Etheridge Knight: Love Songs to Women

Etheridge Knight: Love Songs to Women


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I asked to publish some poems, he responded, “An /other thing, goode Lady, I ‘need’ to

be paid, at least $50.00 (and I’m distinguishing between ‘need’ and ‘want’).” There

was something about that “goode lady,” so redolent of the courtly love tradition . . .



Books by Etheridge Knight

Poems from PrisonBlack Voices from Prison  / Belly Song and Other Poems 

 Born of a Woman  / Essential Etheridge Knight

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 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  / Notable Black Memphians

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Etheridge Knight’s Love Songs to Women

“How / be / Thee, good Lady?”

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis  

Etheridge had a thing for women. First, there were the women of his blood: his mamma Belzora, to whom he dedicated Belly Songs and Other Poems; a daughter, Tandiwe, his “beloved of the land”; four younger sisters; and a grandmother, 93, who kept the “Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates.” And then there were the women of his heart, his three wives—Sonia Sanchez, Mary Ellen McAnally, and Charlene Blackburn—and other lovers, like Jude Duffell and Elizabeth McKim. There were also the women of his mind and spirit, poets like Mari Evans whose book I Am a Black Woman, he clutches “like a security blanket” in the poem “A Conversation With Myself” and, especially, Gwendolyn Brooks, his “woman-tor” (as Dudley Randall was his “mentor”), who first saw the poet beneath the prisoner’s uniform. Finally, there were the women about whom he wrote: Betty Dunn, young and Black and “o so pretty,” who “left her Ma and Pa / To be a singer in the city.”; Lil Sis of green apple breasts and angel eyes; and that streetwalking Harlem woman, sister of his soul.

In lyrical poems about love and loss, pain and passion, Etheridge Knight explores feelings with all the honesty and sweet vulnerability of a true man, confessing: “all I want now is my woman back / so my soul can sing.” In interviews, essays, and letters, the poet, like troubadours of long ago, pays homage to women, making liars of those who claim that Black men can’t write tender love songs. The prologue of Belly Songs, for example, takes the form of a letter from prison to his wife, Mary.

I should be splitting from here around the end of the month. And then it’ll be your / time. Your / time. . . . Sometimes I think of you. And the changes. And I want to scream, explode. Yeah. This is gonna be a long drag of a week / end. Monday’s a holiday—and I won’t hear no sweet words from my woman. Soon, lady, soon. Gonna go now. Take care of yourself and the children. And always know that I love you.

Even in his prose, you can hear the poet’s voice, loud and clear, typically “Etheridge”: the tough language (“splitting” and “Yeah”); the distinctively Southern sound of the words (“I won’t hear no sweet words” and “Gonna go now.”); and the rhythm in the alternation of sounds and silences (“your/time. Your/time”). Under the voice, you sense the complexities of the man and the contradictions inherent in his kind of tough / tender love.

Etheridge must have been a hard man to love, for he had a raw edge, sharpened by hard times—a stint in Korea, where he was wounded and acquired a drug habit, and eight years in the Indiana State Prison—and a continual struggle to make ends meet. In his first letter to me, on June 7, 1980, he wrote, “I’m one of those ‘Po Poets,’ who / is /trying to live off / my / art,” and, when, several years later, I asked to publish some poems, he responded, “An /other thing, goode Lady, I ‘need’ to be paid, at least $50.00 (and I’m distinguishing between ‘need’ and ‘want’).” There was something about that “goode lady,” so redolent of the courtly love tradition, that marked Etheridge as a gentle knight.

Every woman—wife, lover or friend (like me)—has her Etheridge stories, and here’s one of my favorites. Once, I sent Etheridge money for a ticket to Memphis, but on the morning of his poetry reading at LeMoyne-Owen College, the telephone rang: “Hello, Lady, this is Etheridge. I’m over in Arkansas, about fifty miles out of Memphis. Can you come pick me up?” (What woman can refuse a drive, even over blistering Arkansas asphalt, when a gentleman calls her “lady”?) Of course Etheridge had spent the plane fare and hitchhiked from Indianapolis, but he prided himself on never missing a gig. (“I’ve written some bad poems, but I never miss Readings.”), he assured me.

It is amazing, then, that this proud, funny, sensitive, “po” poet of the Black Arts Movement, of those violent and volatile Sixties, who wrote so movingly about criminals and jail bait—about Hard Rock and freckle-faced Gerald—could also write so tenderly and passionately about women. Etheridge understood women, their promise and their pain, for he got under their skins to write from the inside out. (Significantly, two sections of his Born of a Woman are entitled “Inside-Out” and “Outside-In.”) What other poet of that period, female or male, pointed out, with such love, the difference between scars of war and marks of motherhood, as Knight does in “The Stretching of the Belly”? What other poet depicted the rigors of childbirth, as he does in “On the Birth of a Black / Baby/Boy”?

                                    When / the blood of your birth / is / screaming forth

                                                                        like a fountain


                                                                        the white thigh of your mother—

                                                                        *     *     *

                                  As / your mother grunts for 3 / days and groans for 3 / nights,

                                  As / she issues you / forth on a Sunday night,

In a similar vein his poem for Tandi, “Circling the Daughter,” evokes a father’s “fierce gentleness” and sweet song (“Ooouu-ou-baby-I-love-you”), as he trembles in awe before a young girl ripening into womanhood.

                                     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fourteen years

                                    Have brought the moon-blood, the roundness,

                                    The girl-giggles, the grand-leaps—

                                    We are touch-tender in our fears.

Here is a poet who adores women, who revels in their laughter, their whirling dance, their rituals. He draws his subjects with deft and sure strokes of the pen; like a novelist, he uses gesture, action, and setting to underscore character. “As You Leave Me,” for example, depicts a woman of long lashes, shaded cheeks, and beer-foamed lips, who hums quietly and chatters as she dresses. Each detail of the setting—the lamp light, scattered albums, and Johnny Mathis songs—underscores the sad melancholy of the woman and prepares us for her leaving. The final stanza, with its silences, its futile questions, its intimations about the future, is a brilliant rendering of love’s pain.

You rise,

silently, and to the bedroom and the paint;

on the lips red, on the eyes black,

and I lean in the doorway and smoke, and see you

grow old before my eyes, and smoke. why do you

chatter while you dress? and smile when you grab

your large leather purse? don’t you know that when you

leave me I walk to the window and watch you? and light

a reefer as I watch you? and I die as I watch you

disappear in the dark streets

to whistle and to smile at the johns. 

In this poem, as in many others, the male narrator stands back and watches the woman, letting us feel the physical and emotional separation of the lovers, a separation marked, in other poems, by images of cold, darkness, and sterility: images like “cold rain,” “holes in the air,” and a “day / turned stark white. Bleak. Barren like the nordic landscape.” Although the theme–separation–remains constant, the tone varies from poem to poem, as Knight moves smoothly from traditional Euro-American verse modes to African American musical forms. Classical allusions—“I do not expect the spirit of Penelope / to enter your breast”; “I cry and cringe / When the cyclops peers into my cave”—inform “A Love Poem,” while a blues ode shapes “Feeling Fucked Up.”

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed up and split

and i with no way to make her

come back and everywhere the world is bare

Etheridge’s poetry portrays women as active and desiring subjects, never the passive objects of male desire; women move through his verse with strength and determination, making love at will, deserting men, and speaking out. They have voices. In “Upon Your Leaving,” for example, a woman responds to her lover’s entreaties to stay with the words—“‘but, Etheridge, . . . I don’t know what to do.’”—and then walks defiantly out of his life. Whether they walk out on their lovers or walk the streets in search of johns, Etheridge’s female characters are complex and three-dimensional, for the poet treats them with empathy and respect. In poems like “Harlem,” a three-line haiku, he expresses a spiritual kinship with prostitutes, so often vilified in literature and life.

Streetwalking woman,

Leaning in Harlem Hallway:

Sister of my soul!

A poem that treats the same theme, “The Violent Space,” subtitled “(or when your sister sleeps around for money),” is one of Knight’s most compelling and skillfully crafted poems. Echoing the tone and rhythm of Robert Hayden’s “Runagate Runagate,” especially the coda “(Run sister run—the Bugga man comes!.),” Knight’s poem is a tour de force, a brilliant synthesis of classical imagery, Christian scripture, Negro spirituals, and urban street talk. A story about a Black Mary Magdalene, the poem describes the terrible tension in that place where good and evil metaphorically converge: the female body. A young prostitute, an innocent woman of angel eyes and green apple breasts, confronts pain alone, while her poet brother, angered by his impotence and the futility of his art, seeks absolution in drugs. In an interview in The Interlochen Review, Etheridge discussed this work:

There’s a funny story to that poem. I have four younger sisters, and when I got out of prison, I got confronted by all four of them—”Did you write that poem about me?” I said, “No, I used poetic license.” Actually, the poem’s   about this friend of mine who lived in the cell next to me. He had been hooked on drugs and his sister had been hooked on drugs, and he used to hustle tricks for her.

Whether inspired by friends’ tales or sisters’ stories, Etheridge Knight transformed the raw materials of women’s lives—their words, woman smells, circle dances, childbirths, and stretch marks—into lyrical love songs that celebrate the power and beauty of women.

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The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling

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Pilgrimage  to an  Ancestral Land: Ghana  / Miriam in Ghana

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)—This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 13 March 2009



Home   Miriam DeCosta-Willis Table

Related file:  Homespun Images  He Sees Through Stone  Etheridge Knight Speaks     Once on a Night in the Delta  A Conversation with Myself

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