Hurled In Defiance At Our Blackest World

Crosby2
Harry Crosby

Invocation To The Mad Queen

by Harry Crosby

I would you were the hollow ship
fashioned to bear the cargo of my love
the unrelenting glove
hurled in defiance at our blackest world
or that great banner mad unfurled
the poet plants upon the hill of time
or else amphora for the gold of life
liquid and naked as a virgin wife.
Yourself the prize
I gird with Fire
The Great White Ruin
Of my Desire.
I burn to gold
fierce and unerring as a conquering sword
I burn to gold
fierce and undaunted as a lion lord
seeking your Bed
and leave to them the
burning of the dead.

 

Temple De La Douleur

Harry Crosby

My soul has suffered breaking on the wheel,
Flogging with lead, and felt the twinging ache
Of barbéd hooks and jagged points of steel,
Peine forte et dure, slow burning at the stake,
Blinding and branding, stripping on the rack,
The canque and kourbash and the torquéd screw,
The boot and branks, red scourging on the back,
The gallows and the gibbet. All for you.

These tortures are as nothing to the pain
That I have suffered when you gaze at me
With cold disdainful eyes. You do not deign
To smile or talk or even set me free-
Yet once you let me hold your perfumed hand
And danced with me a stately saraband.

Silent Answers Crept Across The Stars

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Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Emily Dickinson

At Melville’s Tomb

by Hart Crane

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

 


 

Hart Crane committed suicide by jumping off a boat sailing from Mexico City to New York City, his depression finally overwhelming during a prolonged period of writer’s block. Marsden had been with him in Mexico City and grieved his loss by painting an image filled with symbolism of Crane’s life and poetry.

Hart Crane was not related to Stephen Crane.  Stephen died even younger at age 28 from tuberculosis and by way of hard and happier living. I am not a big fan of Stephen Crane’s parable poems. However, I think if Hart had been able to take more of Stephen’s perspective in dealing with his demons, he might have found a way through his darkest of days and not become a “shadow that one the sea keeps.”

Do you think Hart Crane’s sonnet foreshadow’s his death or was thoughts of suicide part of his subconscious mind, shaping his words as he wrote?


A Man Went Before A Strange God

by Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900)

A man went before a strange God —
The God of many men, sadly wise.
And the deity thundered loudly,
Fat with rage, and puffing.
“Kneel, mortal, and cringe
And grovel and do homage
To My Particularly Sublime Majesty.”

The man fled.

Then the man went to another God —
The God of his inner thoughts.
And this one looked at him
With soft eyes
Lit with infinite comprehension,
And said, “My poor child!”

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

Hart Crane
Hart Crane (1899 – 1932)

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

By Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —


 

One of the pleasures of rhyming poems for the writer and reader alike is that they lend themselves to riddles. I can speak from experience that sometimes the riddles come from deep within the subconscious and aren’t always planned, rather the words feel right and only later release their hidden meanings. Emily Dickinson is a master riddler and given that she never published any of her poetry, she saved her best laughs for herself.

Hart Crane wrote his sonnet that isn’t a sonnet in 1924 when Emily Dickinson was not omnipresent in bookstores and not yet in the pantheon of poets. Some of her poems and correspondence had been published but she had yet to have the kind of impact on modernists and the general public that she has today. To read a much weightier interpretation of Hart Crane’s sonnet below, try Alan Tate’s essay on the subject, he was both a talented poet and a good friend, who took up the cause of heightening the reputation of Hart Crane after his untimely death.

At first glance To Emily Dickinson is a sonnet, but it does not fit a traditional rhyming scheme.  It was written while Hart was having a torrid homosexual love affair with a sailor named Emil Oppfer.  To those of us that like to see riddles, it could be argued there are several hidden clues that this poem is written both to Emily and Emil the first being the similarity of their names. Crane’s romance didn’t last as it seems that his lover lacked the intellectual curiosity and capacity to stimulate Crane’s pursuit of a poetic ideal and their affair dwindled quickly.

Some critics have interpreted the cities of Ormuz and Ophir as another clue that Crane wrote this poem as much to Emil as Emily, as Ophir and Oppfer are perfect homonyms. The city of Ormuz, also known as Hormuz, was part of one of the most important diplomatic missions of the Portuguese empire. Afonso de Alburqurque sent a trove of ruby adorned treasures to Shah Ismail in 1510 to win favor and begin a mutually beneficial partnership. Ophir is a city mentioned in the old Testament multiple times, known for its wealth, gold and wisdom, the implication that it is through wise choices that wealth is attained.

What is Crane saying in the final six lines, traditionally the volta?   It makes more sense in my mind if he is writing it to Emil. Is the flower in Crane’s hand, for his lover, their affair not yet over? The inevitability of its ending plain before him, as he cannot connect to his lover’s remotest mind, and it leaves their relationship cold and penniless without his need for an intellectual bond, leaving nothing left but the crying.  However, the lines also have meaning for Emily, whose work is just coming to light at that time, her flower not yet wilted, and whose solitary mission as a writer was for her benefit, no one else’s. Another poet would ask the question, if her poetry had never come to light, would we be left colder and a treasure lost?

Regardless of who Crane wrote this poem, it’s beautiful, the opening eight lines packed with meaning of what it is to be passionate about another person, about love, about art, about life!  The lines are also insight into Crane’s tortured soul,  his ideas about the role of poetry as a silencer of anxiety, the process of writing meant foremost to enhance the life of the writer, not for financial gain but for the writer’s spiritual or intellectual gain and through their words, leave a trace of their humanity for obscurity of eternity, all depending on the whim of a publisher and fate.


To Emily Dickinson

by Hart Crane

You who desired so much–in vain to ask–
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest–
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,

Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;

–Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind–

Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill

Those Who Know

shutterstock-garvey
Marcus Garvey

 

I am not proud that I am bold
Or proud that I am black.
Color was given me as a gauge
And boldness came with that.

Helene Johnson

The Tired Worker

By Claude McKay

O whisper, O my soul! The afternoon
Is waning into evening, whisper soft!
Peace, O my rebel heart! for soon the moon
From out its misty veil will swing aloft!
Be patient, weary body, soon the night
Will wrap thee gently in her sable sheet,
And with a leaden sigh thou wilt invite
To rest thy tired hands and aching feet.
The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine;
Come tender sleep, and fold me to thy breast.
But what steals out the gray clouds like red wine?
O dawn! O dreaded dawn! O let me rest
Weary my veins, my brain, my life! Have pity!
No! Once again the harsh, the ugly city.


 

Those Who Know

by Marcus Garvey

You may not know, and that is all
That causes you to fail in life;
All men should know, and thus not fall
The victims of the heartless strife.
Know what? Know what is right and wrong,
Know just the things that daily count,
That go to make all life a song,
And cause the wise to climb the mount.

To make man know, is task, indeed,
For some are prone to waste all time:
It’s only few who see the need
To probe and probe, then climb and climb,
The midnight light, the daily grind,
Are tasks that count for real success
In life of those not left behind,
Whom Nature chooses then to bless.

The failing men you meet each day,
Who curse their fate, and damn the rest,
Are just the sleeping ones who play
While others work to reach the best.
All life must be a useful plan,
That calls for daily, serious work-
The work that wrings the best from man-
The work that cowards often shirk.

All honour to the men who know,
By seeking after Nature’s truths:
In wisdom they shall ever grow,
While others hum the awful “blues”
Go now and search for what there is-
The knowledge of the Universe-
Make it yours, as the other, his,
And be as good, but not the worse.

Égalité for All

 

 

To Toussaint L’Ouverture

by William Wordsworth

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.


 

I am currently reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway.  It is a moving fictional account of what the human spirit will endure to achieve freedom.  Whitehead is a brilliant writer; his poetic prose, steeps you in the moral corruption of the South, the barbaric cruelty that powered the wealth that came from indigo, cotton and sugar production.  It is a legacy of the ruthlessness of fellow human beings that casts a shadow all the way to today over the United States.  How do we address the history of atrocities that paved the way for the economic foundation that allowed for the United States to become the world’s wealthiest country? I tire of the willful ignorance, the pretension that American prosperity was built solely upon ingenuity and self determination, without acknowledging that prosperity also came with a legacy of genocide and the immorality of slavery that still bears a responsibility of recognition and forgiveness.

Touissant L’Ouverture is not a historical figure with whom many in the United States are familiar. Touuissant was one of the leaders of a rebellion that parallels our own revolution, when the slaves of then Hispaniola and Saint-Dominique, modern day Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, fought back and won their freedom. The ideas of independence which spawned the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789, made the hypocrisy of slavery in French colonies unsustainable and its overthrow inevitable. The idea that all men had unassailable rights that extended beyond skin color was an idea that threw gasoline on what was already an inferno of madness in slavery.  Although Haiti is an impoverished nation today, it as a direct result of a conspiracy of economic retribution by Europe and the United States, a continuation of the tyranny, that was overcome. Haiti (Saint-Dominique) was the richest of all European colonies 250 years ago, with over sixty percent of the coffee imported and forty percent of the sugar consumed in Europe produced there. This immense wealth only made possible by the  cruelty of slave labor.

L’Ouverture was a talented provocateur, orator and military general, who would defeat the armies of France, Great Britain and the United States successfully over a 12 year period, with military casualties in excess of 50,000 men combined from those three nations, before being betrayed by his own lieutenants who thirsted for greater power themselves after the imperialist landowners were overthrown. L’Ouverture was captured, chained and returned to France, tried in court and sentenced to a remote prison to die, not realizing for himself the very freedom he had helped win for an entire nation.

For more information on Touissant L’Ouverture see the link for a documentary below.

The two sonnets I have included span a period of 200 years in their creation.   Each poet, inspired by L’Ouverture’s life.  Wordsworth, although not an abolitionist,  recognized the  courage and moral right of L’Ouverture and Agard, who envisioned a response that is neither rebuttal, nor concurrence with Wordsworth, but a tribute to the humanity of both of men.

How come I didn’t learn about the history of Haiti in high school, when it’s very history is borne of the same noble ideas of equality for all that is the foundation of the American revolution? Is it because we still bear responsibility for a collective failure to reconcile both the heroic and monstrous aspects of United States history.

 


Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”

(2006)
John Agard

I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or had a close-up view of daffodils.
My childhood’s roots are the Haitian hills
where runaway slaves made a freedom pledge
and scarlet poincianas flaunt their scent.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.

 

Poem © John Agard, Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems with Live DVD (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices

Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980)

Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.


Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  and “Frederick Douglass” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Copyright ©1966 by Robert Hayden.

To hear Robert Hayden read his poem, Those Winter Sundays, click on the link below and then click on the red arrow behind the title.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46461/those-winter-sundays

 

 

Laughter Arrogant and Bold

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Helene Johnson (1906 – 1995)

To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth….

Helene Johnson (Excerpt from Fulfillment)

 

Sonnet To A Negro In Harlem

by Helene Johnson

You are disdainful and magnificant–
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise–
Your sholders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

 


 

Poem

By Helene Johnson

Little brown boy,
Slim, dark, big-eyed,
Crooning love songs to your banjo
Down at the Lafayette–
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
High sort of and a bit to one side,
Like a prince, a jazz prince.   And I love
Your eyes flashing, and your hands,
And your patent-leathered feet,
And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.
And I love your teeth flashing,
And the way your hair shines in the spotlight
Like it was the real stuff.
Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t care in you.
Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears
And hear tom-toms just as plain.
Listen to me, will you, what do I know
About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,
Don’t you? It belongs to us.
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
And the way you sing, and dance,
And everything.
Say, I think you’re wonderful.    You’re
Allright with me,
You are.