Friday, December 13, 2013
Secret Traffic gives a good sense of the range of Roy's work, his deep compassion at the daily suffering of the people of this world, his audacious sense of humor, his somewhat incredulous outrage at the ignorance and corruption of those who perpetrate hurt on other people and at those who act in complicity, the open wound of his own and others' sorrow and loneliness. Another poet here in Minneapolis, Ivory Giles, said that Roy told him once, "You don't make poetry out of nothing. You make poetry out of everything."
At various times over the years, I took part in poetry writing and performing groups Roy had organized or helped organize. Many of his poems in Secret Traffic are familiar to me from hearing him read them at one time or another. Here's a little of a longer poem called "Scraping, Pushing and Pulling," about a job he had in a restaurant kitchen. (All of the poems quoted here are from the book Secret Traffic.)
His first day on the job the new manager:
caught the head line-cook in the pantry
with a seventeen-year-old waitress,
caught the pantryman loading a side of beef
in the trunk of his car,
caught a busboy polishing off a fifth of scotch,
fired him and had to catch him again when he took
his clothes off and was terrorizing customers
in the parking lot;
then caught a party of six trying to slip out
on a two-hundred-and-forty dollar check,
caught the cook's helper blowing his nose
in a batch of clam chowder,
caught the dishwashers sending silverware out
without sending it through the sterilizer,
caught the maintenance man and a waitress
smoking a joint in the storage room,
caught a hostess with a purse-full
of little creamers,
caught hell from the owners for upsetting all the help
and was fired.
Scraping, pushing and pulling at La Cafe de Costra Nostra.
Roy McBride was constantly observing the world, feeling the world through his own skin and through the lives of friends and family and strangers. He evokes people in his poems that I'll never forget. In the poem "Watergate," he tells about his grandmother Lurene, who "reads her Watchtower/ in the corner/ behind her bed" and who "forgets her cane/ ten times a day":
In her room
we sit and watch
images of America
in black and white.
THE CBS EVENING NEWS:
with Walter Cronkite in New York
and Robert Bell in Washington
and Marvin Kalb in Paris
and my grandmother in America.
One hundred thousand dollars
moves through Minnesota
moves across America
moves into Mexico
moves into Washington.
I wish I could just see
a hundred thousand dollars,
my grandmother of nobility
welfare, old age pension,
food stamps and poverty says.
I wish I had
a hundred thousand dollars,
my grandmother says
Roy wrote love poems that ached with yearning and loneliness, and, sometimes, that opened blossoming worlds of spring and sunlight. His poems move with a widely varying music. Sometimes the tone changes in great sudden leaps through the poem. Other times the tone and song flow with more subtle and gentle modulations. Here are lines from the poem "You Are Near":
You are near.
I can hear your breath (quick intake --
sigh through the leaves of my soul).
I am the gentle monster inside this dragon.
Ride this flesh.
Scratch behind my ears.
I will catch your tears in my fiery throat.
Holding you near.
Calling you dear.
My hear is red and blooming.
Listen to the church bells in my chest.
Roy McBride was African-American, and lived his early years in the segregated South. In his poems he touches often on the many large and essential questions about what it is and was to be African-American in the United States. Sometimes this comes up in his poems almost offhand, part of the background of a common day. Sometimes it comes forward into large clear view, central to the great wide world we all live in.
From the first section of the poem "Traffic," a poem Roy read often to audiences, frequently improvising, dancing with the words, pulling in events of the day and the hour:
I meet a woman walking
over on Third Avenue
by Fair Oaks Park.
It's around ten o'clock / dark
and she is so frightened it frightens me.
Should I stop / run away / say
I'm harmless, though big, black;
full of the same fantasies that
fuel the fire, fear, the tear.
She jogs away.
I slow down.
I want to crawl under the ground.
It's a pleasure to get back to my cell.
Away from this traffic traffic traffic traffic.
We have needed this book of poems for a long time. We have needed, and need, the poems of Roy McBride. Amid the hundred academic debates worming along from one year to the next in the drowsy catacombs of one English department or another, the poems of Roy McBride offer examples of the greatest possibilities we're capable of. I love this book.
The book Secret Traffic includes a DVD about Roy McBride, "A Poet Poets," produced in 2011 by Mike Hazard of the Center for International Education in St. Paul. I'm delighted that the publishers included the DVD -- I think it's necessary to get at least a little sample of Roy reading his poems out loud, in order to get a full sense of who he was and is as a poet.
I'll finish here with an excerpt from the poem "Soul Food," which recounts a visit Roy and his family made to relatives in the South in the 1950's, sometime not long after the racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. (Some basic information on the murder of Emmett Till is in the PBS American Experience website, here. There are also other online sources if you go and search.) "Soul Food" is one of the poems in the book that moved me most deeply.
we went to the store,
my father, mother, aunt and me.
My parents were nervous.
All the grownups
black and white
Let's get our groceries
and get back home!
Mama asked my aunt
if we needed some meal.
My aunt said, Yes!
I said, I know where it is!
and started running back
down the aisle
turning the corner
smashing into a display
of canned goods
all over the floor.
A white man came up,
I think he was the manager,
he shouted at me and raised up his arm,
but before he could hit me
Daddy grabbed his arm,
Go get in the car, boy!
is all I hear him say.
I went to the car.
They came out without the groceries.
We drove back to the quarters and went to the house.
It wasn't his fault, Mama said.
Daddy said, He shouldn't have been running
in that store!
Boy, you have done it this time, my aunt added in.
Grandfather cleaned his rifles,
his shot-gun and loaded them
stuck them behind the front and back doors.
all the kids
had to go to bed early.
I couldn't sleep
hearing their voices
talking low on the porch...
woke with a start
in the brightness of morning
packing the car...
And right after breakfast
with lots of hugs
and lots of tears
we started the long drive
with a shoebox full of cake
never discussing what happened
never discussing how it made us feel.
Thank you, Roy.