18 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/3

(to Leland)


She went to buy a brand new hat,
And she was ugly, black, and fat:
"This red becomes you well," they said,
And perched it high upon her head.
And then they laughed behind her back
To see it glow against the black.
She paid for it with regal mien,
And walked out proud as any queen.


The play is done, the crowds depart; and see
That twisted tortured thing hung from a tree,
Swart victim of a newer Cavalry.

Yea, he who helped Christ up Golgotha's track,
That Simon who did not deny, was black.

                        (The Unknown Color)

I've often heard my mother say,
When great winds blew across the day,
And, cuddled close and out of sight,
The young pigs squealed with sudden fright
Like something speared or javelined,
"Poor little pigs, they see the wind."

Countee Cullen

These poems use traditional, and in the context of their time, conservative rhyme and meter (an appropriation of traditional forms that in itself carries some subversive intent in a Harlem Renaissance writer such as Cullen), but placed together they form an ambiguous and suggestive whole.

The first one starts out with a sort of nursery-rhyme sound and feel: She went to buy a brand new hat; and the very simplicity and cheerful lilting rhythm increase the shock and even crudity of the next, also linguistically simple, line: And she was ugly, black, and fat. This pattern continues in the next couplet, with a possibly innocuous line followed by one that reveals the complexity and cruelty underlying a seemingly everyday transaction. "This red becomes you well," they said might seem genuine until you reach the insidious perched in the next line, and you can see the bright hat teetering ridiculously on top of this very large woman. We're not actually told that the salesclerks are white, though you could infer it from the emphasis in the second line on the woman's blackness, and we're not told if they're men or women – and yet what reader doesn't know these clerks, just close enough to the border of offensive so that they get their mockery across to their victim without going far enough to put themselves obviously in the wrong. They laugh at her, but behind her back: but in the next line, To see it glow against the black, glow tips us off to a beauty – to glow is to emit a steady light or radiance – that they are blind to. The title of this first poem tells us that the color it's about is red, the glowing red of the hat, rather than primarily the black of the woman's skin; this is another hint to see something significant in the bold brilliance of the hat.

So far each couplet has had its first line subverted by its second; in the first two couplets the second line exposes the fraught situation of the seemingly direct first line, and in the third couplet, as the situation intensifies, the ridicule in the first line is countered in the second by the suggestion of unexpected and, for some, unseen beauty (the perched red hat glowing against the fat woman's black skin). But in the final couplet, the two lines reinforce each other: she pays with regal mien, and in the next line she walks out proud as any queen. What does the woman herself think? Does she realize she's being mocked, does she like the hat anyway? We're not told. Wearing hats was something ladies did in public; this entire transaction is in a social space, and we're seeing her (ugly, black, and fat) as her society mostly sees her. Her society, in the form of salesclerks, treats her accordingly; we, the readers, see a woman reacting with considerable dignity to a petty humiliation of the sort she must face frequently. The very reticence in the final lines about the woman's actual perceptions or reactions to the joke being played on her increases our sense of her dignity. For the reader, her strength becomes her beauty.

The second poem is actually two brief poems, connected by references to the crucifixion of Jesus. The first part, as with the first poem in the set, begins innocently enough, with what seems like a description of a crowd departing a theater after the show is over. And, repeating the pattern of the first poem, the second line exposes the cruelty hidden by but latent in the first: the mob has been watching a man being lynched. And again as in the first poem, as the suggestion in the first line of a theatrical performance makes clear, we are in a social space. The murder has apparently taken a while, and been protracted, as the victim's corpse is twisted and he has been tortured. He is given the retrospective dignity of an archaic term to describe the cause of his murder: he is swart, that is, swarthy, dark-skinned. He is given the further dignity of having his death compared to that of Christ, expiating the sins of humanity through death on the cross: hung from a tree in the second line prepares us for the direct comparison to Calvary in the final line (Calvary in this section and Golgotha in the next both refer to the hill outside of Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified). The suggestion is that this anonymous victim of a lynching is another sacrificial victim to the sins of humanity. (This reminds me of the terrific line in the Epilogue of Shaw's Saint Joan: "Must then a Christ be crucified in every generation to save those that have no imagination?")

The second section, brief and epigrammatic like the first, plays off the story of Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross up the hill, and Simon Peter the apostle, who (as foretold by Christ) denied Jesus three times on the night of the crucifixion. Simon of Cyrene, like many minor actors in the life of Christ, has had major legends spring up around him. (Even the name of his hometown is a bit mysterious; I searched for the correct pronunciation and was given three different possibilities, each one authoritatively stated: Sy-reen, Sy-ree-nee, and Sy-ree-neh. Since it's a Greek name I'm assuming the second or third is closest to the original, but the pronunciation might have been Anglicized.) Cyrene was an ancient city located in what is now Libya, and though there were both Greek and Jewish communities there, Simon has often traditionally been seen as a native of the region (that is, a black man). He is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a bystander who was ordered to help Jesus carry the cross when the guards feared Jesus would die before reaching his appointed execution spot.

Though it seems clear Simon's assistance was involuntary (which could actually work in this poem, given the American history of race-based slavery), there is an alternate tradition that Simon either was or became a Christian himself, making him a type, like the Good Samaritan, of one who helps the downtrodden. There is a tradition of venerating him as a saint. In these lines, Cullen views him definitely as a black man; it's a bit ambiguous whether he sees Simon's assistance as willing or at least not unwilling, but he makes a pointed, acerbic comparison between Simon of Cyrene's acceptance of the helper role thrust on him and the denial of Christ by Simon Peter, who of course became the first head of the Christian church.

Something beyond the comparisons to the crucifixion connects these two sections, and that is the color of the title: black. In the first section, the man was one of the thousands of black men lynched in America as part of a racially motivated campaign of terror; in the second, the man who helps Jesus carry his burden is, in the emphatic final word, black. Together these two sections offer rich suggestions of the African-American history of slavery, lynching, survival, and the sustenance and spirit of the black churches.

The first two sections have dealt with social spaces, and the titles have indicated very specific colors. In the third section, we are in a domestic space, and the color is unknown. These are existential terrors, affecting Nature as well as people. The high winds howl. The piglets howl along, in their squealing register, as if they've been stabbed – as if, the mother suggests, in another hint of the folkloric or nursery-rhyme element we've seen elsewhere in the set, they can see the wind. Seeing this unseen but powerful force is what frightens the little pigs. In contrast to the first two sections, this third one is relatively direct, lacking the complex social interaction of the first one and the implied cultural and historical references of the second: and yet, in conjunction with their examination of human pain and the suffering and fortitude in the face of pain, it opens the set out into a finally irresolvable vision of human suffering connected not just to race, history, religion, or culture, but to the unseen forces of the Universe.

This is from My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, edited and introduced by Gerald Early. A footnote to the poem explains the dedication "To Leland" by saying "Leland B. Pettit was the organist of the All Saints Cathedral Choir and, apparently, a good friend of Cullen during the mid-twenties. In 1925 he organized a reading for Cullen at the Atheneum in Milwaukee."

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