Friday, January 15, 2010

King's Gon' to Trouble the Water

I've been thinking lately about Martin Luther King, Jr., great leader and imperfect man--gone for decades but still a central inspiration to anyone seeking civil rights, or spiritual reawakening, or an end to war.

My family was living in Montgomery, Alabama, when the Bus Boycott of 1955-56 introduced King (and quiet Rosa Parks) to the world; and his ability to speak and inspire became quickly apparent even to me, shallow 12-year-old white boy. African-Americans, still willingly identified as "Negroes" in King's time (though his actions and assassination helped usher in the starker adjective/noun "Black"), immediately embraced his metaphor-rich sentences and Southern bible-preacher style; and in the half century since, millions of writers and orators and world leaders have quoted his words.

Black poets too draw some from King, and I want to celebrate his holiday by presenting a few short poems written in the post-Boycott era. It may well be that any poem by a Black writer takes race as a central tenet, whether submerged or overt, but I hope these pieces demonstrate sufficient variety as well as any debt to the Reverend M.L.K....

From Stanley D. Plumpp, who usually writes lengthy, short-line poems packed with music references, I've pulled this compact one given the numeric title "190," taken from his book Blues: The Story Always Untold (published 1989):

Here as in any place I can
breathe. Talk and I see
with my ears. Follow the
Drinking Gourd of Ancestors:
Elmore, Sonny Boy, Muddy Waters.
Pain and memory/is all I couldn't
lose. I mix'em up to give you
the blues. The small window in
my soul/you can see eternity
through. Here as in any place
I can dream. Talk and I see
with my skin. Neckbones cracking
under weights, flesh melting in
grips of fire, screams injecting
poison in my veins. And I follow
callings in my blue-striped winds
of pain and memory.

Carolyn Rodgers' sparely punctuated "how i got ovah" is the title poem of her ...New and Selected Poems (from 1975) and possibly faintly echoes King's words as well as old spirituals and Langston Hughes' famous "The Negro Speaks of Rivers":

i can tell you
about them
i have shaken rivers
out of my eyes
i have waded eyelash deep
have crossed rivers
have shaken the water weed out
of my lungs
have swam for strength
pulled by strength
through waterfalls with electric beats
i have bore the shocks
of water deep deep
waterlogs are my bones
i have shaken the water free of my hair
have kneeled on the banks
and kissed my ancestors of the dirt
whose rich dark root fingers rose up reached out
grabbed and pulled me rocked me cupped me
gentle strong and firm
carried me
made me swim for strength
cross rivers
though i shivered
was wet was cold
and wanted to sink down
and float as water, yea--
i can tell you.
i have shaken rivers
out of my eyes.

I believe Rita Dove won some major honors for her lovely collection titled On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), and from that particular sequence of poems, here is the brief lyric specifically titled "Rosa":

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

Finally, I recently read about, and tracked down, the debut book by young poet Sean Hill, titled Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (2008); through this seemingly random-chronology series of poems about fictitious man Silas Wright, Hill tells the story of his own family and the Black community of Milledgeville, Georgia. The individual pieces range from a few lines to several pages, but I like the idea of ending this quick survey with the dramatic monologue "Boy" (wise elder Silas addressing maybe a nephew):

Boy, let me have a taste of that Mister Misty.
No, they brought it out around the time you
were born in sixty. I like the way it swish
in the cup. Sound like Sammy Davis Jr.
doing the soft show shuffle. They call
that the sand dance. Sound like shifting grains
or a fast train. Them little bits of ice
tap your teeth, and you can chew on that sweet
mouthful of cold melting to nothing before
you swallow it down. First time I had one
of these, I drank it too fast, crystals in syrup
dancing around and down my throat chilled
like Christmas and New Year's cold breath moving
down to my chest. And if that wasn't enough,
then I felt like my head was about to split
right open. Thought my forehead was gon look
like a gash. You know, they ice cream got nothing
on your mama's pineapple ice cream. Theirs
ain't nothing but soft light ice milk. They build
it high like a steeple, but ain't nothing
to that either. You see your mama puts
a dozen eggs in her custard to make
it rich. The sound of the ice and salt shifting
in that bucket as it melts with that electric
churn's whining motor groaning as that ice
cream stiffens up sure is pleasing cause I know
that ice cream about ready. You know, there are
folks getting they heads split so we don't have
to go around to that side window no more.

Listen to Hill and the others. Each in his/her own way carries on Dr. King's fight for dignity and equality. As poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, he was himself "a prose poem" and "a warm music," and he spoke the one word... "Justice."


Gurldoggie said...

Nice blog. I found your blog as I was looking for unusual MLK Day poems, and stayed to read many more posts. I'll keep checking back.

Gurldoggie said...

Wow! And now doubly stunned to find you live on Vashon!! I live just on the other side of the water and often find myself on the island. Small damn world. Who knows how many times I may have passed you in Thriftway...Happy MLK Day to you and yours.