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Sympathy

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

 

Okay it’s a little literal, putting a poem with the famous line “I know why the caged bird sings” on a cage of birds. I could have left it somewhere that highlights the metaphorical nature of “Sympathy,” say in a book about slavery or taped to a Confederate statue (hard to come by in Michigan), but I yam what I yam, as Popeye would say. Not particularly subtle.

 

This is a poem I thought I was familiar with, probably because the first line of the third stanza is the title of the more famous Maya Angelou autobiography. But reading it, I realized that if in fact I had the poem before I hadn’t felt it. It’s brutal, that bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage till it bleeds. The lovely pastoral vision of the first stanza makes it all the more painful.

 

I’ve always assumed “Sympathy” was about slavery. But I came across this explanation from the Library of Congress website from Dunbar’s wife Alice. (Dunbar worked at the Library of Congress for a time, a job that contributed to his poor health.):

 

 

The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!–a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage.

 

Of course it would be reductive to say the poem is about working in a dusty basement. Cages are everywhere. Some cages people put themselves in (alcoholism, for example, which Dunbar suffered from), and some cages people are forced into (enslavement, sorry Kanye). Dunbar was familiar with both and the powerful poem speaks to all.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.

 

Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator (another cage). During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.

 

Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.

 

When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.

 

In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.

 

Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version. (And if you think I was being literal, check these two jokers out.)

 

Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.

 

Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”

 

 

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poem is on lefthand base of statue

 

Peoples Drug

by Sean Enright

 

 

Now it’s the Oracle skyscraper

but it was Peoples Drugstore
back when I bought Raisinets,

lighter fluid and label-makers,

just a low building next to

the pioneer-woman statue,

silent stone town founder,

a child gathered in her skirt folds,

bonnet cinched tight,

her birdlike chin, her stovepipe throat.

 

Across the street, my father

thrusts out his glazed

blackthorn walking-stick,

rooting out hornets nesting

in the loosed mortar

of Pumphrey’s Funeral Home,

he’s slipped out of there, unorganized,

for one more smoke,

one more poke at the living.

 

The pioneer woman in the poem and photograph is the first of twelve identical statues placed along National Trail Roads from Maryland to California.  The Madonna of the Trail monuments honor the mothers who journeyed west, mothers who, as Harry Truman said, “were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies.”

 

This statue frightened me as a child.  Growing up in a D.C. suburb, I was accustomed to statues of men on horseback or seated king-like in traffic circles and parks.  Madonna statues were even more familiar—gentle, delicate-featured Mary’s wreathed in fresh flowers or surrounded by candles.  But this 10-foot big-boned gal was both a warrior and a mother, fierce with her rifle and urgent stride, almost unaware of the frightened child clutching her skirts.  Her sidewalk home seemed chosen at random, and her relevance to our community a mystery.

 

For the speaker in the poem, however, the Madonna of the Trail is a more comforting presence—at least compared to the wily specter across the street.

 

The poem is structured to mirror the landmarks it describes: two stanzas, two sides of the street.  The street in question is Wisconsin Avenue where it meets Old Georgetown Road, a busy intersection at the heart of tony Bethesda, Maryland.  But it wasn’t always so.   Bethesda used to be sleepier, with smaller buildings, less traffic, and decidedly less glitz.

 

In the poem, that sleepy past is crumbling or erased altogether.  Pioneer days are so long gone the representation of them seems incongruous.  The speaker’s teenage years and the lives of the folks in the funeral home rest in the same past.  People’s Drug, the Everyman of small town shopping, has been replaced by a pretentious skyscraper whose very name calls to the future.

 

The poem’s first stanza is devoted to the speaker’s youth and to the mother figure who shelters a child. The mother is solid and strong, but frozen in time, inactive.  Perhaps I’m projecting too much of my own experience of mothers I have known, but that stovepipe neck and her stony silence suggest repressed feeling and squashed outrage:  fire, smoke, and bilge to be swallowed or expelled so as not to un-cinch a bonnet or ruffle a feminine, birdlike demeanor.

 

The second stanza moves across the street to the speaker’s paternal side.  Here is a past that forces its way into the present, a past that hasn’t been erased, a past that unnerves rather than comforts.  The ghostly father smokes and pokes at hornets’ nests, no doubt activities he enjoyed while living.  I love the surprise of the adjective “unorganized.”  It softens and humanizes the menace evoked by all that thrusting and poking.

 

Physically and emotionally, the speaker seems to stand on the mother’s side of the street.  And yet in the very act of writing the poem, the speaker aligns himself with the father.  Rooting out nests, poking at the living, slipping out from where one is supposed to be contained:  what an apt and arresting metaphor for the work of writing.  Like the ghostly father, writers go where they aren’t supposed to, they stir things up, they poke at the living and the dead.  Without such poking, stories would be dull as greeting cards, sans conflict, sans insight, sans specificity.

 

Sean Enright is a Maryland novelist, poet, and playwright.  His novel Goof was the Baltimore Sun’s Editor’s Choice in 2001.  Link here for more of Enright’s poems and here for some of his videos to hear English spoken properly.  I’ve long forsaken my Maryland accent for a Michigan one, but it’s still music to my ears.

 

Disclaimer:  I read this poem a priori, at least I tried to, but I grew up down the street from the poet.  His family, the Enrights, were one of the many medium to large-sized Catholic clans from our parish, St. Jane deChantal.  I don’t remember Sean specifically, but I did know his sisters, all very funny people, and his mother, our music teacher and church organist who could deliver a side-mouth quip with the finesse of Groucho Marx.

 

Finally, a question:  Why would kids in the 70’s buy lighter fluid?  I get the label maker—useful and coveted in a time where people owned less and had to share more—but I’m stumped by the lighter fluid.

 

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poem is on right-hand base of statue

 

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

 

by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

 

 

Did anyone else finish “Variation on a Theme” with an urge to sing Ding dong ding dong ding? In my head the lovely Jean Simmons, her short locks loosened on her forehead and her Salvation Army uniform dangerously unbuttoned, has flung her arms around this poem, as unlikely an attachment as hers to Marlon Brando.

 

But wait, another artist has boarded this train of associations–illustrator N.C. Wyeth.  The particular Wyeth painting the poem reminds me of is The Giant.  Wyeth’s towering figure, seemingly grown out of the clouds, could be a visual version of the shape-shifting in Levertov’s poem.

Enchanted by Kiel Bryant

Along with an atmospheric freshness of sky, air light, the poem and the painting share a Romantic delight in dramatic events, the sublime and mythology.

 

“Variation,” like ancient mythologies, hinges on personification.  But Levertov brings to life a certain day, rather than a bigger and more general Day deity, and she allows her reader to witness the creation of this being as it grows into form.   Later she disassembles her creation when she wonders if the awakening blow came not from a certain day, but from herself:

or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self 

 

The personified day that Levertov creates is clearly a superior being, one that resides in the sky and knights her with a sword,

granting me

honor and a task.

 

The Little Engine That Could by RoadsidepicturesThis ordaining gives her power.  The poem ends with her unshakeable confidence that the task that has been set before her can be accomplished.  Compare her mantra of I can with that of The Little Engine That Could.  He barely gets himself up the hill with I think I can.  Her bold and strong I can countenances no doubt.  Does her assuredness come from beyond herself, or has it been there all along, needing only to be awakened?

 

Regardless, there’s a clear sense that the task for which she is commissioned is something difficult, something she previously didn’t think she could do.  What separates this speaker from an athlete in a Nike commercial or anyone visualizing success in order to increase sales, run faster, plank longer, lose weight, parkour, stop smoking or swallow slugs is that the speakers’ unnamed task carries moral weight.  She’s granted more than fearlessness and strength.  She’s been given or has found courage.

 

This train of thought left me counting the number of times I’ve been called on to show courage.  And whether I’ve responded I can or I can’t or Not now or Please don’t make me do that.

 

Which is a lot of boxcars to get me to the junction of this poem and the Underground Railroad.

 

Recently I took a walking tour of Detroit.  Our group stopped at Hart Plaza on the Detroit River to look at “Gateway to Freedom,” a statue commemorating Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad.  The figures in the sculpture look across the river to Canada, where a sister statue, “Tower of Freedom,” has been erected.

Before the Civil War, six or seven different routes of the railroad funneled through Detroit, transporting somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 slaves to Canada.  Arriving in Detroit, fugitives (refugees might be a better word) hid in church cellars and barns.  At night they took canoes to cross the river to Windsor.

 

Looking up at the statue, I thought about the moment a man or woman who had known only a life of slavery decided to walk thousands of miles on foot, traveling in the dark, knocking at strangers’ doors, crossing rivers, hiding from slave catchers, and risking hunger, drowning, capture and death.  I’m in awe of the courage such a journey demanded of the travelers and those who assisted.  Of all the poems in my backpack, “Variation on a Theme” called out the loudest for a place in the city that was the last stop to freedom.

 

Denise_Levertov by TahdooDenise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family.  Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.

 

During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.

 

Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.

 

Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.

 

One last thing:  can anyone help me with the title of this poem?  What theme of Rilke’s is this a variation of?

 

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poem is on marble pillar, left

 

The Weakness

By Toi Derricotte

That time my grandmother dragged me

through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up

by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”

through clenched teeth, her eyes

bright as a dog’s

cornered in the light.

She said it over and over,

as if she were Jesus,

and I were dead. She had been

solid as a tree,

a fur around her neck, a

light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling

marble and passed through

brass openings—in 1945.

There was not even a black

elevator operator at Saks.

The saleswoman had brought velvet

leggings to lace me in, and cooed,

as if in the service of all grandmothers.

My grandmother had smiled, but not

hungrily, not like my mother

who hated them, but wanted to please,

and they had smiled back, as if

they were wearing wooden collars.

When my legs gave out, my grandmother

dragged me up and held me like God

holds saints by the

roots of the hair. I begged her

to believe I couldn’t help it. Stumbling,

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes

that saw through

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down

to the transparent

genes confessing.

 

 

Scenes of impersonation are staples of both romantic comedies and action, thriller and suspense movies.  From Harry Potter to Mrs. Doubtfire, characters disguise themselves to get what they want, be it information, safety or love.  The danger of being unmasked keeps the scene racing forward and keeps me under a blanket.  I can hardly stand to watch as I wait for the inevitable slip in diction or hairpiece, the bosom to drop askew, the polyjuice potion to wear off.

 

Surely I’m not the only one who found Ron Paul’s glue malfunction more painful than amusing.  Maybe such scenes recall the angst of teenage years, years most of us spent at least some time pretending to be someone else, someone cooler, someone who knew where to find the top 40 radio stations because she really didn’t spend all her time listening to show tunes.  Years later, the shame and humiliation of being exposed aren’t buried very deep.

 

For instance, I walk through an expensive store like Saks (which I did when I left “The Weakness” the week before Christmas), and suddenly I’m a frousy mouse trying to act like a woman who buys $300 blouses.  You don’t belong here, I wait for the salesclerk to sneer. Poser.

Saks Fifth Avenue Detroit MI by Patricksmercy

The old Saks in Detroit, now gone

 

But that squishy discomfort was the worst that would happen to me, a decently dressed white woman in a predominantly white mall.   In this autobiographical poem, masquerading is far more dangerous and damaging.  Derricotte grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in a segregated and racially tense Detroit.  Just two years before the incident in the poem, a race riot on Belle Isle left 34 dead, 25 of them black.  President Roosevelt had to call in 6,000 federal troops to end the violence.  So it was no small act of courage for Derricotte’s grandmother to walk into Saks like she owned it.

 

As a light-skinned black, Derricotte could “pass”  (a term we put in quotes because of its toxic suggestion that looking white is succeeding), and her grandmother demands she play along with the impersonation.  But the girl is terrified. Her grandmother’s act has turned everything topsy-turvy.  An old black woman becomes royalty in her fur collar and is deferred to by white salesclerks.  The white salesclerks, with their tortuous wooden collars, become slave-like, kneeling before young Derricotte as they lace up her velvet leggings.  One slip from the little girl and the jig is up.

 

The weakness in little Derricotte’s legs sets the scene in motion. But hers is not the only weakness in “The Weakness.”  The grandmother, who seemed strong as a tree trunk, is degraded and weakened by the poem’s end.  The last few lines are riveting:

Stumbling,  

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes  

that saw through  

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down  

to the transparent  

genes confessing.

 

She had begun her walk through Saks like a deity.  All the religious imagery in the poem, familiar to the Catholic-schooled Derricotte, is associated with the grandmother.  She walks not on water but on swirling marble, something of a miracle in that time and place.   She speaks with the authority of Jesus and the anger of a punishing Almighty Father.  But in the end she’s a different figure altogether:  Christ at Golgotha, stumbling, de-frocked, exposed, humiliated by the crowd.

 

Just as Derricotte’s light skin gave her a passport to enter an unfamiliar white world, so the poem becomes a passport for a white person like me to enter an unfamiliar black one.  I worried over writing about this poem, writing about race, writing about black experience.  Once again, I felt like an imposter, stepping cautiously into alien territory.  But really, I don’t need to say anything profound.  The poem is so powerful I just need to open the door to it and stay out of the way

Professor Toi Derricotte Campus Spotlight by HerCampus Pitt

 

Toi Derricotte was born in Detroit in 1941.   As a young girl she spent a lot of time at the home of her paternal grandparents who ran a funeral parlor in their basement.  Interesting that another Detroit poet, Thomas Lynch, also has an imagination shaped by the funeral industry.

 

She’s a writer who gives hope to late-bloomers.  She began writing early at age ten, in secret, and finally at fifteen had the nerve to show her poems to an older cousin. He shut her down, told her that her poems were sick.  She didn’t show her work to anyone again till she was 27 and didn’t publish till she was 43.

 

Now she’s a widely-admired poet and teacher who has won, among other awards, two Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the NEA.  She teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and is the co-founder of Cave Canem, a writing retreat for black poets.

 

Her latest book, “The Undertaker’s Daughter” was published in 2011.

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