Aug 27
Wednesday

Issue XII, Volume V : August 2014

Michael S. Harper - Poetry

Michael-S-Harper.jpg Michael S. Harper, University Professor and professor of English at Brown University, is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Songlines in Michaeltree;Dear John, Dear Coltrane;Honorable Amendments;Images of Kin;History Is Your Own Heartbeat and, most recently, Use Trouble (U of Illinois P, 2009). He has also edited I Do Believe in People: Remembrances of W. Warren Harper, 1915-2004 (Effendi Press, 2005). He is Poet Laureate Emeritus of Rhode Island and has been honored with the Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America, the Melville Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the Robert Hayden Poetry Award, among others.
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 Photograph by Mary Beth Meehan
 
 
Michael S. Harper interview with John Hoppenthaler
 
With the publication of your first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, (selected for the Pittsburgh University Press Poetry Series by Gwendolyn Brooks) in 1970, you were quickly recognized as a major voice in American poetry; your most recent collection, Use Trouble, appeared earlier this year. I’m interested to learn about how your poetry has or has not changed during your forty year journey. In poems that accompany this interview, for example, I see that while your use of musical rather than metrical rhythm is still apparent, the syntactical structure of individual lines and sentences seems sometimes ruptured, as though the music is not exactly discordant, but somehow rougher than in your earlier work.
 
 
As I look back from Dear John, Dear Coltrane, I think my writing, published and unpublished, falls into three categories:”Public Rhetoric,” for example the first and last poems in Dear John, Dear Coltrane; ”Private Discourse/Meditation,” including: family, tribal knowledge, affiliation, unconscious loyalty and behavior, and the cavalcade of Behavioral Sciences; and ”Secrets,” including those delusionary conceits this poet hides from himself: marriage to a toxic, diabolical woman, the loss of children by respiratory-distress-syndrome, “the blues aint nothin’ but a po’ man’s heart disease.”
 
I was given a “Rhyming Dictionary” early in my development, but no mentoring I could recognize from the beginning [see “Beginnings” by Robert Hayden, in his Collected Poems]—perhaps because I’m one of those blockheads who could be taught nothing and had to learn everything the hard way, solo, in Bill Evans’s Conversations with Myself terms. This was compounded by race in America, the neighborhoods I lost, Brooklyn, New York, at thirteen; the neighborhood I NEVER felt comfortable in, Los Angeles of the early ‘50s (not Watts but the gerrymandered west of La Brea Avenue and Adams Boulevard); the film noire of my Freudian/Jungian private readings and fantasies; the post office hegemony of downtown Terminal Annex near Union Station; local and national politics framed through my father’s life and times [I’m Katherine (a memoir) by W. Warren Harper, 1993] in the “registry”; and me working the facing table, part-time, in the same building, so our group could meet the helicopter to LAX from the roof of the Terminal Annex, both stamped and metered mail, and manned by other part-time workers, most of us students, under my motley supervision; the Iowa Writers Workshop (both fiction & poetry); and the “African Continuum.”   All of this happened before I had any notion of the Black Arts Movement, which I saw, then and now, as localities of landscape spread across a very diverse and confusing America of the ‘60s, including the syndrome of the Vietnam War, SDS, the Hippy Movement of both coasts, and The Next Ninety Years (Cal Tech UP, 1953) on the allocation of world resources (at the time the USA was less than 6% of the world’s population, but it consumed more than 60% of the world’s resources). As a pre-med major, whole books would come to me via the periodic table; the translation of these ideas are suffused in the title of my published and unpublished books, highlighting my proclivities of the “seen” and the “unseen”—spiritual, hegemonic, literary, incremental, philosophical, racial, anarchic, familial, private/secretive:”All the Things You Are” (Charlie Parker’s many medicinal versions on Royal Roost), The Epic of Search, all ending with a rejoinder to help the children  and do no harm to anyone, to find the proper mode of speech and song and, therefore, to USE TROUBLE.   
 
I started out writing plays, one-act plays, with Lester Young as the primal voice of discourse; nobody understood Prez, so beautiful his interpretive skills, so profane his private language. His monikers to his contemporaries: Lady Day, Sweets Edison, “I don’t mind the waterfall / but I can’t stand the mustard.” That was genius I couldn’t sustain at my age with no models closeby except white Englishmen and white ex-G.I.s who’d gone to college or university on the G.I. Bill, something my father didn’t qualify for, though he completed law school but never practiced.
 
Syntax and lineation was always important to me: my Iowa thesis was entitled Blues & Laughter, which I stole/removed from the Iowa Library; at the time I could not have seen any connection between my precious title and the poetry and collaborative writing of Langston Hughes, but it’s perfectly discernible now: he was an influence. My social experience and my private world wouldn’t allow for copy & paste at the time; had I possessed the talent and discipline, I’d have chosen music, since musicians of a certain stance were my role models. The notion of being a schoolteacher was not on my horizon, and I wouldn’t allow myself to be segregated, in praxis or in my mind, even if you couldn’t rent an apartment in the “Athens of the Midwest,” Iowa City, Iowa. I read a lot during my early years, across the curriculum, and bided my time.
 
As I researched your career for this interview, I was struck by the fact that some articles specifically identify you with the Black Arts Movement, while in others your name seems conspicuous in its absence. What was your relationship to that historical movement, and how do you now assess the influence and accomplishments of those politically-driven black American poets of your generation?
 
I met Oliver Lee Jackson, the painter/sculptor, at Iowa in 1961. He was a virtuoso artist and thinker. We spent hours discussing “The African Continuum,” “Bantu Philosophy,” The Golden Stool of Akan Philosophy [see Willie Abraham & Kwame Nkrumah’s intellectual cabinet of cultural and political advisors], and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and most importantly Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was reading “Umbra,” “Negro Digest,” “Poetry,” and magazines from the centers of black populations: Harlem, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit; black newspapers and campus publications spread by the grapevine, pioneers, mostly musicians, who carried the news. Jackson’s twin towers were Beethoven and Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose solos he could whistle, note for note. He was from St. Louis and painted on a vast scale; he was also a draftsman who could draw and teach “Life Drawing” (see “High Modes” section of History is Your Own Heartbeat, 1971, and a long essay by John S. Wright analyzing the modes of narrative and collage in my “associative leaping.” “High Modes” is also a composition by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. 
 
Much of the confusion over the Black Arts Movement has to do with publishing and editing and editors. I was a friend of Abraham Chapman, who edited Black Voices. He and his wife, Belle, knew Richard Wright in Chicago in the 1930s. Abe and I would talk about Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, and exchange visits at our homes in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and New London, Minnesota over several summers in the early seventies. Several of my students gathered a dozen or more interviews I’d done over the years in an attempt to compile a Michael S. Harper Reader, but I was caught between editors like Ken McCormick at Doubleday and Ann Harris at Harper & Row, both of whom rejected books of mine I did not want to change, for any reason. I was also rejected by Dudley Randall’s Detroit Press.  I was my own agent and have always hoped to control my publications by advanced marketing and independent production: this was before the internet and the now prominent digital divide. I always knew my efforts were channeled by older artists, beginning with Gwendolyn Brooks. My fifteen minutes of fame was an appearance in TIME Magazine, April 1970, with Jesse Jackson on the cover; the center essay was “What Would America Be without Blacks,” by Ralph Ellison, and my first book was reviewed in the same magazine but without a picture. Then I was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry but did not win. My sense is that all things popular are driven by timing.  Mine has been fickle and certainly not controlled by me.  By temperament I’m not a joiner.
 
When I met Robert Hayden at Michigan in 1971, I was on tour for “poetry in the schools” and regional college readings from the Center for Advanced Study at Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Hayden was seated in the back; after the reading I approached him and said, “Mr. Hayden, you’re a great poet and I’m pleased to meet you. Would you sign my hard copy of your book of poems, Words inthe Mourning Time?” Hayden smiled and muttered, almost under his breath, “I was all prepared not to like you, Mr. Harper.” Later, I was to read Baraka’s review of Hayden’s poems in Negro Digest, where a focus on Hayden’s poem “Witch Doctor” was criticized for hyperbole, when it was clear to me that the rhetoric-inflation was directly connected with the poem’s subject, the magical hold of “Daddy Grace” archetypal divines on their congregations (see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, for example.)  Hayden knew his Baptist ministers from his boyhood in Detroit’s “Paradise Valley.” I was more than blessed with my symbolic mentors: Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, and Ralph Ellison, whom I called my “four horseman of apocalypse.” They were my literary ancestors and my teachers by example.
 
What is your opinion of the younger black poets these days? It seems, with organizations like Cave Canem in place to lend support and with black poets now teaching at many colleges and universities, that today’s is a particularly strong group, that there are more young black poets writing at a high level today than ever before. Natasha Trethewey, for instance, recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
 
I think Cave Canem is a remarkable turn for the better, an advantage to black poets in the digital age; I taught three summers (1998-2000) in their program, and I am inspired by their productivity and vision, not to mention their publication record by alumni(ae). I have taught Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard in my Advanced Poetry Writing seminar, even written for her tenure at Emory, though I don’t know her personally. In fact I’ve supported a number of the Cave Canem folks for college and university assignments, and I’ve been happy to do so. Cornelius Eady, Elizabeth Alexander , toi derricote, Michael Weaver, and Thomas Sayers Ellis are all excellent and diverse artists. They represent a fearlessness and zeal I find invigorating, a resource for the American tongue at large. 
 
A narrative about Gwendolyn Brooks will stand for service in the private annals of teaching: I wrote her citation for an honorary doctorate in 1974 at Brown and was required to deliver her and her family to a presidential luncheon for honorands at the Brown Presidential residence to which I was not invited.  Ms. Brooks asked me,”was I attending,” and I said, “No, I wasn’t invited; my mission is to deliver you and your family to the luncheon.” There was a pause, or should I say a caesura: “You know, Michael, this isn’t my first honorary degree, and I don’t really have to attend.” I knew I had to deliver Ms. Brooks to the luncheon, so I asked, politely, “how many degrees do you have?” And she said; “Oh, about 75.” Then I explained that Judge Sirica, of Watergate fame, was also an honorand and that people of influence were lobbying for space at the garden tables. Would it be ok if I picked her and her family up by 2 p.m. after the luncheon? She demurred but she was not happy.
 
Later we read together in 1990 at Brooklyn College by invitation of Allen Ginsberg and his class on contemporary poetry. During question and answer period, I was asked by a retired lieutenant of the Nits, a famous Brooklyn gang of my youth, how was detention at Protea Station in South Africa; was that the first time I’d been arrested? I answered, with a smile, no; my first arrest was as an eight-year-old in Brooklyn, where all arrest records begin for black males, in childhood.  Then in 1991 Ms. Brooks gave the convocation at Brown for a new academic year. I was smart enough to ask her if she would like to visit the “Harris Collection,” in the John Hay library, where her books, pamphlets, and broadsides were ready to be signed by the author. Ms. Brooks spent over an hour doing justice to the Gwendolyn Brooks holdings at the Brown Library.  Another reading at the Guggenheim Library was a program honoring Black History Month, and Ms. Brooks had arranged for twenty copies of Blacks, her first collected poems not published by Harper & Row, to be sent to my students at Brown at no charge. Without her permission, I had a copy bound of Blacks bound in Nigerian calf-skin by Mr. Knowlton, in the Hay bindery, and presented to her at the Guggenheim. For the first and only time I have witnessed, Our Miss Brooks was speechless. When she composed herself, a few moments later, she quipped, “the greatest gift one poet can give to another is to bind a book in leather that one poet would wish for, but not fathom the care or the cost,” and I said it was a gift from my students who insisted “she was the best, who deserved the best.” We stand on the shoulders of our elders.
 
Your essay, “The Metaphysics of American Journey,” is largely about working with Robert Hayden in 1978, two years before his death, on American Journal (a limited edition collection which you published as the first offering of Effendi Press). “He wanted to demonstrate, ‘at this late date,’” you write, “that he was still a working poet.” You’re now several years older than was Hayden in 1980 when he died. Clearly, you still are “a working poet,” and still a teaching poet, too. I guess my question is, does poetry continue to be a thing that burns in your belly, or is it now a less compelling thing than it was for you in your younger days? 
 
I remember Melissa Ozawa writing to me about an essay or ars poetica assay on my own work. I was teaching at Bowdoin as Talman Professor and snowbound. One of her friends had been a student at Brown who worked in the library, but he was always late or missing with her assignments—they both were from New Jersey. Remember my “Do No Harm” mantra in Use Trouble. I have tried to “use trouble” by not violating that principle, which I learned, at least in part, by my four horsemen, whenever they taught, by metaphor, or example. Twenty years had gone by since Hayden’s death, and I thought the poetry community needed an update on his unique prosody, his vision, the forward-looking “memorial speech”(Auden) he had glossed from studying with Auden, the only poet to whom he would defer. Since I was not his contemporary, but a friend and ally, Hayden’s career made me wince with ambivalence: his early promise; losing his publisher, David Way, when October House went out of business; his editing World Order (A Baha’I journal); the fact that so many American poets, younger and white, did not know of his achievements: Kinnell, Merwin, both students of William Meredith at Princeton as undergraduates; it was Bill Meredith who sent his best student, Gayl Jones, to me at Brown in the early ‘70s and Meredith who saw I won an award from the National Institute of Letters; Meredith was a great supporter of Hayden’s career.
 
Hayden’s knowledge and non-romantic immersion in the life and times of the poor—“Those Winter Sundays”—his sonnet for his stepfather—(“Elegies for Paradise Valley” and “Uncle Crip,” his lame uncle who was murdered—Hayden’s hair had turned white in grief!); his lost play, Harriet Tubman, written during the period of his Hopwood awards at Michigan and “The Black Spear Trilogy”;”Middle Passage,” his epic poem he felt was somehow unfinished; “Po’ Wayfaring Stranger,” the folk song, as posthumous title to his poems knit together by his neighborhood, Paradise Valley, poems not properly gathered, with appropriate annotations with time-line; enrolling his only daughter, Maia, in the Little Red Schoolhouse, to avoid segregated schools in Nashville; Hayden’s composer-pianist wife, Erma Hayden—“Theme & Variation; Hayden’s poem “October” where his conceit is not to name the colors of fall openly, but to infer the season of tumult and change, and to honor his wife and daughter, by incremental leaping: from Godhead, to saint, to poet, to reader; his refusal to be a nationalist when his first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust, which he called “apprentice-work,” was too much stained by the patina of the Depression and Protest.  His love for tradition and “romantic-realism” and his own theory of adaptation, where pattern is informed by “solving for X” (Auden’s algebra for symbolic geometry). 
 
For myself poetry still burns in the residue, for I have still failed of a certain parlance, a certain elegance and tonality of phrase and nuance; to add what the musicians knew: “Don’t Explain” and don’t fear being too personal, too idiosyncratic, too bizarre, too (Monk) “straight, no chaser,” too rigorous to modify impeccable phrasing, genetic inheritance, the muse of Juneteenth—“in freedom try to write your name on her mind.”
 
You have said that “[m]etaphor is the most important conveyance for civic responsibility, what we call ‘citizenship’ where mistakes are opportunities.” Could you expand on this in terms of your poetry and career?   
 
I owe my personal VARIORUM of Michael S. Harper poems to the memory of President Howard Swearer, Brown’s president during my best time during my Brown career, the president who named me to a chair in 1982 (Israel James Kapstein Professor of English), named for a retired “Kappy,” whom I met in the early ‘70s. I wasn’t asked, but I would’ve preferred the “Martin Luther King, Jr. University chair in the Humanities” or no name at all; there were no perks then as we improvised toward a kind of “relief” from working non-stop for a decade with almost no writing done of my own.  I shared a secretary, and a telephone and number, during a financial crunch beginning in the early seventies. One time I was at U Penn in Philadelphia at a conference and Jay Saunders Redding, who was then teaching at Cornell but was a beloved Brown graduate, attended the conference as a “conservative” presence. I had warned President Hornig about the unrest among the students and the renewal of a five year agreement, and I esuggested he met with the students before the deadline; on the second day of the conference, Brown was under student occupation, on CBS News. I said to Professor Redding: I have to go back! Someone has to counsel the students about what is the historical moment, and what is the behavior expected, and somehow not recorded. Redding’s No Day of Triumph, a non-fiction classic, with introduction by Richard Wright, was a book I insisted my colleagues read, after they read Charles H. Nichols’s Many Thousands Gone: The Ex-Slaves’ Account of their Bondage and Freedom (1963), the book that brought me to Brown in the first place, and the first Ph.D doctoral dissertation granted at Brown in the Humanities, 1948. I wrote poems, occasionally, for these men: Swearer, Redding, Nichols, and for several of my colleagues whom I befriended. Since I came with tenure, I was fearless, knowing full-well that Brown’s culture was byzantine and sometimes indecipherable. I taught across the curriculum, mostly seminars, and wrote when I could. Years earlier I began teaching at community colleges and wrote after I’d corrected many sections of composition: the midnight oil was not new to me, nor were blue books poorly written. 
 
I didn’t expect to get paid for doing what had chosen me, the writing of poetry.  I also didn’t calculate the cost.  One did what one loved without negotiation.  Only the muse was truly in charge: “Orpheus & Eurydice” were iconic; I’d seen the movie Black Orpheus and had an ancestor who was a missionary, John Albert Johnson, grandfather of my mother, presiding elder at Frederick Douglass’s funeral, 1895, Memorial AME Church, Washington, D.C. Both my mother’s father and grandfather were Canadians; her father delivered his own children at home, and I was delivered in the same 902 Lafayette Avenue residence. My mother, who died in 1988, used to ask me when my discussing career, maintenance, and staying in the black: “where is the cash crop?” Meaning, how are you going to provide for yourself?  I had no clue. Both my parents had secrets, would not share them, and had a correspondence no one was allowed to read.  As the oldest of three, I was expected to toe the line and help my mother; therefore, I had no childhood, though I had no authority when it came to my siblings. Race was a conundrum, as practiced in the Americas; class was more mysterious, the making and investing in money.  Literacy and education, no matter how accrued, were invaluable virtues and responsibilities, but Art was transformative.  I craved transformation because I never understood the clan I was born into, or the laws that prevailed.  As Hayden says in his “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” “no time for Pestalozzi’s fiorelli.” So who was Pestalozzi, and what is fiorelli? Dictionaries and Google will begin the search.  
 
As a child I had no idea of the scale of the Depression, its impact on my parents and relatives; I had not missed a single meal.  It took Robert Bone to point out to me, at a Romare Bearden exhibition at the American Museum in New York, that my poetry came from the loss of my true neighborhood, the Brooklyn of my youth, and now my imagination. There was no going back, literally, to the Brooklyn brownstones.
 
All children should have a tutor and a companion, like Gilgamesh had Enkidu. Swearer knew that citizenship was national service; he imagined that if you served your country for two years you should have life-time universal healthcare, when you needed it most, in old age, and you’d already earned it by donating your skills for the greater good when you were young.  After his death I was made a “University Professor”(the Kapstein chair was removed, and asked Vartan Gregorian to allow me to teach across the university curriculum without encumbrances, finally free of departmental restriction. There were my personal minutes from presidential meetings but no official paper trail from Gregorian.”Meet Life’s Terms but Never Accept Them.” 
 
I’ve written much more than I’ve published in quarterlies or on-line operatives, and though I haven’t mastered the “digital divide”(the transition from paper archives to digital formatting is the next vista transiting the information divide), I have kept copious files of poems, some in need of revision, many documenting my teaching and praxis for writing, prosody, art-making, literature: “a study in comparative humanity”; if “God is willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be there--”  I have most of my student files from Brown since my arrival.  I’ll self-publish and hope there are walk-in libraries, or on-line reserves to denote/connote “a scrupulous meanness,” James Joyce’s term for “keeping proverbial notes,” or as the anthropologists used to say: maintain a “useless curiosity,” the gathering of miscellaneous facts which have no application: “let the doing be the exercise, not the exhibition” (Jean Toomer, Essentials).  There is also neuro-science and the brain, hence the periodic table. As Sterling Brown said about the sanctity of teaching, “I learned the Arts & Sciences at Williams and Harvard; I learned the humanities in Lynchburg, Virginia.” (see “An Integer Is A Whole Number” by this author, student of ancestors & relatives: “it’s a wise blues that knows its father.”—Sterling A. Brown to Michael S. Harper, in conversation).
 
There are many questions, many what ifs: what if I’d stayed put at Iowa and replicated the pathways of my teachers, Henri Coulette and Wirt Williams. It was Dr. Bell, Ph.D, at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught me Zoology in fall semester 1955, at Los Angeles City College, as I focused the microscope and counted somites for his nematode/earthworm study: “there was no point taking his class, I could not get into Medical School.” I was seventeen, working in the post office, part time.  He told a similar story to a classmate, George Siegel, in the same undetectable whisper. Mr. Greene in English took similar positions on my competence in a English composition class that same semester.  The car I drove at the time, a ’51 Chevie with dual spotlights and a louvered hood, was broken into, the spotlights stolen, by some rivals from a visiting junior college, Ventura Community College. I transferred 126 units to Los Angeles State College from LACC.  It took three semesters at L.A.S.C. to work my way to Iowa and my miseducation. “And that has made all the difference.”
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1965 Watts Riot
 
 
I watched this on C.B.S. news from New (Long Lake)
London, Minnesota, 56273 out of Alexandria feed
when I watched at all; 'this will set your people back
one hundred years,' Lyal said; my answer, from the patio,
armed in L.A. lifeguard shorts, "they built the country
let them burn it down," and race rituals
turned summersaults into race relations,
as I drove off with his daughter
to the bay area, where she would complete school
rather than sell tail in the Fillmore district
of the Group Areas Act, in our “apartheid” section:
if you could not feel safe in S.F. where could you feel
safe in America; even at S.F.S.U. there were police, pickets,
and me driving “Sug” to study in the school library
while she waited for 'respiratory-distress-children'
to hatch prematurely, to incubator, isolette,
and never her arms to comfort, and not to suckle.
 
I have no memories of how her relatives “across the bay”
could abandon her, sell baby-furnishings and clothes,
to one they knew as blood; I cannot forget them.
 
And I cannot forgive you, America, with your obsessions,
disabling even the kindest regard into armed camps
which are not bantustans, off-color sweet oases.
 
And I must address my children who survived,
and who will not ever know their father's
grief at stud poker, the driving wheel
of art and song in graffiti-American parlance:
 
I would sum it up as turkey feathers,
and the value of the birds
in their containers;
                             at Roaring Stoney
where her father sent us on what he imagined
-would be a lovely honeymoon,
                                                 it was deserted;
in town, on all forks of the Little Crow River,
we could not live among you;
 
                                               no number of Uncle Tom’s Cabins
or Huck and Jim could civilize this terrain,
even on water; you can erase Chippewa names
with every tarbrush and never feel at home:
 
I must teach this to my children; how to live
across the blood, how to portage, how to transfuse
hate to love; how to disseminate, how to ease;
 
in 1991 there was another L.A. riot, on my mother's birthday,
though she was already three years gone;
 
we must traverse the news together, all that's reported,
all on the cutting room floor; and in the heart
of she who walked to school up Holloway Avenue
and should have taken the trolley downtown
to bart, and gone across to see her people:
 
 
 
            Los Angeles Coliseum Olympic Swimming Pool, 1960
 

            You sit in your perch, 6-12/2-6,
            as the swimmers do their regimen,
            eight lanes or nine
            is the superstition
            of the coaches, the handlers
            setting the pitch
            for all strokes;
            and the relays
            are extra,
            the light smell of chlorine
            vectored into body lotion,
            caps
            and the ubiquitous swirl
            of the kick
            which hunts in cycles
            as a shark
            underwater.
 
            With goggles, a long poll,
            and uneven fins
            you brush the deep end
            early
            so the sediment
            callows
            to the drains;
            at seventeen feet
            your eardrums pop,
            only a jockstrap
            to recoil
            the best upperbody
            workout
            in the ghetto
            which is where you live
            according to the white-haired
            superintendent
            of city water,
            in-service training,
            and the wisdom of race rituals
            he tells as jokes
            to amuse the lifeguards:
 
            one such joke
            is about the bulletheaded
            “blackboy” who would not stop
            running to the whistle,
            and once fell off the three
            meter board,            
            losing his balance on a cutaway,
            and gibbon-like
            grabbed the edge
            of the rocking board
            and fell askew
            to hit his head on the deck,
            the diamond patterns of the edge
            like a razorback:
 
            the bullethead boy
            would walk away with a welt
            and not like the pits
            of a splat watermelon
            in a 1930's movie skit
            and so be vectored
            into the humor of the sup
            and all the nervous
            inductees,
            including the bouncer,
            rotund, on the payroll,
            and black as the enforcer
            to life-saving techniques
            in the deep end.
 
            Meanwhile, it is Saturday,
            and Pancho is teaching all
            kids on the tennis court
            to serve; I learn his techniques
            from this distance
            as I patrol the lanes
            of the swimmers,
            on this day the girls
            Athletic League team
            who are girls
            entering pubescence,
            their scales
            glistening in calories
            they shed
            in intramural meets
            with the boys
            who challenge them
            to lower the clock
            and shed their one-piece
            suits for the cream.
 
            One retrieves a dummy
            in seventeen feet,
            cross-carries the burlap
            sack to the edge,
            hoists oneself
            and the dummy
            out of water
            and assumes the position
            to resuscitate;
 
            for live action
            the bouncer allows
            you to drift to the bottom,
            as a diver would
            from the platform
            (not so fast)
            and grab you from behind
            so you might use your techniques
            in the mimeod skit
            and bring him to the surface,
            to the edge,
            hoist him out:
 
          


 assume the position:

[for Sammy Owens, and in memory of Edward “Lonnie” Chapman, lifeguards-extraordinaire]
 
 
 Son: [“Nuremburg, Mi Amore”]
           
                       “Life is to be lived not controlled;
                        this is not prophecy but description.”
                                                           ---Ralph Waldo Ellison, [1914-1994]
 
In St. Luke’s group Dr. Mellman
finally asked of you ‘write me a sentence.’
 
Further uptown in what JET national
report calls West Harlem, New York
 
a section of Riverside Park unveils
a 15’ bronze monolith with a silhouette
 
of a man cut out of the center
the “invisible man” sculpture faces
 
the longtime home of Invisible Man
author Ralph Waldo Ellison in New York City’s
 
marble monument summarizing its content:
“His pioneering novel, Invisible Man,

details the struggles of a young
African-American man in a hostile society.”
 
You waited one afternoon in Plainfield
for him to will you his Chrysler
 
when you were old enough to drive:
later, I hit a quail in his dirt driveway
 
off Lincoln Hill Rd  his mailbox hit by
snowplow  the foundation of the burnt
 
bungalow in 1967 still in evidence:
saved his dog, Tuckatarby, but not his book
 
which Fanny saw (complete) on the study desk:
now, after  blood levels and prescribed meds

you’ll drive uptown to Riverside Park  take
a snapshot of Elizabeth Catlett’s bronze cutout  
take off the hangband of Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar
and describe  describe  describe: to your heart’s content
 
                                                for Patrice Cuchulain Harper
 
 


Larry Doby

Saw his name on a poster at
Kenyon College honoring
Negro League Ballplayers
(remember seeing him play
 
in Newark in '46 I was a Jint fan
when the Bums brought Jackie
 
up from Montreal fought every day at
Ebbets Field   Jack threw me a ball
 
into the bleachers when they played
Stan the Man   Country Slaughter   Slats
 
Marion) Doby broke in when my aunt
Lived on E 97   what he took Jack took
 
But Doby had no outlet the writers drift He buried all protest with his family
 
Yogi asked him to join the pta in
Jersey (kept asking him even before
they ate
 
together as family) I remember the
Injun pitchers throwing at him until
Satchel
 
showed up   then that stopped and
Easter was no St Luke playing gospel
music
 
Mays put his arm around Doby in '54
You could cover the alleys even straight
back
 
Doby was a citizen when the klan
showed up In american flags smoke
from their fires
 
On the trestles of jim crow funeral cars
(Doby carried his flag inside his chest
Yogi said)