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 Im distinguishing between need and want). There
was something about that goode lady, so redolent of the courtly love tradition . . .
Books by Etheridge Knight
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Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
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Etheridge Knight’s Love Songs to Women
How / be / Thee, good Lady?
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 everybodys birth dates. And then there were the women of his heart, his three wivesSonia Sanchez, Mary Ellen McAnally, and Charlene Blackburnand 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 prisoners 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 cant 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 itll 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. Mondays a holidayand I wont 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 poets voice, loud and clear, typically Etheridge: the tough language (splitting and Yeah); the distinctively Southern sound of the words (I wont 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 timesa stint in Korea, where he was wounded and acquired a drug habit, and eight years in the Indiana State Prisonand a continual struggle to make ends meet. In his first letter to me, on June 7, 1980, he wrote, Im 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 Im 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 womanwife, lover or friend (like me)has her Etheridge stories, and heres 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. Im 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. (Ive 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 baitabout Hard Rock and freckle-faced Geraldcould 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
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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 fathers 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 settingthe lamp light, scattered albums, and Johnny Mathis songsunderscores 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 loves pain.
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? dont 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 themeseparationremains constant, the tone varies from poem to poem, as Knight moves smoothly from traditional Euro-American verse modes to African American musical forms. Classical allusionsI do not expect the spirit of Penelope / to enter your breast; I cry and cringe / When the cyclops peers into my caveinform A Love Poem, while a blues ode shapes Feeling Fucked Up.
Lord shes 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
Etheridges 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 lovers entreaties to stay with the wordsbut, Etheridge, . . . I dont 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, Etheridges 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.
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 Knights most compelling and skillfully crafted poems. Echoing the tone and rhythm of Robert Haydens Runagate Runagate, especially the coda (Run sister runthe Bugga man comes!.), Knights 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:
Theres 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 themDid you write that poem about me? I said, No, I used poetic license. Actually, the poems 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 womens livestheir words, woman smells, circle dances, childbirths, and stretch marksinto lyrical love songs that celebrate the power and beauty of women.
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling
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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 Lykeall of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . . .
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 13 March 2009