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.

Great essay. Really enjoyed all the details and the mix of memoir/essay that made it more alive.

Wonderful essay. Got me thinking about Etheridge in a new way. Thank you!

Just found your blog following Jenni's blog....

What's your e-mail?

Drop me a line.


Thanks much for your comments.


Thanks as well, and for your comment in the Recommended Reading article.


I posted a comment at MiPoesias with my email address in the window for it. You're most welcome to contact me.

Thanks to all.

I'm very glad to have stumbled across your site via another blogger. I live in MS and am thrilled each time I get to introduce Etheridge Knight to my students who are always unfamiliar with him. I'm happy to have read this. Thanks.
I happened to run across your piece while googling info for Etheridge for an acquaintance of mine, and enjoyed it very much.

I liked as well your description of poetry get-togethers and the struggle for poem-writers to survive spiritually. It's a story that many will recognize no matter what city they live in.

Etheridge spent time in Toledo, Ohio over the years and it was my priviledge and honor to get to know him. Despite his many problems and struggles, he was a beautiful person and one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. He could really see through the bullshit.

I'm not familiar with your poems but congratulate you on keeping at it for so many years. Not an easy thing to do. I've been at it for about 50 years myself so I know what I'm talking about.

Thank you for your excellent blog entry here.
You mention Ruth Magler, I knew her very well but lost contact with her. Do you happen to know what happened to her?
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