Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sing Out, Gwen

Priscilla Owen's confirmation, the burning crosses in North Carolina, the looming cloud of John Bolton, the U.S. Army's lies about Pat Tillman, the foolishness of Scott McClellan, and the New York Times still burying the lead on Ismail Merchant. (For those of you who did not get a secret decoder ring to go with the newly printed obituary, the sentence "En route to the festival, Mr. Merchant met Mr. Ivory, and they formed a partnership to make English-language features in India for the international market" translates to "In 1961, Ismail Merchant met the man who was his lover, friend, and artistic collaborator for 44 years, until his death." Thank God these gadgets still come in the Cracker Jacks boxes.)

How this country and this world stand so much, I don't know. But these are the days when you get out the Gwendolyn Brooks anthology, both to enjoy the luscious perfection of the writing and to remind yourself that some people did manage to understand some things about the world before they left it, and out of sheer generosity—and with hope—they put it down for the rest of us. "Paul Robeson" is in every way a great poem, but linger on those last six lines:

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,

that we are each other's
harvest:
we are each other's
business:
we are each other's
magnitude and bond.


Among other things, this poem is about acknowledging the dastardly pain in the world, and its sinister history, but getting back to the idea that our universal companionship with each other actually matters. Someone in this world will eventually sing again the way Paul did. Even though we miss her, Gwendolyn is still singing, too.

P.S. Some people, including certain newly-minted federal judges, make it a habit and a point of pride not to learn this lesson. Gwendolyn, that sly fox, has already beat them at their game. Fanning through the table of contents, I am reminded that she also wrote a poem called, ahem, "Priscilla Assails the Sepulchre of Love." The poem ends this way ("she" is the speaker's own body):

I keep my keys away that she
May never have to find

The enameled winter of your heart,
The pastels of your mind.


Nobody, and I mean nobody, did it better, Ms. Brooks.

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