A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, April 5, 2010

Poem of the Day: Jean Toomer

Georgia Dusk 

The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
     The setting sun, too indolent to hold
     A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night's barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
     An orgy for some genius of the South
     With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
     And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
     Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
     Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
     Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
     Race memories of king and caravan,
     High priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise ... the pine trees are guitars,
     Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain ...
     Their voices rise ... the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars.

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
     Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
     Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
--Jean Toomer

A great, strange talent, Toomer almost got lost in the infamous "tragic mulatto" myth, becoming a kind of one-book-wonder after the success of Cane. (He lived for 44 years after its publication, never producing another book to be compared with it.) But what gives a poem like this one its unique power is its sense of double consciousness: looking at a scene that's almost a Southern stereotype from both inside and outside, and reporting it in a voice that (as Toomer was himself able to do) merges black participant with white observer.