Saturday, June 29, 2013

Celebrating Countee Cullen @ Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx

Many a major American cultural figure is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx; Countee Cullen (1903-1946) is among them. One of the most important poets of the Harlem Renaissance, he is perhaps less read than Langston Hughes or Claude McKay, though several of his poems have solidified their place in the canon, among them "Incident," "Heritage," "Tableau," and "Yet Do I Marvel." Like McKay and unlike Hughes, Cullen worked almost completely in conventional forms, yet  as with both of these poets he explored questions of race, politics and society, and, like them, also touched upon sexuality, including (his) homosexuality, though with considerable discretion.

The award-winning poet Major Jackson has now edited a brand new gathering of Cullen's work, Countee Cullen: Collected Poems (Library of America, 2013) and in honor of its publication, Cullen's importance as a New York poet, and his presence in Woodlawn, the Poetry Society of America, in conjunction with the Woodlawn Conservancy, presented "Yet Do I Marvel: A Tribute to Countee Cullen," which featured readings of Cullen's work by Major and fellow poets Robin Coste Lewis and Rowan Ricardo Phillips, as well as vocal performances of song settings of Cullen's poetry by Alicia Hall Moran, with Brandon Ross (of the group Harriet Tubman). They did so in Woolworth Chapel at Woodlawn, which hosts the gravesites of a number of leading cultural and political figures of the past, ranging from Miles Davis and Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington and Herman Melville. It's worth visiting on its own, but the Cullen event made the event obligatory (and how perfect too to honor this great black queer poet on Pride weekend). I ventured up with friend and fellow poet Patricia Spears Jones, and am very glad I did.
Major Jackson
Major Jackson, introducing the program
Brandon Ross, performing with Alicia Hall Moran
Brandon Ross, at left, and Alicia Hall Moran, at center

I must praise Alicia Hall Moran's singing and Brandon Ross's musicianship before I type any more words; as wonderful as it was to hear the poets, Hall Moran, whose voice and performances I've seen praised ecstatically before but which I've never heard live, added a completely new layer to Cullen's poems. The three songs she sang, "Deep River," "Two Wings," and "Prepare me one body," all arranged by the great Roland Hayes, brought out not just the spirituality of the poems, but their grounding in the Spirituals and the Sorrow Songs. Rowan invoked Longinus's description of "the sublime" and I would concur that Hall Moran certainly took these poems, and singing in general, to another place. I'll add that her enunciation made it possible to hear every word, and though she had a microphone, her projection was so rich and full she didn't need it.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Rowan Ricardo Phillips reading
Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis bringing Cullen's words to life
The poets too did a fine job in bringing Cullen's words and works to life. Rowan recited "Incident" from memory; through her recital of several of his Epitaphs Robin showed the humor and wit that often get lost in discussions of Cullen, while also giving voice, through several others, to his queer facets; and Major, after an insightful, rooting introduction, read several unexpected poems, including "Shroud of Color" and "Mad Song," that demonstrated how current Cullen's poetry and politics are. All three poets selected judiciously from the rich store of Cullen's work and helped to give a fuller portrait of him and his art. I took notes on a number of the poems, and when I teach Cullen again I plan to use this volume and to introduce Cullen poems I hadn't considered (or didn't know about before) to my students. But first I plan to read the collection.

Participants, Countee Cullen Celebration, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx
Everyone on the event's program: L-r (Charif Shanahan, PSA; Alicia Hall Moran;
Robin Coste Lewis; Major Jackson; Brandon Ross; Rowan Ricardo Phillips;
and Cristiana Peña, Woodlawn Conservancy)
Woolworth Chapel
Woolworth Chapel, Woodlawn Cemetery
The huge felled tree, Woodlawn Cemetary, Bronx
Patricia photographing a large, felled tree
at Woodlawn
One of the sphinxes, Woolworth tomb, Woodlawn Cemetery
A sphinx keeping vigil in front
of the Woolworth crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment