Sunday, April 15, 2012

National Poetry Month—Everett Hoagland Homecoming: A Sequence of Poems About Africa.

I picked up my copy of UUWorld magazine back in 2004 and was thunderstruck by a sweeping epic of poetry.  The journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association regularly features poetry, which is commendable.  It has even published some of my work.  UU’s continue, in the face of generally vast public indifference, to churn out poetry.  And a lot of it is very good.  Several top contemporary poets are among the contributors.

But for the most part, like a lot of contemporary poetry, the work is brief.  A few quick, incisive lines intended to prick the conscience or stir the soul.  And that’s alright.  It just about fits the level of patience of even sophisticated readers for verse.  

Everett Hoagland’s long series of poems inspired by a trip to Africa with his family was something more ambitious.  I was so impressed I penned this letter to the editor.
As a poet and a reader I wish to thank you for including Everett Hoagland's Homecoming in the July/August issue of UU World. It is becoming an uncommon experience in a magazine of any sort to be able to s-t-r-e-t-c-h o-u-t with substantial poetry, to do more than dip our toes in the wading pool, to feel the delight and terror of total immersion in untamed waters. It reminds us that poetry can be more than just a passing moment of reflection/inspiration/whimsy over a cup of morning tea, however pleasant and reassuring that can be.
I commend the essential bravery of Hoagland's work, which connects the intimate and personal now to the vastness of a historic and global outrage. Yet he spans that Middle Passage ocean and time not only with justifiable indignation, but with the sly knowledge that the historic saga has made him something other than a displaced African, something deeper than an American. This is self-knowledge on an epic scale. All of us, regardless of our origins would do well to come to such grips with the long shadows of our own histories.
Hoagland was born on December 18, 1942 in Philadelphia.  He graduated from Lincoln University, perhaps not entirely co-incidentally where Langston Hughes got his degree, in 1963.  He came of age in the Civil Rights era and matured into a community coming to grips with its identity manifesting itself in the Black Power movement.

He went to work as an educator in the Philadelphia public school system before returning to academia to get his masters degree at Brown University and to become a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.  He settled with his wife and children in the historic whaling port of New Bedford, which made him poet laureate.

He has been a prolific poet and writer, highly regarded as a leading voice of new Black literature while, perhaps unsurprisingly, escaping much acclaim among the poetry establishment.  Among his books are, Ten Poems: A Collection, 1968; Black Velvet, 1970; Scrimshaw, 1976; This City and Other Poems, 1997; and Here: New and Selected Poems, 2002.

Here are the poems that so impressed me back in 2004.

Homecoming: A Sequence of Poems About Africa

“It is the experience of being at home or not, of being able to go home or not, that sustains the sense of self or begins to shatter it.” —Julia Wright

At East/West Beaches
The day night was born
we searched for time
and sea-smoothed fragments of blue, green,
brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-and-woman-made
fire and sand made from stone
made from rock made
from cosmic dust. We
fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles
translucent as sucked rock
candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into
a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged night
opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
into camp ground by
duned, scrub
beach rose.
The night day was born
we turned around and found
no footprints.

At the beach
by the seeded ring cove
she lay back, unbuttoned her
maternity blouse, knees funneled
moonsky and sea. Above
the sandbar there was a gold
ring around the moon. Stretch marks
rippled from her navel
cameo of time; tributaries flowed down around
her full-womb-stretched skin.
Moonlight unrolled
ancient scrolls of water
containing Middle
Passage names
and her water broke
with Nia.
Nia, when they put you
bloody and immaculate
on your mother's diaphanous
you kneaded your shadow;
love stared milk and your mother cooed
awe, Now
you cry for beamed moon juice
in this dark room.
Nia, Nia, Nia, Nia.
herishimfudgepudge: Nia,
plump and healthy on your mama's mana
smile, I pronounce your name.
Purpose I pronounce your blood-red name
as your mother suckles you,
rocking in a bentwood chair built like
bop, smiling crescent moons.

We put our infant daughter Nia
to sleep nestled, suckled, sated
three seats inside the hollow aisle
of the jumbo jet.
High over the Atlantic Ocean, flying through
the night to Dakar, “The Paris of Africa,”
the capital of Negritude, flying back
with implicit faith in what is
flying us home through time zones over
human bones under the Middle Passage,
the deep dark outside the plane's star-scratched
windowpanes, holding hands all night to land,
at breaklight, at the place from where
all our dawns have come.
The jet's shadow comes at a coastal fishing
village like a shark. We step off the
angled plane onto ancestral soil to see
our footprints in the same deep red dust
our people have worked in Jersey, Georgia,
and Jamaica. The dust of drought surrounds
Dakar like a goopher or vévé.
At N'Gor, the sea-side resort,
we are served kola nuts and palm wine
in calabashes while hired hands play
kora and khalam and room keys exchange
hands and hands exchange soul shakes.

The Pan African Writers' Association World Poetry Festival, University of Ghana, Legon, November 1999
“Do ba-na co-ba, gene me, ge-ne me!
Do ba-na co-ba, gene me, ge-ne me!
Do ba-na co-ba, gene me, ge-ne me!”
we who are
american made who
feel and act like we are
making it in america
ensconced in mansions
with yachts
and other leisure craft
sometimes forget last
time we crossed
over the atlantic we
had to
we had
. . . we . . .
were so many too
few to . . . by twos
by the score in lots sold
singly or by the dirty dozens
baptized by inhumanity
in the name of the slaveship
in the name of our “owners”
and the power and the glory
of their successive sons many thousand-
thousands did not make it
. . . gone . . .
we who are american made
who act and feel like we
have it made in america some-
times forget
his craft and power are great
and still armed with steel gray greed
and hate that enforce foreign policy
begun with middle
passage forgive
the heavy air this plaint
brings to our affair
here you see
my great-grandparents' grandparents
came from somewhere in the old gold coast
indulge me you see the last time
the we in me crossed the sea
sickened naked branded we barely
made it we
traveled so lightly forgive
this funk those of us who
were not sick and jettisoned
like junk survived to make
possible succeeding amber waves of we
who currently seem to have it made
in america had seaborne ancestors
who in me are just recently airborne
here who
endured floggings and rapes in the name
of moral and cultural superiority who
bore up under ten stone bales of cotton
who rose in negro spirituals from christenings
in their own blood from baptismals awash
with their urine vomit liquid feces and pus
and walked free of the heavy air of the hold
into the sea-deep blues of american slavery
and its legacies pardon them
for returning in mixed company in me
for returning so ponderously my air
is heavy because I am here for them
fresh out of the funky hold of america
in the name of their lost forgotten family
chain-linked names thrown overboard
into troubled water nameless
middle passage manifests' “negroes”
down in holy water drowned to be reborn
from kofi to cuffee to cousins
flourishing somewhere among the humanity
here i am
distant family extended nearly to the point
of no return but not as had been hoped for
by the slave breakers not beyond endurance
beyond belief for by-and-by by real miracles
of rebellion escape cross-
overcoming by bullets ballots births
beliefs blessings
they are here in me
by invitation
by way of high john
hambone ring shouts jazz and pan
african airways
“Do ba-na co-ba, gene me, ge-ne me!
Ben-de nu-li, nuli, nuli, ben-de le”
* from The Souls of Black Folk, chapter 14, by W.E.B. Du Bois

Good Bloods and Bad Water
One must scorn the air-conditioned hotel
for the local Wolof musicians to take you out
to a ghetto of Dakar, French style,
worse than home. You relearn
how to eat sun-dried fish, rice,
couscous, cassava by hand
from friendly, giving folk who rename you,
when you squat with them around
a circular communal dinner pot
in a square room of the horizontal
tenement, where the water is polluted
by the drainage from tourist hotel sewage pipes
you smell the fruit of negritude. In the Palace
of Politics the smiling ebony persona of France pours rosé
on the scarlet royal carpet, “For our
ancestors.” On the other side
of the guarded wrought iron fence bars
of those elegantly caged in the villanelle,
in the three unities, the barely living
poor, our true hosts, drink foul water—
to kora, khalam and balafon.

“necessary and inevitable
like the ‘inevitable' slave past
through consciousness like the present”
—Augustino Neto, “The Path of the Stars”
Gorée ten miles off shore beckons
from the western horizon like the landscape
of the troubled dream and we sleepwalk to the ferry.
Twenty thousand-thousand gone through the Gorée trade alone
we are told.
This is a Catholic isle off a Moslem land.
This the church where truth was chained.
Here Jesus died and rose again.
The beads we say are knots of blood.
Here they force-fed us after the trek in chains.
Here men were sold by size, nubile women penned
and prized for comeliness. Mulattoes conceived here,
and their mothers, were boated back to the main-
land to buffer tides of rage. Here children's
chains are sold as souvenirs; they anchor history
and the mind. Here they took, selected the best;
the rest: lame, old, small and sick were helped
to die.
The writing is on the stockade walls: poster sized
revolutionary rhetoric, Pan-African credos, race
pride logos, reminders, challenges and warnings
written in black by the descendants
of the survivors of the dried blood red walls
of the pastel colonial buildings'
shuttered silence.
We've had to come all the way
back to see poetry kill people, blind them,
cause them to cough blood and be crippled
in a French provincial palace of mind,
with a court, an overmonied ten percent
of the population, prospering lords and ladies,
fronting masks. Eighty percent of each dollar spent
on the slave factory island, on a ROOTS tee shirt
goes to France. “See Your Roots” cotton
shirts off bony backs are hawked by hungry hustlers
inside the barracoon's walls. Bloods at its
doors trade cowry shells for your money or
urge on you a brand new djudju bag—
for fifty Central African francs.
At sunset on Gorée Island, where scavenging
brown hawks wheel above the huge metal cross
atop the island's highest point, the volcano
sleeps silent as the broken cannon pointed there
over the Middle Passage. . . .
down a long dark corridor a doorless doorway
to the past and future opens
to the surf's wash and soft thud on the black
boulders. The blue-eyed horizon of this eastern
shore . . .
You are your shadow silhouetted in the rectangular
frame that is the grave of time, where so much went
underground. You had to, had to, you
had to come all the way back
to the rock fortress, to the slave pens,
get down
on your hands and knees and crawl into
the stone oven of a cell
where the African rebels' yells and defiance were kept
in solitary. Compressed by silence and circumstance
to diamond-hard blues. Completely black
inside the cell alone, one sees and hears things
clearly in the deep darkness. Overhead are heard
the voices of African-American tourists
calling their mates to, “Come look at this
Tyree. Come see this Dee. . . .” One hears a sea
of twenty thousand thousand voices at once
but also this from the shadows that always crowd
your view-finder, even in the dark:
“Do you tan? The native women are
charming. Does he take MasterCard? How
can they be so resigned? Gee, Gorée is neat fun!”
Inside the cowry shell you hold to your ear
you hear your name and heartbeat;
you finger the humming walls of the
cubicle and chip the tactile darkness
for a keepsake to put in your
djudju bag: ancient black lava rock.
You crawl out into the light
of the setting sun, face the western horizon
and, stripping as you go, hanging your watch
and jeans, western shirt and shoes on your white
shadow, you wade into
the east shore of the Middle Passage—
the hyphen between African
and American—
the surf hisses and steams off you
like water around white hot iron.
You walk out farther, level with your
heart. Farther, until the edge of life
is just over your head. You hold your
breath under water, open your eyes, clench
your fists and let the bellow bubble out
of you.
But you bound off the sand and obsidian
bottom and beat your breath back to the surface. . . .
As we board the ferry back to Dakar
the ghosts of twenty million swarm the wharf;
waifs with open palms and eyes closed by
disease and blindness, with ringworm in their
rusty dreadlocks, beg
for fifty Central African francs.
The Paris of Africa.
At sunset, the sea around Gorée is red;
it recedes revealing twenty thousand-
thousand gone and western rigs drilling
offshore for new black gold.
Later, alone in the bush, squatting
at the base of an ashy baobab, you contemplate
it all: your blue jeans,
the same old cotton, under
the same old sun,
the same old so-called “communes,”
the same old mules,
the same gaunt shadows lengthening
in the light. And how
oppression always
smells the same, looks the same, how
poverty personified is always full
of the same self
hate and hospitality.
You look at, listen to
the little whirlwinds, dust devils
swirling on the dry red road
and think of goopher,
think of vévé.
You take a twig and score
your name under a poem
you are able to read in the deep
red dust:
We are dust.
Rock is the placenta of time.
But rock can be shattered.
You cannot break dust;
it defies the hammer.
Chisels cannot carve up-
on it. Its stuff will not
make good statues of your heroes.
Heroes are made of it. Blown up?
Explosives never destroy it.
It cannot be slung or thrown.
but it can kill you.

The Seven Days
We return through customs wearing the ebony
Seven Days masks haggled for at the barracoon
beach boutique. Seven days carved as
masks we carry through time and customs.
Beneath the ebony stain, they are grained
like all the lifelines of a family's
hands. A blue-eyed redhead at the customs gate
Welcome home!
He checks all but the seven days
and the djudju bag I wear around my neck.
It holds: seed, black stone, red dust, root slice
of the baobab, a seashell from the east
shore of the deep hyphen between African
and American. We are returned to this
departure point, without our shadows,
with that which is discovered with loss,
with that which is lost with discovery.

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