,
Is that brief moment at the Father’s call.
Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery!

There Is A Journey From Me To You

Margaret Walker Alexander (1915 – 1998)

“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”

Margaret Walker

The Struggle Staggers Us

by Margaret Walker

Our birth and death are easy hours like sleep
and food and drink. The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist,
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from Me to You.
There is a journey from You to Me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.

Ours is a struggle from a too warm bed,
too cluttered with a patience full of sleep.
Out of this blackness we must struggle forth:
from want of bread, of pride, of dignity.
Struggle between the morning and the night,
this marks our years, this settle too, our plight.


Kahlo _1

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait. 

Sonnet in Primary Colors

by Rita Dove

This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present–
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.

Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.

Change This Bloody Thing

Marcus Garvey (1887 – 1940)

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity.”

Marcus Garvey

White and Black

by Marcus Garvey

The white man held the blacks as slaves,
And bled their souls in living death;
Bishops and priests, and kings themselves,
Preached that the law was right and just;
And so the people worked and died,
And crumbled into material dust.
Good God! The scheme is just the same
Today, between the black and white
Races of men, who gallop after fame.
Can’st Thou not change this bloody thing,
And make white people see the truth
That over blacks must be their king,
Not white, but of their somber hue,
To rule a nation of themselves


Marcus Garvey is a complex figure, a poet, a visionary, an entrepreneur, a successful businessman, an orator and a key figure in the idea of a homeland for African Americans in Africa as part of  reparations in the United States and elsewhere for slavery.   He didn’t mince words.   I have known several people named Marcus and it was by no coincidence, it was in honor of the best of this man.    

Garvey was proud of his African heritage and spoke of empowering Africans everywhere for a better future.   He advocated that change had to be both economic and political, that African Americans had to prosper for all of America to prosper.  Though he remains a national hero in his birth place Jamaica, he was decidedly controversial.  Garvey’s writing was both admired and disliked among the African diaspora, with some viewing him as self serving in promoting his own business interests, but also some within his own community criticized him as a demagogue,  his ideas sometimes blurred by prejudice against Jews and mix-ed race individuals.  His writing and ideas have had a lasting influence on Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement.  


Village Blues

by Michael S. Harper

The birds flit
in the blue palms,
the can workers wait,
the man hangs
twenty feet above;
he must come down;
they wait for the priest.
The flies ride on the carcass,
which sways like cork in a circle.
The easter light pulls him west.
The priest comes, a man
sunken with rum,
his face sandpapered
into a rouge of split
and broken capillaries.
His duty is the cutting
down of the fruit
of this quiet village
and he staggers slowly, coming.

It Pierces All Nights To Come

Wanda Coleman (1946 – 2013)

American Sonnet 95

by Wanda Coleman

seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song

as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, “please don’t go away
and leave us.” he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight

from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come

i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.

at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves
stillborn, misshapen wings within me



I am hesitant in writing about issues of race in this country because my own experience is starkly white.  Wrestling with the legacy of Lowell this past month made me ask myself the question; how do I respect the history of the African American sonnet both past and present?  Does spending time with all early 20th Century sonnet writers, regardless of race, honor the writers who created it or are am I perpetuating a problem in our society by nostalgically looking backwards and not focusing on the present? Is the constraint that lyric poetry creates less a metaphor and more a symptom of our racist past that inevitably formed a wedge in literature, a demarcation that poets have wisely taken their writing further and further away from elitist sounding language and moved instead down a new path with free verse that has the flexibility poets need to articulate the breadth of their human experience?  As much as I enjoy sonnets, if that was my only diet in reading poetry I would soon starve to death.

In searching out some reading on what place do the classics have in today’s world and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement I came across Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta.  Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics, was in the news in 2019, when at an important conference of his peers, he dared to ask the question – should the field of study we call classics survive?   

It is a fascinating question, particularly since it is his life’s passion and profession.  My Mother was taught Latin in High School in public school in the 1940s in Minnesota, so I am only one generation removed from the idea that classical studies should be part of every high school graduate’s experience.  I was always impressed by her insight into language and meaning of words that comes from a rudimentary understanding of Latin.  (Also an invaluable skill for cross word puzzles and of course a deeper understanding of poetry.) 

So how then do we reconcile the history of the sonnet with current issues around equity and inclusion?  Does the sonnet deserve a hall pass to the future? My suggestion; let’s read the poets of color who are skillfully and thoughtfully treading those planks, seek out their poetry for its unique perspective.   In the next several blog posts I will present African American sonneteers across the decades and let you explore what relevance their words bring to your current mindset. 

If I were to draw a simple progression of African American writers of sonnets from the 1700’s to today in America that are top of mind for me, without doing any additional research, it would start with Phyllis Wheatley, then progress without perfect linearity, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, H. Cordelia Ray,  Gwendolyn Bennett, Marcus Garvey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes, with my apologies to all the fine poets I have missed, but look forward to meeting someday.

One of the things I try and share through Fourteenlines is nearly every poet has written at least one sonnet like poem, in part because it connects their writing to the past.  These poems are not always classical sonnets in construction and sometimes I am not even sure the poet was consciously aware of the sonnets influence, so ingrained in our culture are “the classics”.  So if it is by this distinct lens that we think of as classical literature that most art is influenced and judged, and if its by these very archetypes American thought has been formed and whittled over generations of  high school and college educations, than why wouldn’t we at least ask some questions about what holes we have dug for ourselves in this process without even realizing it and should we stop digging?  I am not suggesting we have to chuck the lot of it, nor is Peralta, only maybe we should go back and re-read the classics with a  different focal point and scrutinize what is relevant and meaningful in our journey today while taking a bright yellow high lighter to unhelpful and racist stereotypes that don’t move us in the direction of equity and are partially to blame for the mess we have made of things.  

Poetry doesn’t need to be serious.  I read it because its fun.  I don’t believe I have to analyze it endlessly.  I read what I like and honestly don’t think too much about it in terms of an academic understanding.  But this February I am trying to think a little differently and consciously address how I am presenting African American poets and poets of color during Black History Month.  I  feel an obligation to not be tone deaf and color blind to the biases of my  “liberal” arts education.

What’s your thoughts on Peralta’s interesting ideas in the article below?  I don’t think he is suggesting we should stop reading sonnets.  But he opened my eyes to change my reading glasses and ponder the fact that all those ancient Greek marble statues in our museums were not originally displayed as we now see them.  It was only over time that the affluent collectors of art history, in the name of conservation and “classical” studies, scrubbed and polished them white. 

 

Dan-el Padilla Peralta visionary questioning of some of the foundations of liberal arts.

Sonnet

by Countee Cullen

There are no wind-blown rumors, soft say-sos,
No garden-whispered hearsays, lightly heard,
I know that summer never spares the rose,
That spring is faithless to the brightest bird.
I know that nothing lovely shall prevail
To win from Time and Death a moment’s grace;
At Beauty’s birth the scythe was honed, the nail
Dipped for her hands, the cowl clipped for her face.

And yet I cannot think that this my faith,
My winged joy, my pride, my utmost mirth,
Centered in you, shall ever taste of death,
Or perish from the false, forgetting earth.
You are with time, as wind and weather are,
As is the sun, and every nailed star.

This Woman Twirling

Sonia Sanchez

“The most fundamental truth to be told in any art form, as far as blacks are concerned, is that America is killing us.”

Sonia Sanchez

For Sister Gwen Brooks

Sonia Sanchez – 1934-

 

you tell the stars
don’t be jealous of her light
you tell the ocean,
you call out to Olukun,
to bring her always to
safe harbor,
for she is a holy one
this woman twirling
her emerald lariat
you tell the night
to move gently
into morning so she’s
not startled,
you tell the morning
to ease her into a water
fall of dreams
for she is a holy one
restringing her words
from city to city
so that we live and
breathe and smile and
breathe and love and
breathe her…
this Gwensister called life.


Sonia Sanchez, a leader in the Black Studies movement over the past 50 years, is a poet, playwright, professor and activist.  During the early 1960’s Sanchez was focused on racial equality, but as the violence of the 1960’s progressed she became more and more influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X, and the concepts around a separatist, independent black movement as a place of empowerment was needed among the black community.  Sanchez became an early pioneer in the emerging field of Black Studies, including developing classes on African American women’s literature and social justice.

Sanchez has published extensively as a poet, pushing new boundaries like the 1970 book  We a BaddDDD People, in which her love of African American language is the foundation of her poetic style.  She has written poetry for adults and children and is fond of haiku.  An important scholar and teacher, Sanchez had a lengthy teaching career and has won numerous awards for her writing. 

Sanchez was briefly married to Ethridge Knight in the 1960’s, with whom she had two sons.  Sanchez’s poetry is deeply influenced by  her experiences of motherhood, both as a mother and as a daughter, shaped in part from the loss of her own Mother when she was two in childbirth, and then her maternal Grandmother who was raising her when she was 6.   Sanchez also has a daughter from her first marriage. 

 


For Malcolm, A Year After

by Ethridge Knight (1931 – 1991)

Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench me, drown me, drive me mad.
So swear no oath, so shed no tear,
And sing no song blue Baptist sad.
Evoke no image, stir no flame,
And spin no yarn across the air.
Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
 
Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
but not the memory of him!
Death might come singing sweet like C,
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.

Now I Am Dry Bones

Richard Wright (1908 – 1960)

“Poetry aims for an economy of truth––loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions––beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my rationalisations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Haiku: This Other World

by Richard Wright


Why did this spring wood 
grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?


That frozen star there, 
or this one on the water, – 
Which is more distant?


Richard Wright was an essayist and novelist that championed civil rights throughout his career.   Author of the novel Native Son, he was a mentor and inspiration to many black writers including James Baldwin.  Wright’s own experience in America was not one of opportunity, but continued oppression.  In 1947 he moved to France to escape American omnipresent racism.   During the 1950’s he worked on the African Liberation movement in Ghana and continued to write.  His later works includes essays and novels.  Given that poetry was only a small fraction of his published work in his lifetime, it is a bit ironic that it is his poetry that has garnered the most attention since his death.  Wright wrote more than 4,000 Haiku, which his daughter lovingly compiled and published in 1998 volume titled; This Other World.    Wright died in Paris at the age of 52.  

Wright infused his essays with poetic language, something Ta-Nehisi Coates espouses.  Coates thoughtful writing of difficult truths lend themselves to a poetic touch, not for flourish, but for directness of story telling and depth of meaning. Ta-Nehisi Coates video below is an interesting listen on how he started as a poet and how that has influenced his journalistic style. 

Between The World And Me

by Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….

One Human Voice

You might as well answer the door child, the truth, is furiously knocking.

Lucille Clifton

homage to my hips

by Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Lucille Clifton Reading Homage To Hips

sorrows 

by Lucille Clifton

who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be
 
beautiful         who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals
 
that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin
 
 
sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls         clicking their bony fingers
 
envying our crackling hair
our spice filled flesh
 
 
they have heard me beseeching
as I whispered into my own
 
cupped hands       enough not me again
enough       but who can distinguish
 
one human voice   
amid such choruses of desire

Sail Through This To That

Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010)

I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.

Lucille Clifton

Blessing the Boats

by Lucille Clifton

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your
innocence
sail through this to that

Lucille Clifton had the gift of sparse words imparting vast meaning.   Her poetry is straightforward yet complex.   Discovered by Langston Hughes through a mutual friend in New York, she succeeded on the strength of her talent and bright spirit.  Clifton was an educator, children’s book author, poet, engaging speaker and civil rights leader.  Clifton advanced ideas of equity through her art and educational leadership.  

There is a motherly savviness to some of Clifton’s poetry that reassures me, good naturedly cajoles, lulls me into surprises and insight, while letting me wander about breezily in her words.  I marvel at her imagery and her welcoming, supportive spirit.   

Blessing The Boats, the title of her award winning anthology, is a remarkable poem in that it has no moorings of where you feel required as a reader to start or stop.   I can chose to see it as a loop that I can plug into almost anywhere. 

Sometimes I like to read a poem backwards.  Not all poets work lend themselves to this, but it can be an interesting technique to enter a poem and the poets ideas in a different way.   By reading it in reverse sequence, it allows me to focus on individual lines and not worry about trying to understand the whole of poem. Try reading Clifton’s Blessing the Boats from the bottom to the top, and see what rises on your internal wavelengths.  What line sticks out in your mind?  Is it a different line than you noticed the first time reading it through? 



“Oh Antic God”

by Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.
 
I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.
 
I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night.   return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.