In the wild soft summer darkness
Aimé Césaire was one of the foremost French poets of the 20th century. He was also one of the foremost leftists on his home island of Martinique and in the French National Assembly. Upon his death in 2008, he was honored with a state funeral attended by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy—ironic, considering Césaire’s refusal to meet with him in 2005, after the passage of a bill compelling French history teachers to emphasize the “positive aspects” of French colonialism.
In 2013, the centenary of Césaire’s birth was marked by academic conferences and new scholarly editions of his work. His words still have enormous power outside the classroom as well—at the Festival d’Avignon that year, for instance, the playwright Dieudonné Niangouna revealed that while he was imprisoned during the Second Congo War and forbidden from speaking or reading French, he hid lines from Césaire’s long poem, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, on the inside of his shirt.
Temples look like discarded alphabets.
We loved lying in their shadows lazily
deciphering and resting and laying bets
on what they really were for. Easily
caught by fantasy, we no longer cared
why they were there, just that they were. Happy
to sit down and drink the water we shared
(having lugged our plastic bottle, and hats,
and camera, through the human dung bared.
right there in the sun—where else could you get
relief with no toilets?) we guzzled it down
and rubbed it on our arms, hands, legs, and necks.
A girl in dirty, expensive clothes found
us with the bottle and asked us for some.
I said no. As she left, a gagging smell wound
its way from the bottle’s damp lung.
I’ve often been asked to give what I’ve saved,
but under the temple I said no, numbed
against the girl, like one of those bridesmaids
who kept her oil in the Bible story
and was safe for the night. I’d hated those maids
until I became one in my story,
the shape of the character I’d searched for
surprising me as the temples did: See
how golden but pocked they’ve become, nor
are they quite decipherable any more,
at least to those who forget what they’re for,
which is worship, the greed of prayer.
“So that’s who you are,” my friend said. “Thirsty?”
With him I drank, not quite the maid in the story.
Two decades before Audubon, Alexander Wilson created a poetic catalog of American birds.
I don’t recall how I stumbled across the Scottish American poet Alexander Wilson, but it certainly wasn’t in the course of academic literary studies, in which he is unknown. It may have been through my friendship with Philip Lamantia, who, in addition to being the preeminent US surrealist poet, was an enthusiastic birder, as his 1991 poem “Passionate Ornithology Is Another Kind of Yoga” attests. Wilson is still known as the “Father of American Ornithology.” His nine-volume American Ornithology: or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1808–1814) is the foundational account of North American birds. As Edward H. Burtt Jr. and William E. Davis Jr. write in Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology (2013)—the only recent book on him—Wilson remains relevant to the field. In addition to his comprehensiveness and his early adoption of the Linnaean system of taxonomy, the poet “introduced a truly scientific approach to ornithology—dissection to explore dietary and morphological detail—and used behavioral, ecological, and quantitative observations.” Moreover, though John James Audubon and the National Audubon Society have long eclipsed Wilson in popular awareness, there remains a Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1888 and active on Twitter.
Given the dearth of interesting American poets before Poe, I’m surprised by how utterly Wilson has disappeared from the American literary canon. I don’t contend that he’s a great poet. His verse, ranging from the early, Robert Burns-influenced Scottish poems to the more plainspoken English poems of his American period, is of intermittent interest at best. His most ambitious poem, The Foresters (1809), is a 2,218-line chronicle, in Pope-like couplets, of a 1,300-mile hike from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls. It’s perhaps more valuable as an early US travelogue than as poetry, though it establishes Wilson as a prototypical American road poet, a precursor to Vachel Lindsay and Jack Kerouac. But if we take the wider view of poetry as potentially inherent in the writing of a poet regardless of genre, then Wilson’s highest poetic achievement is American Ornithology itself.
The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith
278 pp. The University of Arkansas Press. Paper, $29.95.
REVISE THE PSALM
Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku
Illustrated. 416 pp. Curbside Splendor Publishing. Paper, $24.95.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, 1917. But her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and she was a Chicagoan until her death, in 2000. The author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, Brooks holds the distinction of being the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for her second book of poems, “Annie Allen”), and she received numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Arts and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In honor of the centennial year of her birth, two anthologies have arrived: “Revise the Psalm,” edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku; and “The Golden Shovel Anthology,” edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith.
In their shared mission, these books complement each other without too much overlap. The novelist Richard Wright, in a reader’s report for Harper & Brothers in the early 1940s, declared Brooks essential: “America needs a voice like hers.” Confirming Wright’s claim are the hundreds of artists represented in these two new anthologies, poets who have used her work as a prompt or a point of engagement.
Auriol Bishop explores the role of poetry in times of turbulence and trouble
What is it about poetry when it feels as though the world is falling apart?
Pithy, expressive, capturing in a soundbite all you want to say and mean; and in far better words than you could have put it yourself – if you reach for your favourite collection of poems at moments of crisis, you can be sure you’re not alone. Social media is alive with poetry new and old, words of comfort and inspiration being shared between friends and strangers. There are numerous blogs, as well as articles in the mainstream press with poetry reading lists to bring you solace in these troubled times of ours.
And you’re in the company of many a world leader and public figure, too, of course: from Jeremy Corbyn declaiming Shelley to the cheering crowds at Glastonbury to President Putin’s public broadcast of the words of Andrey Dementyev for International Women’s Day, there’s a perennial appeal to the higher authority of a poet’s words that have already stood the test of time.
One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was known for her fierce commitment to human rights and political activism. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. A prolific writer across genres, Jordan’s poetry is known for its immediacy and accessibility as well as its interest in identity and the representation of personal, lived experience—her poetry is often deeply autobiographical. Jordan’s work also frequently imagines a radical, globalized notion of solidarity amongst the world’s marginalized and oppressed. In volumes like Some Changes (1971), Living Room (1985) and Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997 (1997), Jordan uses conversational, often vernacular English to address topics ranging from family, bisexuality, political oppression, African American identity and racial inequality, and memory. Regarded as one of the key figures in the mid-century African American social, political and artistic milieu, Jordan also taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities including Yale, State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkley, where she founded Poetry for the People. Her honors and awards included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and the National Association of Black Journalists Award.
Read the complete biography from the Poetry Foundation
Poem for My Love
By June Jordan
How do we come to be here next to each other
in the night
Where are the stars that show us to our love
Outside the leaves flame usual in darkness
and the rain
falls cool and blessed on the holy flesh
the black men waiting on the corner for
a womanly mirage
I am amazed by peace
It is this possibility of you
and breathing in the quiet air
by Sharon Olds
The long bands of mellow light
across the snow
The sun closes her gold fan
and nothing is left but black and white–
the quick steam of my breath, the dead
accurate shapes of the weeds, still, as if
pressed in an album.
Deep in my body my green heart
turns, and thinks of you. Deep in the
pond, under the thick trap
door of ice, the water moves,
the carp hangs like a sun, its scarlet
heart visible in its side.
For Amy Lowell
We walked through garden closes
Languidly, with dragging Sunday feet,
And passed down a long pleached alley,
And could remember, as one remembers in a fairy tale,
Ladies in brocade, and lovers, and musk.
We surprised tall dahlias
That shrugged and turned scarlet faces to the breeze.