Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Thinking about Etheridge Knight

I first met Etheridge Knight in the spring or early summer of 1976, probably at one of the weekly small and slightly rowdy gatherings of poets in the basement of the Pillsbury Waite Cultural Arts Center in Minneapolis. It was an old building, had previously been a church, it was a warm evening, and a little bit humid and sweaty even in the cool of the basement. Other regulars and semi-regulars at the weekly sessions included Roy McBride (a person of inexhaustible energy, and in my opinion the best poet in Minneapolis, a city teeming with poets), Jim Dochniak, Kevin O'Rourke, Linda Bryant, Mary McAnally, myself, Dale Handeen, Ruth Magler, Steve Linsner, Mike Finley, Ivory Giles, and one or two others.

I never got to know Etheridge well. His poetry planted astonishing flowers in me that continue to bloom to this day. At the time, he'd published Poems from Prison and Belly Song; it would be many years before the University of Pittsburgh would see fit to publish a The Essential Etheridge Knight, an excellent gathering of his characteristic work, a "full-length" collection although really a book is full-length when it's finished, regardless of how many pages.

I have many recollections of Etheridge sitting at a table in that basement, or on the steps outside, letting his mind meander through talk about poetry and reading poems out loud. He was one of the best out-loud readers of poetry I've ever encountered, his calm deliberate voice feeling its way around the syllables and words and lines with way fingers will quietly curl around a stone.

He sees through stone
he has the secret eyes
this old black one
who under prison skies
sits pressed by the sun
against the western wall
his pipe between purple gums
("He Sees through Stone" in The Essential Etheridge Knight, from which all the quoted passages here are taken.) He lived a hard life, by any measure. Years in prison, and years of drug addiction. And years of finding his way back to himself, back into the world of the living. I say these things, knowing only the bare outline of the facts, knowing little or nothing of the close-up reality of what his life was. However much his poems told facts, they certainly were freighted with truth.

There are no dry bones
here in this valley. The skull
of my father grins
at the Mississippi moon
from the bottom
of the Tallahatchie,
the bones of my father
are buried in the mud
of these creeks and brooks that twist
and flow their secrets to the sea.
(From "The Bones of My Father").

Over the years after he moved on from Minneapolis, I saw Etheridge again on a few occasions. For a few weeks in the early '80's a few of us would meet and read our poems to each other in a small used book store on East Lake Street in south Minneapolis. Besides Etheridge, I remember from those nights Kevin O'Rourke and Ruth Magler, returned from the basement sessions of several years before, Roy McBride may have been there too (I don't have clear recollections of him there), and a couple of men I hadn't met before whose names I can't remember now. How amazing it is that poetry endures, hangs on, even at times thrives, in such places -- an old church basement with exposed pipes running along the ceilings; the storefront home of a used bookstore, cobbled together with tables and boxes and home-made bookshelves, that lasts a year or so and then is gone; a scattering of houses and apartments where people gather and poetry gives off its shadows and light.

In some of Etheridge Knight's poems, his politics grow sharp and clear and speak bluntly, uncluttered by hesitation. From the poem "On Watching Politicians Perform at Martin Luther King's Funeral":

Hypocrites shed tears
like shiny snake skins

words rolling
through the southern air

the scent of flowers
mingles with Jack Daniels
and Cutty Sark

the last snake skin slithers
to the floor where
black baptist feet
have danced in ecstasy
The next time I saw Etheridge after those evenings in the bookstore was in July 1987 at the Port Townsend Writer's Conference in Washington state. The conference takes place every summer on the grounds of Fort Worden State Park (a former coastal artillery fort on the Puget Sound). Etheridge was there for the first weekend of the 10-day conference, and I heard him read his poems to a large theatre auditorium full of people, one of the truly great poetry readings I've heard in my life. Poem after poem in his slow quiet voice sent palpable waves of feeling spreading out through the room.
Night Music Slanted
Light strike the cave
of sleep. I alone
tread the red circle
and twist the space
with speech. ...

can there anything
good come out of
It was a large conference, and many people sought his attention. I had a chance to talk with him, briefly, a couple of times. I felt in him a weary sadness, also enjoyed his quick humor and quiet watchful mind. I felt like I could see him writing books behind his bright moving eyes.

The last time I saw him was shortly after that, I think later the same summer or in the fall, in Minneapolis when he came to do a reading. He read to a lively crowd in a cavernous lecture hall auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. The same astonishing magic, his poems conjuring themselves into animate beings flowing out into the room among us.

In September 1990 I got an answering machine message one evening from poet friend Jim Dochniak, telling me that news had come that Etheridge Knight had lung cancer. Some people in Minneapolis were organizing a poetry reading to try to help out, at least a little, with the medical expenses and whatever else was needed. (It was a week that has stayed riveted in my memory for another reason too -- two days later I came home to another answering machine message, also from Jim Dochniak, with the news that poet Tom McGrath had died.)

I heard no more news until one chilly rainy night in March 1991, at the home of a friend -- another informal get-together of poets to read and talk about poems -- and someone mentioned that Etheridge had died about three weeks earlier. There were still the remnants of snow and ice on the ground at the end of winter. The previous months had been full of the news of the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the administration of the first Bush. CNN broadcasts live from the Hilton Hotel in Baghdad while the bombs came down as the U.S. military attempted to pound the city into ruins -- the most phantasmagoric hallucination imaginable, fully incarnated into flesh and brick and stone and death. The rain let up as the evening grew late, and the sky grew intermittently clear and unsettled. I got home and sat up and wrote.

And I read Etheridge Knight's poems. Among the poems I went to was one of his best-known, one I'd heard him read a number of times over years, most recently in Port Townsend and (I want to say, though my memory isn't sure here) again in Minneapolis a few months later, "The Idea of Ancestry":

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir in 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 children
to float in the space between.
Through all of the space and across all of the years, the poetry of Etheridge Knight brings its intelligence and power and beauty, and makes our lives and our world finer.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Some recommended reading

Here are some recent books of poems I like. I use a broad interpretation of "recent" -- poetry has been around a long time. Most of the publishers can be found on the internet; I've added weblinks into the text below for a couple of publishers that might be a little hard to track down.

Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era edited by Estelle Gershgoren Novak. Anthology of Thomas McGrath and the poets who gathered around him during his years in Los Angeles in the 1960's and '60's. In addition to McGrath himself, features work by Don Gordon, Edwin Rolfe, Naomi Replansky, Bert Meyers, Sid Gershgoren, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Josephine Ain, Eugene Frumkim, Mel Weisburd, among others. Also includes some articles, editorials and artwork from The California Quarterly and Coastlines, two poetry magazines associated with various of the poets in the anthology; and a highly informative introduction by the editor. Published 2002 by University of New Mexico Press.

Red Sky at Night: Socialist Poetry edited by Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell. Anthology of British poets. "Socialist" in a broad sense: includes poems by William Blake, Percy Shelley, Ernest Jones, William Morris, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Hugh MacDiarmid, Joe Corrie, Edgell Rickword, Elizabeth Daryush, Randall Swingler, W.H. Auden, Rex Warner, Naomi Mitchison, Jack Lindsay, Alison Fell, Jack Beeching, Adrian Mitchell, Andrew Salkey, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols, Carol Ann Duffy ... among many others. Includes a brief introduction by the editors. Published 2003 by Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham, UK.

The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War edited by Cary Nelson. Includes work by Muriel Rukeyser, Edwin Rolfe, Langston Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, Aaron Kramer, Norman Rosten, Sol Funaroff, Joy Davidman, Kenneth Fearing, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edouard Roditi, John Berryman, Genevieve Taggard, Don Gordon, Alvah Bessie, Olga Cabral, Bob Kaufman, James Wright, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thomas Merton, Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Hass, Martin Espada ... and others. With an in-depth introduction by the editor. Published 2002 by University of Illinois Press.

Ca Dao Viet Nam edited and translated by John Balaban. Anthology of Vietnamese folk poetry, translated with sensitivity by Balaban, a poet and Vietnam war veteran, who spent much time in the villages and countryside of Vietnam in the years after the war, becoming familiar with the work he has translated here with the aid of local Vietnamese poets and musicians. With a useful introduction by Balaban. Includes the original Vietnamese side by side with the translations. Published 2003 by Copper Canyon Press (a reissue and expanded edition of the collection published in the 1970's by Unicorn Press).

Another Spring, Darkness by Anuradha Mahapatra, selection of poems by an amazing poet, a working-class woman originally from a remote village in West Bengal, who in recent years has worked in Kalkata as a teacher and community organizer. Translated from Bengali by Carolyne Wright with Paramita Banerjee and Jyotirmoy Datta. With introduction and notes to the poems. Published 1996 by Calyx Books.

The Stone of Language by Anya Achtenberg. A recent colllection by a poet who has been one of my favorites for many years. Powerful riveting poems of working class life, speaking with a keen voice of the political repressiveness and insurgence that shake and shape the age in which we live. Published 2004 by West End Press.

Factories and Cities by Dale Jacobson. A book-length poem, part personal tableau, part personal narrative, part impressionistic collage, carried along by waves of richly interwoven imagery of life in the modern world. I've continued to go back to this one over the past couple of years, reading and re-reading parts. Published 2003 by a print-on-demand publisher, originally 1st Books Library, now named Author House.

On Hearing Thunder by Terry Hauptman. A stunning full-length collection of poems by an ecstatic poet artistic wisewoman soothsayer friend, ranging over a world of interior and exterior landscapes. Includes a few pages of Hauptman's beautiful dazzling artwork from her series of mixed media paintings collectively titled the Songline Scrolls. Published 2004 by North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

American Fires by Floyce Alexander. A major collection by one of the great durable sages of poetry life, handling words as a blacksmith handles hot metal. Poems that glow and smolder and ring from the touch of fire and hammer and tongs. Published 2003 by Lynx House Press.

Roque Dalton Redux edited by Maggie Jaffe and Esther Rodriguez. Anthology of poems, and a few prose pieces, written in the spirit of struggle and resistance and revolutionary love that marked the work of the legendary poet and guerrillero of El Salvador. Poems by Alan Catlin, Ernesto Cardenal, Jane Mayhall, Manuel Paul Lopez, Doren Robbins, Robert Edwards, Adrian C. Louis, Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal, Christopher Butters, Marilyn Zuckerman, Sharon Doubiago, Leonard J. Cirino, Christopher Presfield, Katherine Hastings, Lyle Daggett, Maggie Jaffe, Richard Kostelanetz, Rob Whitbeck, Julie Lechevsky, Yvette Hatrak, and others. Published 2005 by Cedar Hill Books.

And there's always more. I'll list more books of poems, and possibly some other items, in future Recommend Reading posts in this website.

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