Friday, March 24, 2017

RIP Mari Evans & Derek Walcott

Within the last few weeks, two major Black poets, Mari Evans (1919/1923?-2017) and Derek Walcott (1930-2017), have passed. Unsurprisingly, there has been much more coverage of Walcott, an internationally renown poet and playwright, and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, than of Evans, who probably is best known among afficionados of 20th century Black Women's writing and the Black Arts Movement. In both she was an invaluable voice. As I have come to do when thinking about the rich constellations of Black poetries throughout history, I see them as part of a continuum, a point I doubt will be mentioned in obituaries of either. Both poets probed their intersectional identities in part through an investigation of history and contemporary society, and both drew upon the oral traditions in which they had grown up, to different but parallel ends. With their passing, the poetry world has lost two significant voices.

Evans was the older poet, an African American, a native of Toledo, Ohio, and did not publish her first book until she was already 40 years old. It was around this time, in the late 1960s, which marked the rise of the Black Arts Movement, that she began teaching, a profession in which she made her mark. In 1970, she issued her second volume, I Am a Black Woman, which stands alongside early books by Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, and Carolyn Rodgers as exemplars of the new Black women's poetry that still continues to influence Black poets writing in the US and globally today. In this collection's poems you can see the themes, the style, the fierceness that would appear in all of Evans's later work, and you can also see how it serves and continues to function as an important counterweight to the sometimes masculinist, misogynistic discourse that marked some--but not all--poetry by Black Arts male poets.

A feminist, politically progressive, a poet drawing from vernacular traditions but possessing a keen sense of the line, and of humor, Evans would go on to publish four more books of poetry, as well as writings for children and plays, while also pursuing a career as a poetry professor at a number of institutions. I had the pleasure of hearing Mari Evans read a few times, though I never got an opportunity to speak with her at length. A longtime resident of Indianapolis, Indiana, she died there on March 10, 2017. Here is one of her most famous poems, "I Am a Black Woman," from the AfroPoets website, and I hear echoes of it in so many poems being written today, even as they take different approaches to the themes Evans so movingly articulated in her work:

I Am a Black Woman

I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
in the night

I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I/with these hands/cupped the lifebreath
from my issue in the canebrake
I lost Nat's swinging body in a rain of tears
and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio
for Peace he never knew....I
learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill
in anguish
Now my nostrils know the gas
and these trigger tire/d fingers
seek the softness in my warrior's beard

I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
on me and be

Copyright © Mari Evans, 2017. All rights reserved.

I have written about and posted a few poems by Derek Walcott over the years, including back in 2006, when I ran into him at a New York bank branch, spoke with and snapped a photo of him, upsetting the customer assistant who was handling his business. (A subsequent encounter at Sea Grape--which nearly shares the name of his 1976 collection--a wine store on Hudson Street, was without incident, and he was warm and gregarious, though I still think he really had no idea who I was beyond a vag with Boston.) I wrote about him again in 2008, when I posted "As John to Patmos," the first poem by him I ever read, when I was in junior high and I happened upon it in a poetry anthology my class was using. If I remember correctly,  we were not assigned Walcott's poem but the poem's final lines immediately drew me to it. I did have the pleasure of meeting Walcott a few times over the years, including all the way back to the early Dark Room Writers Collective days, when he read with Martín Espada. His delivery of his poems that night was as unforgettable as the lead up to the event, when several Dark Room members had to go fetch him, I think, and later, as his inimitable entrance into the Dark Room house, with a little entourage. Every reading thereafter I always measured by that first one, and he rarely disappointed.

Even before I'd met him in person, I'd heard about him as a teacher, including the good--his brilliance in finding ways to help poets reshape and perfect their poems, his many nuggets of wisdom, his sharp eye--and the bad; the year before I started college, he was called out for having sexually harassed an undergraduate student, and he was called out again a few years later for the same behavior. His life's complexities and complications are there in the work, which drew upon a range of traditions, including English formalism and Caribbean orality and its trove of storytelling and myth-making. The rich fusion of this poetics is apparent from the very beginning; Walcott's first book, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, was more accomplished than the second or third books of highly praised poets. It reaches its apogee, I think, in the later work, particularly his masterpiece Omeros (1990), which stands as one of the great long poems of all time in English, and a landmark in Anglophone, Caribbean and Black Diasporic literature.

Here is the 1lth section of "The Schooner Flight," another of my favorite Walcott poems. You can find the entire poem here, on the Poetry Foundation's website.

From "The Schooner Flight"
11 After the Storm

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake   
I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion   
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.   
I wanted nothing after that day.
Across my own face, like the face of the sun,   
a light rain was falling, with the sea calm.

Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face   
like a girl showering; make these islands fresh   
as Shabine once knew them! Let every trace,   
every hot road, smell like clothes she just press   
and sprinkle with drizzle. I finish dream;   
whatever the rain wash and the sun iron:
the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam,   
is clothes enough for my nakedness.   
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide   
of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs   
of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied   
if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.   
Open the map. More islands there, man,   
than peas on a tin plate, all different size,   
one thousand in the Bahamas alone,   
from mountains to low scrub with coral keys,   
and from this bowsprit, I bless every town,   
the blue smell of smoke in hills behind them,
and the one small road winding down them like twine
to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,   
vain search for one island that heals with its harbor   
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow   
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!   
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.   
But things must fall, and so it always was,   
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;   
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one   
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.   
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,   
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.   
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.   
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam   
as the deck turn white and the moon open   
a cloud like a door, and the light over me   
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.   
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight” from Collected Poems 1948-1984. Copyright © 1990 by Derek Walcott. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved. Source: Poems 1965-1980 (Jonathan Cape, 1980)

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