by James Baldwin, 1983
Why is James Baldwin good at everything??? I was a little skeptical coming into this poetry collection, partially because I don’t tend to love poetry and partially because I had my doubts that this writer who gained fame based on his essays and novels could take those same ideas and translate them to verse. But, he did, and I’m just as floored as I ever am when I read one of Baldwin’s many stirring works.
Like much of his other writing, the theme of many of these poems is race. The first poem, “Staggerlee wonders,” at 19 pages, is a mini epic (if I can be permitted to indulge in that oxymoron). It comes out of the gate strong, with Baldwin pondering:
I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung:
the gentle, wide-eyed, cheerfully
ladies, and their men,
nostalgic for the noble cause of Vietnam,
nostalgic for noble causes,
aching, nobly, to wade through the blood of savages
He continues the poem by invoking the voice of the oppressor, saying that “the natives will have nothing to complain about,” indeed, they will be grateful and find they were better off than before. He references Manifest Destiny and the Vietnam War, incidents where entirely new groups of people awaited their subjugation. When he then pulls around and juxtaposes those who are against abortion, because it’s killing someone, but support the death penalty, because it’s helpful, the blatant hypocrisy of our cultural beliefs stare out at the reader.
In the short but powerful poem “Imagination,” Baldwin calls into question the belief that those who conquered the New World did so because they were great. He writes:
creates the situation,
and, then, the situation
It may, of course,
be the other way around:
Columbus was discovered
by what he found.
In “Guilt, Desire and Love,” he mines the depths of his other favorite topic, sexuality, to show the dance that these three emotions often engage in:
Each time Desire looked towards Love,
hoping to find a witness,
Guilt shouted louder
and shook them hips
and the fire of the cigarette
threatened to burn the warehouse down.
And, in “A Lover’s Question,” he pushes some difficult thoughts on the country in which he was born:
I have endured your fire
and your whip,
and the panic from your hip,
in many ways, false lover,
yet, my love:
you do not know
how desperately I hoped
that you would grow
not so much to love me
as to know
that what you do to me
you do to you.
There are also poems of love, dedicated to people in his life, including what reads as a eulogy for a man named Earl whom Baldwin calls “baby brother.” Like all of Baldwin’s writing, the emotions are plain on the page for the reader to see, the anger and despair bubbling up, demanding answers for the crimes of history that continue through today. As always, his inquiries are prescient, holding as much significance for us today as they did when he put them on the page.