Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Poem of the Week


when I see the shadow of the hawk
but not the hawk itself do you know
what it feels like Boss a stone a stone
set on my chest it weighs me down
it's stronger than the horse's strain
against the plow lines Boss it's like
the river after rain I can't
hold back the pull the pull that makes
me like its heft I even like
the shadow's tiny yoke O Boss
I feel its curve around my neck
I see a flap of wings so black
it binds me to the furrows Boss
a shadow smarter than the sting
of a switch though it is lighter than
a feather though it is thinner than
a leaf that shadow stone is one
of many wonders Boss for all
the world it makes me think of you
you heavy thing you never move

--Maurice Manning

This poem is from a book called Bucolics, in which none of the poems have proper titles (the title if this poem and the others are just roman numerals). I haven't read the book. I haven't read any of Manning's books, in fact, but this is an intriguing poem.

Upon first reading it, I was a bit taken aback. It's clear from the onset that it's a persona poem, but by the third line, when I found the word "Boss" (the only word other than "I" capitalized throughout the poem), I became a little leery. I was very leery, cautious even, by the time I reached the twelfth line which reads: "I see a flap of wings so black/ it binds me to the furrows Boss..."

This stops me because of something Ms. Lucille Clifton said to me, to a group of poets at Cave Canem, I just felt like she was talking specifically to me, in a workshop once. She said, "Never use the words dark or black in a negative light. People have already done that enough." Since then, of course, I've been paying rapt attention, maybe too much. By the time I got to these lines in Manning's poem, I'd begun asking the questions. Is this a negative usage? Is that what the author meant? Did he know or think to know? Should I be jolted by it? This continued as I made my way down the page, dissecting each word or phrase as it came.

Some who stumble upon this blog might immediately get the sense of my dilemma, without any explanation, but I think, for my own sake in the very least, I should make sure there is no 'gray space' here. My immediate sense as I am reading this poem is that the persona is that of a black man--a slave perhaps, a sharecropper--stuck in the regiment of the old South. This is not a problem or even strange, until I discover that this poem was written by a white poet, or a poet I am assuming (as I do not personally know him) is a white poet. Now, the fact that I believe the persona is that of a black man is not an issue, I am not sure, however, as I have not read the book, whether it is meant to be one of many voices in a group of voices that rallies against the restrictions of class and economy, etc. or if it is one poem in a group of many that will lean more towards caricature than anything else, that border on appropriation in a way. This isn't a new argument/discussion, we've had it in the past and still have it. As a matter of fact, I was reading a group of poems by a black poet the other day who was writing about issues in another culture and I had to say, though some of them were spectacular poems, Some of these images are becoming repetitive and stale, mostly because you are not in and of this particular culture. You are creating caricatures without knowing it or intending to and this is problematic.

Truth be told, upon my first read, I liked this poem. I was knocked out by the pacing and the ending, but then, as I always do when I like a poem, I checked out the author. I was not so sure how I felt about the poem then. I scoured the Internet for information on the author, what little I found didn't sway me one way or the other. As far as I can tell, no one else has read this poem and asked these questions and the author hasn't spoken much about the poems either. Now, I could be off base on many things here. This poem could have nothing to do with race, the South or any of the other things that have gone through my mind. Some of the word choices and diction evoke images of the old South, whether they were intended to or not (though I can't really say I believe any contemporary American poet could write without intending to do so or at least with some knowledge of the denotative and connotative meanings of each chosen word--the title is Bucolics, for heaven's sake), but this is neither here nor there. I could be projecting my own existence and history, or the history of those who have filled my life and work, onto this work. This in and of itself is not wrong, I think we all do that with each poem we encounter anyway. Otherwise how do we get so many interpretations of the same poem? Nonetheless, in this case, I am beginning to judge the poem based on my 'leeriness ' about the intent of the poet. This is a problem for me.

I moved through five or six poems before I settled on this one as my POEM OF THE WEEK. I am sure I did this for a number of reasons, mainly because I am still not sure what to make of the poet and the poem and because I am jarred by my inability to separate the two. I thought it might be helpful to post the poem and my comments, in hopes of creating some dialogue about it. I might be giving Manning a bad rap here, as many of these assumptions might be as far away from the truth of his poem as he can imagine. (It bears mentioning that, especially given the collection's title, these could be 'God' poems, bordering on midrash in a way and that would put a whole new spin on things, especially for me, as that is one of my biggest interests.) Also, the truth of the matter is, had I went searching for the author and found him a black man, this conversation wouldn't even be taking place. It would have been a good poem and I would have added the book to my reading list without hesitation. The book is still on my reading list, though I hesitated about it before putting it there.

This is what I'd like to talk about, this hesitation, the 'circumstantial' reading of a poem and territory. Isn't even using the term 'appropriation' being territorial? Also can a reader really 'judge' a poem like this out of context. The sparse nature of the punctuation and the fact that it isn't titled may signify that it really can't be read a closely as it should be when it's outside of the collection. Anyway, just some thoughts...