Sunday, September 1, 2013

Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child

Delivered as the Phi Beta Kappa poem, College of William and Mary, December 5, 1969

          to my brother Jack


from my journal, March 8, 1969: Garnie's whisper to me, while we were watching a construction operation near Radio City. The operation had reached that early stage at which the workmen had dug extremely deep into the intended foundation of the building, obviously therefore to be a new skyscraper. As Garnie watched the working men, they were far below, and, to his eyes, as to mine, they appeared very small. About a third of them were Negroes.. And this is exactly what he whispered to me. It has to, and it can--only it can--speak for itself:

You know,
if a blind boy
ride his bicycle
down there
he might fall into that water
I think it's water
but I don't know
they call it acid
and if that poor boy
drive his poor blind bicycle
into that acid
he drown
he die
and then
they bury him


to the Ohio

Along Aetnaville, where I was born,
I want to spend my eternity
In hell with you.
And the moment I'm off, I'm off
Back home to my own river.

My rotted Ohio,
It was only a little while ago
That I learned the meaning of your name.
The Winnebago gave you your name, Ohio,
And Ohio means beautiful river.

In this final dawn
Of my life,
I think of two lines by the unhappy and half-forgotten
American poet H. Phelps Putnam.

He was writing about a lonely girl's lovely place.
He cried out, "That reeking slit, wide, soft, and lecherous,
From which we bleed, and into which we drown."

Oh, my secret and lovely place, up shore from the railroad,
My bareass beach,
This is not a poem.
This is not an apology to the Muse.
This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire
To his brother and friend.
If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.
Thank you.

Oh my back-broken beloved Ohio.
I, too, was beautiful, once, 
Just like you.
We were both still a little
Young, then.
Now, all I am is a poet,
Just like you.
This morning I feel like that old child
You gathered so often
Into your rinsing arms,
And bathed, and healed.
I feel lonesome,
And sick at heart,
And I don't know



learning from MacDiarmid

The kind of poetry I want to write is
          The poetry of a grown man.
The young poets of New York come to me with
Their mangled figures of speech,
But they have little pity
For the pure clear word.

I know something about the pure clear word,
Though I am not yet a grown man.
And who is he?

The long body of his dream is the beginning of a dark
Hair under an illiterate
Girl's ear.

And everybody goes on explaining to us
The difference between a nutmeg and a squirrel,
The grown man plows down.

He longs for the long body of his dream.
He works slowly day by long day.
He gets up in the morning and curses himself
Into black silence.
He has got his guts kicked in,
And he says
Nothing. (Reader, I am a liar. He says plenty.)
He shuts up.
He dies.
He grows.


This morning
My beloved rose, before I did,
And came back again.

The kind of poetry I want is my love
Who comes back with the rain. Oh I
Would love to lie down long days long, the long
Down slipping the gown from her shoulders.

I got to go to work.

Work be damned, the kind
Of poetry I want
Is to lie down with my love.

All she is
Is a little ripple of rain
On a small waterfall.

What do you want from me?


on the way to the planetarium

That bright black boy whom I love
Came out of the grocery
On the other side of the street.

If you don't know that street,
84th and Amsterdam,
Be proud and true to yourself if you go there.
Otherwise, get through it
Fast as you can.
He'll catch you.
He's the gingerbread man.

That lithe white girl whom I love
Stood on the one side of 84th  
And Amsterdam.

That bright black boy whom she loves
Yelled from the other side of the street:

Can Kinny come too?
Kinny's my brother.

I yelled: Garnie,
The light's changing.
Get the HELL over here.

Can Kinny come too?
I ain't got nothing but my brother.

Garnie, you and Kinny get the hell over here.

I ain't got nothing but my brother.

Neither have I, get the hell over here.

And then my lithe proud love, a little darker
Than Kinny, lifted
The baby Gemela into her long and lonely arms,
And left her back home because
Outside it was raining.



Small fawn edging through the underbrush,
Small fawn secret,
My love, my love"s
Secret fawn
Fell asleep on my love's white shoulder because
It was raining,
And she couldn't go with us
To raise cain on the way to the planetarium
And brood on the stars there.

Gemela face down the Hudson River
Where even the rats drift
Belly up.
Aren't they cute little pickaninny fawns
Drifting face down the Hudson with the rats
Belly up?


A Message from the Mountain Pool
Where the Deer Come Down

My love and I went swimming naked one afternoon
When mother and daughter came down and watched us and went
In their own good time.
For once in our lives we did not frighten
The creation. It never occurred to them
What we might be.

I have a little time left, Jack.
I don't know what you want.
But I know what I want.
I want to live my life.
And how can I live my life
Unless you live yours?

All this time I've been slicking into my own words
The beautiful language of my friends.
I have to use my own, now.
That's why this scattering poem sounds the way it does.
You're my brother at last,
And I don't have anything
Except my brother
And many of our waters in our native country,
When they break.
And when they break,
They break in a woman's body,
They break in your man's heart,
And they break in mine:

Pity so old and alone, it is not alone, yours, or mine,
The pity of rivers and children, the pity of brothers, the pity
Of our country, which is our lives.

--James Wright
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), pp. 210-16

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