Soul Singing

by Robert Wrigley

In the autumn of 1973, I had a stack of poetry books checked out from the library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where I would complete a BA in English the following summer. The stack of books (all of them those familiar slender volumes) was about seven times the height of the meager pile of poetry books I actually owned. This pained me. I was enamored, enraptured, and swept away by poetry. All I wanted to do was write poems; I stole as much time as I could from my studies to do so, but it wasn’t enough for me. If I wasn’t writing, I wanted to be reading poems, and I wanted to be reading poems by poets writing now, which is to say, within a decade or so of 1973. Those poems were not what I was reading in my classes. The Lovejoy Library at SIUE had a very good collection, but I wanted my own.

On the other hand, I was twenty-two, I’d exhausted my GI Bill benefits, and books of poems were—or so they seemed then—expensive. The first book of poems I ever spent my money on was Robert Bly’s Silence In the Snowy Fields. I bought it used, at Centicore Books, in Ann Arbor (where I’d been for a visit). I paid $1.80 for it. The cover price: $2.45. Paperback. The second, W.S. Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders, I bought new, also in paper: $3.95. I couldn’t afford it, but I was amazed and puzzled and endlessly fascinated by Merwin’s poems, so I splurged.

In order to find the poets who might have written books I would want to spend my money on, I had the library. And I had two anthologies. The first of these was from Penguin, edited by Donald Hall, and called, blandly, Contemporary American Poetry ($1.50). The book was published originally in 1962; my version (I still have it) is the “Revised and Enlarged Edition,” from 1972. The work of thirty-nine poets is included in this enlarged edition. They included four women: Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath; and two black American men: Dudley Randall and Etheridge Knight. The remaining thirty-three poets were white men. Looking at the table of contents now, I have to wonder why Robert Hayden was not included. Donald Hall taught at Michigan in 1972; Hayden had graduated from Michigan and taught there several years before heading to Fisk. This is a glaring, even a disturbing, omission to me today. In 1973, it was not. In 1973 I was not yet aware of Robert Hayden’s poems.

The other anthology was The Contemporary American Poets, edited by Mark Strand and published by New American Library in 1969 (another $1.50). It included most of the poets Hall had chosen, but Strand’s featured the work of ninety-two poets, including twelve women (only a slightly higher percentage than Hall’s)—Levertov, Plath, Rich, and Sexton again, with the addition of Elizabeth Bishop (how on earth was she left out of Hall’s?); Isabella Gardner; Louise Glück (she would have been just twenty-six years old and have published one book in 1969); Barbara Howes; Carolyn Kizer; Lisel Mueller; Constance Urdang; and Diane Wakoski.

Among black male poets, Strand selected, like Hall, just two, but not the same two. In the Strand, you find LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Al Lee. No Knight, no Randall, and again, no Hayden. Also—and I have to admit, this seems bizarre to me now—no Gwendolyn Brooks, neither in the Hall nor in the Strand. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African American woman ever to win a Pulitzer; she would not die until 2000. Even I knew about Gwendolyn Brooks in 1973. I was Illinois born and raised, nearly 300 miles south of Chicago, it’s true, but still I knew, in high school, that she was the poet laureate of the state and that she was clearly important. That she is included in neither of these anthologies is beyond my understanding. And yet, of course, it is not. It is American history, and history has a way of afflicting the culture and its art.

The seventy-eight remaining poets in Strand’s anthology, as far as I can tell, are white men.

Today—May 14, 2016—I find these proportions, and these representations (or lack thereof) surprising. And not at all surprising. Did I read the poems by the four black poets in the Hall and the Strand? I think so. On the other hand, in 1973, had I read much of anything by any writer of color? I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X the summer after high school. I’d read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn in the army, in 1971. I’d read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in a class. (I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over “the very cup of trembling,” once the professor explained the reference; I was Biblically illiterate then.) I’d read Brooks’ “kitchenette building” in another class. That’s all I’m sure of. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison (Sula was published in 1973) or anything by Hayden yet, not even “Those Winter Sundays.”

Poets, based on the evidence I had at hand, were pretty much all white men. If I saw anything unusual about that, I don’t remember. I had crawled out of the lower middle class with my white male privilege fully formed, even as I was almost completely ignorant or in denial of it. I believed that I hated racism, but what did that mean in my life? My mother was one of the few members of my family’s elder generations who did not use the N-word with alarming regularity, and she was outspoken about her fierce disapproval of it, so much so that, eventually, you never heard it at family gatherings (and I’m very proud of her for that). I had black schoolmates, but none of them would have been called friends. We were friendly toward one another, but I never visited a black schoolmate’s house, and none of my black schoolmates ever visited mine. I had a secret crush on a black girl in high school, but we hardly spoke, for reasons I understand and am bewildered by now.  Then again, this is the first mention of that crush I’ve ever made to anyone except my wife, so perhaps I’m not as bewildered as I think. I loved the Reverend King. I think I remember crying when he was assassinated, but that might have been Bobby Kennedy. 1968 was a brutal year.

I’d been drafted in early 1971 and discharged after a truncated nine-month stint. I was closing in on a bachelor’s degree, the first in my family. By the fall of 1975, I would be halfway through graduate school, in Montana. I owned more of my own books of poetry by then. I’m guessing that if there were twenty-five poetry books on my shelf, probably twenty were by white male poets. Bly, Merwin, Wright, Kinnell, Strand, Hall; for some reason, I have a hardcover of Paul Zweig’s The Dark Side of the Earth, which I still love (at $6.95, it was surely the most expensive poetry collection I’d ever bought). By white women, I’m sure of Plath’s Ariel; Sexton’s Live or Die; that might have been it. Also a copy of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected. And a single book by a black man, just one: Belly Song and other poems, by Etheridge Knight.

I’m pretty sure I did read Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry” in the Hall anthology in 1973. It’s a poem of great power and also possessed of a kind of supreme calm in the face of that which most of us would imagine as unbearable: incarceration. It wasn’t much later, however, in the fall of 1974, my first term in graduate school, in Missoula, when I heard the poem read aloud. Not by Knight (not yet), but by Galway Kinnell. Kinnell began his reading (“The Bear” and four or five cantos from The Book of Nightmares) with “The Idea of Ancestry.” He told us a little about Knight before he read the poem. I remember he said the name twice: “Etheridge Knight. Etheridge Knight,” and nodded to the audience. We were to understand this poem, and this poet, meant a great deal to him.

If it was odd, hearing Kinnell say the first line or so—“Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black / faces”—I don’t remember thinking so. I do remember thinking the poem was amazing. It seems to me now that it would have had to have been amazing, since I have remembered Kinnell’s reading of it for over forty years. There’s also this, regarding the rest of Kinnell’s reading, consisting mostly of those cantos from The Book of Nightmares: much of the time I am willing to say that The Book of Nightmares is one of the greatest American poems of the twentieth century, but of the four or five cantos he read that afternoon, I can only remember him reading one for sure—the first, “Under the Maud Moon.” I bought a copy of The Book of Nightmares that afternoon, but I went home and found Hall’s anthology and re-read “The Idea of Ancestry.”

What I loved about “Under the Maud Moon” was the lavish and wonderful musicality of it. Some of it’s almost (almost?) over the top. He’s describing the birth of his daughter, Maud: “and she skids out on her face into light, / this peck / of stunned flesh / clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing / with the astral violet / of the underlife.” Celestial cheesiness? the underlife? astral violet? But I loved it then and I love it still.

On the other hand, here’s the opening stanza of Knight’s poem:

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black

faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand

fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare

across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know

their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,

they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;

they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

Nothing over the top here. Nothing close. I spoke above of the “supreme calm” in Knight’s poem, and this stanza exemplifies that calm. (Do you need to be told that Etheridge Knight spent eight years in prison? That he was wounded in the Korean War and wound up addicted to heroin? That he snatched an elderly woman’s purse, in order to feed his habit, was arrested, convicted, and given a ten- to twenty-five-year sentence? That a white man would have received a shorter sentence seems very likely.)

The poetics here are spare and restrained. All the lines are more or less of a similar length; there’s not so much tension created by the line breaks as a kind of particular attention devoted to the words that matter most. The closest thing to a figure of speech is the way the faces “stare” from their photographs “across the space” of the speaker’s cell; the most meant-to-be-heard piece of sonic manipulation is the “me / thee” rhymes of the last two lines. What tension Knight creates comes from simple syntactic and rhythmic parallelism: “I know / their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style. / they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; / they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.”

What this series of parallel statements does is set up the principle tension of the poem itself: that the “idea of ancestry,” in this context, stretches across a particular continuum from freedom to the lack of it, from them to me. The poem is an expression of love, of shame probably, of enormous calm sadness, and of despair that will be survived.

It’s very difficult to offer such a reading as the second sentence in the previous paragraph provides. That is, the idea of “freedom” as part of the idea of ancestry. It is especially difficult to contemplate the harrowing limitations on the “free” part of Knight’s family in mid-twentieth-century America. And it is corrosive and heartbreaking to contemplate the legions of African American ancestries today—in 2016—disrupted and even destroyed by the Republic’s continued institutionalized racism, here in this, our prison-industrial complex. The number of American citizens in prison now is appalling; the number of African American men in prison is devastating, unjust, and implicates almost everything about the nation. It undermines the assertions of the Republic’s documents.

Maybe for Etheridge Knight there was freedom and then there was “freedom.” I don’t know. I have to hack my way through some awfully heavy privilege to even approach the front edge of understanding, but I’m trying. Knight said that he died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and was resurrected by heroin, then died from a prison sentence and was resurrected by poetry. All I know for sure is that the poetry that saved him has blessed me.

Here’s the rest of the poem’s first section:

I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,

1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),

and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7 yr old niece

(she sends me letters written in large block print, and

her picture is the only one that smiles at me).

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,

and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took

off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year

when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in

the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93

and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates

(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no

place in her Bible for ‘whereabouts unknown.’

In the midst of all the plain exposition of this section, one notices certain eccentricities of expression. Numerals rather than numbers written out in script—a kind of shorthand, they speed things up; they give the stanza a kind of zip. And there are those regular parenthetical elaborations too. These serve more than anything else to characterize the speaker, although they’re also deftly accretive, you might say. Again, they build tension; there’s a progression from purely informative (one grandmother is dead, as are both grandfathers) to, in stanza two, darkly suggestive (one aunt “went to the asylum,” and the “7 yr old niece . . . is the only one that smiles at me”). The final two parentheticals, in the third stanza, are mostly concerned with the uncle who “disappeared when he was 15.” It is part of the family mythology that the vanished uncle “just took / off and caught a freight.” This is what “(they say),” at least. Among the nine other ancestors who “have the same name” as the speaker, it is this disappeared uncle who seems somehow to most resemble the speaker, at least in the terms of his absence. “He’s discussed each year / when the family has a reunion”; he “causes uneasiness in / the clan, he is an empty space.” Space is a critical word in this poem. It is the “space” of the speaker’s cell the 47 faces “stare across,” and “space” will return in the poem’s final line. It is a grandmother who “keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates,” and then the final parenthetical in the first section—“(and death dates) in it.”

Somehow, in the space between the speaker and his family, his incarceration is a kind of death unto itself, or a kind of near death; it is purgatorial, for sure. If there is no place in the grandmother’s Bible “‘for whereabouts unknown,’” in speaking of the gone uncle, there is also no place to note that the speaker with the same name is in prison.

Here’s section 2:

Each Fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown

hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric

messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr/like a salmon quitting

the cold ocean—leaping and bucking up his birthstream/I

hitchhiked my way from L.A. with 16 caps in my pocket and a

monkey on my back. and I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.

I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard/I smelled the old

land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/

I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out

and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother

and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost

contented/I had almost caught up with me.

(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when

the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk

and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,

they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no sons

to float in the space between.

The lines in the poem’s second section get a little longer (in the mass-market paperback-sized Hall, several do not fit on a single line and have to be broken and indented); there are two stanzas of thirteen and five lines respectively. Several times, in section two only, Knight uses slashes mid-line. These are a propulsive and concentrating strategy; they dramatize the effect of coming down, “till the caps ran out.” The first stanza is a narrative of what may have been the last time the speaker was with his family, when “like a salmon quitting / the cold ocean—leaping and bucking up his birthstream,” he “almost kicked it with the kinfolks.” He’d hitchhiked from L.A. “with 16 caps in my pocket and a / monkey on my back.” It might have been one of those family reunions spoken of in section one. He says “I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard/I smelled the old / land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/ / I flirted with the women.” The habit is not kicked, however; it “came down,” and “[t]hat night I looked at my grandmother / and split.”

This is that calm, that looking back from his cell, toward the gazes and the single smile of his kin. “[M]y guts,” he says, “were screaming for junk/but I was almost / contented/I had almost caught up with me.” That me is the person he was and now, distant and incarcerated, somehow is again, although now “there is a gray stone wall damming my stream,” as the poem’s final stanza begins. That “cold ocean” is a “gray stone” cell, and he returns to those 47 black faces “across the space,” a space now as small as his jail cell and as vast as the geography and the time and the sadness between them. Knight returns then to the phrasings of the end of section one: “I am all of them, / they are all of me, / I am me, they are thee,” with this additional poignant and powerful difference: among all the 47 faces—parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews—what is missing is a child of his own. Just as there is no child of his listed in the grandmother’s Bible, there are pictures of “no sons” on that wall “to float in the space between.” The space between, for now at least, is too large to be crossed but not to be imagined. The poem’s much shorter final line suggests that space, and the speaker’s absence.

* * * * *

In the summer of 1975, between my first and second years in graduate school, I traveled to Allendale, Michigan, to attend the third (and what would turn out to be the last) National Poetry Festival, at Grand Valley State Colleges. It was there I heard Etheridge Knight read “The Idea of Ancestry,” and it was there I bought my copy of Belly Song and other poems ($1.75, one of the great bargains of my life). And it was there I had Knight sign the book for me. We talked a little. He was interested in the fact that I was born in East St. Louis; he had friends there, he said. We talked about Coltrane (I loved Giant Steps). When I told him I was a graduate student at Montana, he said, “Montana? Damn.” I didn’t ask what he meant by that. He inscribed the book “To Brother Bob Wrigley,” and yes, I love that, though I understood then as I understand now that such a designation was a kindness he bestowed upon me. At best, we were brothers in the art, I suppose, but if I was a poet, I was also a young and privileged white man.

And the Belly Song and other poems is one of my most prized possessions. During the worst summers of wildfires here in Idaho, I go out to my little studio building and fill a box with books to keep in the garage for a quick getaway, books I don’t think I can bear to lose. A couple of dozen usually. I have several thousand books out here, and hundreds of them are inscribed and signed, and for some reason I don’t always pick the same ones. Except for Belly Song and other poems.

The wonderful thing about the National Poetry Festival, which was organized by the poet Robert Vas Dias, was how remarkably diverse it was (Vas Dias left Grand Valley State Colleges soon after the one I attended, and the Festivals, sadly, ended with his departure). In 1975—in addition to Etheridge Knight—Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Ishmael Reed were there. There were Asian poets: Filipino-, Japanese-, and Chinese-Americans: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Jessica Hagedorn, Lawson Inada, Alex Kuo, and Shawn Wong. There were three Native American poets: Simon Ortiz, James Welch, and Leslie Silko. The white poets were Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Ira Sadoff, Kathleen Fraser, and Diane Wakoski, among others. There were twenty-three featured poets at the National Poetry Festival in 1975, and more than half of them were poets of color. Forty-one years ago.

Except for “The Idea of Ancestry,” all the poems Knight read at the Festival in Allendale were from Belly Song. Its first printing, according to the copyright page, was “July, 1973,” so it was just two years old. I’d already bought the book and was halfway reading along during his reading, although it proved very difficult not to keep my eyes on Knight. He read “Ilu, the Talking Drum”; he read “Dark Prophesy: I Sing of Shine”; he read “Belly Song.” But the poem he read that hit me hardest, that astonished me most, was “Feeling Fucked/Up.” Thirty-odd years ago, I taught it to a large class of freshmen lit students, in Idaho (it is very likely those students were all white), and one of the students complained about it to my department chair (who told me to watch my fucking language). It made a few more uncomfortable, I’m sure. I don’t know what they thought when I told them the poem was directly in the lineage of great lost/gone love poems in English, from the old anonymous “Western Wind,” which I’d taught them a few weeks before, and in the lineage of the greatest songs of lost love; I don’t know what they thought when I told them that in my opinion “Feeling Fucked/Up” was one of the greatest poems in the language. A few of them might have written that down in their notebooks.

I always imagine that Knight finished the poem then titled it. What else could it have been called?

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

bright bone white  crystal sand glistens

dope death dead dying and jiving drove

her away made her take her laughter and her smiles  

and her softness and her midnight sighs—

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky  

fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds

and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth  

fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and  

democracy and communism fuck smack and pot  

and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck  

god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon  

and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck  

the whole muthafucking thing

all i want now is my woman back

so my soul can sing

The opening “Lord” makes the poem both a prayer and an apostasy, and it only gets worse for the deity. No doubt I feel some level of ordinary envy not of the speaker’s irremediable loss but of the poet’s profligate, relentless, and delicious use of one of the most forbidden words in the language (twelve fucks and one “muthafucking” in eleven lines of the second stanza; also the “fucked” in the title: fourteen in all, a little sonnet of fucks). I remember talking to that class full of freshmen about the word, about its power. Most of them had never heard it spoken in a classroom before, and a few of them—you could see it—were delighted not just to have heard it and heard it so many times but to have had the opportunity to say it in a classroom themselves (none of them had the slightest idea who “fanon” or “nkrumah” were). I’ve used the word in poems myself, but never with such abandon, and as one student put it, the poem loses all its power if you replace its fucks with damns, dangs, or durns.

But we also talked about the first stanza, in which there isn’t fuck one. Actually, the poem is a kind of fourteen-lines-be-damned sonnet. The opening stanza is set-up, the situation, poetically and beautifully described; it functions the way the octave does in an Italian sonnet. And the second stanza, coming just after the turn toward meaning and fucked-uppedness, works like the sestet, in which everything a black man like Knight, in the last third of twentieth-century America, might be most concerned with, including even “red ripe tomatoes” and “nixon,” as well as “malcolm” and “the revolution.” All fucked.

Among the many things that interest me in the poem is the function of figuration. Figures are clearly present in the opening stanza: “the world is bare / bright bone white.” The lost love has taken away not only her literal “laughter” and “smiles” but her “softness” and “midnight sighs” as well, though I confess that I am not sure whether, in this context, they are examples of synecdoche or metonymy. Closely associated with or part of? Well, yeah, both.

But what about stanza two? Isn’t everything from Coltrane (I love that this is the only capitalized proper noun in the poem, along, perhaps, with “Lord”), isn’t everything, all the way to “freedom,” in fact, metaphorical? Everything—“the whole muthafucking thing”—from the holiest musician of them all to “the sky and birds” is equally and summarily dismissed in the face of this loss, at least metaphorically. And the way the poem ends with an ABAB rhyming quatrain, in almost ever-diminishing lines, isn’t that just genius? I think it is. When Knight read the poem that evening in Allendale, Michigan, he never even looked at the text. It was spoken. It felt spontaneous. And it felt absolutely honest and true. The rhyming of “the whole muthafucking thing” with “so my soul can sing” rang in that auditorium as pure, meaningful, and honest music.

* * * * *

“Feeling Fucked/Up” (the slash is in the title in Belly Song but curiously not there on the Poetry Foundation’s website) is not in the Hall anthology; the poem may not have existed when Hall’s revisions and enlargements were made (presumably in 1971 or ‘72). And maybe a poem called “Feeling Fucked/Up” might have pushed beyond the limits of some kind or respectability then, although Hall does include Ginsberg’s “The End,” which uses “fuckers” once (why not part 1 of “Howl,” I wonder?). Of course, we know the poem isn’t about the word “fuck”; the word is used only in its most decidedly negative sense, after all, and the absence of any positive associations has everything to do with the lover’s absence. There may even be, now, well into the twenty-first century, certain aspects of male possession (“all I want now is my woman”—those are my italics) that might alienate some readers more than all the fucks.

The speaker’s bereft of her, and nothing else matters but the way he feels, which is “fucked/up,” so much so that his soul—the poem as evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—cannot sing. Knight’s marriage to the poet Sonia Sanchez ended in 1970; it’s hard to believe that Sanchez is not the woman in question. If art, as Edmund Wilson suggested, proceeds from a wound, the wound, in the case of both of these Etheridge Knight poems, is acknowledged as self-inflicted. What “Feeling Fucked/Up” captures is the moment when that wound is most fully acknowledged and remembered, and therefore felt. (A poem called “Being Fucked/Up” would be a completely other thing, wouldn’t it?) It’s a lyric poem; it captures that moment, which is a moment that can be relived both voluntarily and involuntarily. The speaker in “The Idea of Ancestry” sprawls on his bunk, with “no sons / to float in the space between.” Otherwise, he abides. He waits for freedom and reunion, there being no other choice. In “Feeling Fucked/Up,” the speaker longs only for the woman back, so his soul “can sing.” That both poems manage, from the depths of their respective despairs, to be examples of the soul singing through poetry—singing in resolve and in agony, but singing nevertheless—is what has made me believe that Etheridge Knight is one of the truly great American poets of his century. His singular influence delights me.

It was a hard life. Knight died about six weeks before his sixtieth birthday, on March 10, 1991, in Indianapolis. By the time he was the age I am today, he’d been dead for six years.