This weekend, I spoke at length with poet Lamar Wilson about the way he's been moved by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' third book, Red Clay Suite. Later, while deep in conversation about the past with another sweet, sweet man, I couldn't help hearing the echo of one of my favorite pieces from the book ringing in my ear:
for my mother
This is the end for you two, though he doesn’t see
it or that he’ll be dead in four years,
heart just stopping, but not this day
when he sits in the armchair
which sags under his will, reads a book.
You speak a simple word to him—
we are leaving for good this time—
but I lose what it is,
so quick to be gone.
Something to indicate that we won’t be coming back,
no last chances
like his assuming he can show up at the shelter
or drive further down south
to Grandma’s house to collect us.
Or, I get the moment wrong and he goes down
to the basement first, puts on a record
walks upstairs, and then he sits down,
opens up his book, ignores you,
stops, cocks his head in the fine, sensitive
way that I continue to adore, ignores you some more,
tries to find blues in that European music.
but that is my father, kind to strangers,
slapping one of us upside our heads
at home, searching for beauty
in everything except his family
or his own reflection,
not bothering to plead with you
like he has the other times,
I’m sorry, baby.
Don’t go. Please don’t go.
The way a man is supposed to in the best songs.
I want you to toss something hard at him.
I’m scared we will return.
I’m scared we won’t return.
I’m so angry with you and I haven’t yet learned
how much weaker than a girl a woman can be.
How silly I am to assume you are stronger than he.
How arrogant I am to assume you are not.
The point is that I live, you live,
whether my father’s music plays or doesn’t play,
and we are driving off in the truck,
leaving him turning the pages of his book.
What is that word? Forget about it.
We leave him there.
--Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
The first thing that arrests me here is "the armchair/which sags under his will." This could just be a simple surface image, but since it is clear from the poem's first line that this is the end of a relationship, the final end of whatever was or could have come, the image is indicative of what has been the plight of this man's household. Everything here has been distorted, re-shaped, maybe even broken, "under his will."
Next, this idea of the missing word, some forgotten lexicon, is a subtle push throughout the poem. The speaker can't remember exactly what the final word was or how it was said, but none of this is of any importance. That small detail escapes but the fact is that, regardless of what was spoken, things were different this day in the familiar house. Much like the few words the mother spoke to ensure their leaving, they, too, would be "so quick to be gone" once she'd decided this was the end.
I can't help but imagine the missing lexicon is a piece of the puzzle that might explain the paradox of the man depicted here. He contradicts himself in the speaker's memories--at times he is silent and at other time he finds that pleading works best. Maybe he reads the mother the way he does the books that reappear in his hands. Maybe he plays her the same was he spins a record, dropping the needle gently then leaving it be.
The tone of this poem, especially the speaker's longing and regret coupled with fear and admiration, is its most compelling layer. This is the human way--fear a man and love him just the same; watch a woman leave, even get indignant, then beg her back as soon as you think she'll stay. The fact that the speaker loves her father and finds him beautiful even when he is being hurtful, when he "cocks his head in that fine, sensitive/way that I continue to adore, ignores you some more," is the inexplicable part of our selves. It's the accusation and condemnation of oneself just as it is the accusation and condemnation of the father for all his wrong doing. The mother here is condemned too for waiting so long, for being begged back again and again. This is the quiet, difficult work of the poet: to illuminate our simple, awful human beauty and ugliness too.
By the time we reach the poem's last stanza, the speaker still can't recall the word that got them where they are, "driving off in the truck...leaving him turning the pages of his book." But none of that matters. What does matter, however, is that they have broken free of him, despite this twisted love and hate, despite themselves.Red Clay Suite is poignant, sharp and fierce, must like its author. "Lexicon" is only one gem among the many housed in the book. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It's tragic that there are no YouTube clips of Honorée reading, as she is one of the most brilliant and compelling forces I've ever seen on stage. If you're in the Kentucky area, don't miss her at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference next month. The whole line up, in fact, is incredible (you won't want to miss Affrilachian Empress Nikky Finney or Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander, just to name a few).
When I'm trying to piece together the past, I'm always reaching for this kind of vividness and clarity. I think Lamar was right, poems like these help you write your own story. Poets like Honorée help make clear how complex we really are...