misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Foremother Poetry: American Black Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance and a Roman Sculptress

Dear friends and readers,

As I've said, I'm each week writing a blog on a woman poet sixty years since and my problem is while I have a depth of knowledge in a few areas, women poets writing in English from the 16th through 19th century, and to a much lesser extent, writing in French and Italian and afrter that in translation in Europe and in the centuries before (medieval, classic) and after (20th to 21st century), I am ignorant beyond this and even here I have bad gap; I am unfortunately ignorant of black women's poetry in the US and elsewhere in English and French. Nonetheless I thought I'd try to extend myself where I could through anthologies. 

One such anthology is Maureen Honey's Shadowed DreamsWomen's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.  This cover black American's women poetry from the early 20th century, post WW1, just before the worst nadir of the depression set in. I have four poets and one black artist to commemorate, experience, share:

Hagar in the Wilderness by Mary Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907)

Two powerful poems I just love and enter into by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935):

I sit and sew

I Sit and Sew
I sit and sew-a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams­ --
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath ---
But-I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew-my heart aches with desire­
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe
­But -- I must sit and sew. --
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need, me, Christ! It is no roseate seam
That beckons me-this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me -- God, must I sit and sew?

The Proletariat Speaks

I love beautiful things:
Great trees, bending green winged branches to a velvet lawn, Fountains sparkling
in white marble basins,
Cool fragrance of lilacs and roses and honeysuckle

Or exotic blooms, filling the air with heart-contracting odors; pacious rooms,
cool and gracious with statues and books,
Carven seats and tapestries, and old masters,
Whose patina shows the wealth of centuries.

And so I work
In a dusty office, whose grimed windows
Look out on an alley of unbelievable squalor,
Where mangy cats, in their degradation, spurn
warming bits of meat and bread;
Where odors, vile and breath-taking, rise in fetid waves
Filling my nostrils, scorching my humid, bitter cheeks.

I love beautiful things:
Carven tables laid with lily-hued linen
And fragile china and sparkling iridescent glass;
Pale silver, etched with heraldries,
Where tender bits of regal dainties tempt,
And soft-stepped service anticipates the unspoken wish.

And so I eat
In the food-laden air of a greasy kitchen,
At an oil-clothed table:
Plate piled high with food that turns my head away,
Lest a squeamish stomach reject too soon
The lumpy gobs it never needed.
Or in a smoky cafeteria, balancing a slippery tray
To a table crowded with elbows
Which lately the busboy wiped with a grimy rag.

I love beautiful things:
Soft linen sheets and silken coverlet,
Sweet cool of chamber opened wide to fragrant breeze;
Rose-shaded lamps and golden atomizers,
Spraying Parisian fragrance over my relaxed limbs,
Fresh from a white marble bath, and sweet cool spray.

And so I sleep
In a hot hall-room whose half-opened window,
Unscreened, refuses to budge another inch,
Admits no air, only insects, and hot choking gasps
That make me writhe, nun-like, in sackcloth sheets and lump:
of straw
And then I rise
To fight my way to a dubious tub,
Whose tiny, tepid stream threatens to make me late;
And hurrying out, dab my unrefreshed face
With bits of toiletry from the ten cent store


Women spent their lives sewing. How ironic that most of us should spend our time in such vile surroundings because we are poor when our dreams of beauty are so strong in our minds.


Anne Spencer (1882-1975)

Letter to my Sister:

It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;
To taunt them with the tongue's thin tip,
Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,
Or draw a line daring them to cross;
The gods own the searing lightning,
The drowning waters, tormenting fears
And anger of red sins.

Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly­
Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,
Be kind, or sweat agony drops
Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;
If you have beauty or none, if celibate
Or vowed-the gods are Juggernaut,
Passing over . . . over .

This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you'd die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.

A despairing poem about retreat.


Angelina Weld Grimke (1880-1958)

To Keep the Memory of Charlotte Forten Grimke --1915

Still are there wonders of the dark and day;
The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
So small beneath the stars and moon;
The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
These are, and these will be
    Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Each dawn, while yet the east is veil'd grey,
The birds about her window wake and sing;
And far away, each day, some lark
I know is singing where the grasses swing;
Some robin calls and calls at dark.
These are, and these will be
    Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.
The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
But not for eyes that loved them best;
Only her little pansies are all gone,
Some lying softly on her breast.
And flowers will bud and be
   Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, 'mid other groves:
And to us here, ah! she remains A lovely memory
    Until eternity;
She came, she loved, and then she went away.

Remembering a deeply loved companion-sister-friend.


 Gwendolyn Bennett   (1902-1981)

Street Lamps in Early Spring

Night wears a garment
All velvet soft, all violet blue ...
And over her face she draws a veil
As shimmering fine as floating dew . . .
And here and there
In the black of her hair
The subtle hands of Night
Move slowly with their gem-starred light ...

The richest section of poetry in Shadowed Dreams is that filled with "nature" poems, poems which are strongly description and celebrate the natural world, very beautiful many of them.  Maureen Honey in her introduction says black woman poets of this era have been criticized for writing poetry that has nothing directly to do with racism, poverty, the violence inflicted on black people (horrific numbers of lynching, literally burning people at stakes), but why should the women not create their own refuge and retreat as well as protest.  A characteristic of this nature poetry is a love of black, blackness, night and a use of white (as in chalk) to suggest direness, coldness, cruelty.

We should remember how relentless was the segregation in the 1920s, how few could transcend the troubles of abysmal poverty so we have mostly representatives of middle class black people.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson was lucky in her husbands (Paul Laurence Dunbar a poet, Henry Callis a physician. Robert Nelson a civil rights activist).  Anne Spencer was from Virginia.  Angelina Weld Grimke was northern and had more opportunities to publish, get plays produced, be active.  Yet note that her mother killed herself, and with all her boldness and plays, when her father died, she became a recluse.  Gwendoleth Bennett's poem does not begin to suggest the varied life in different places she lived (from growing up in Nevade, to New York, to going to live in Paris) and kinds of writing and movements (black pride, romanticism) she participated in, the columns she wrote, the people met and encouraged.

As for Mary Edmonia Lewis, you will see she was born of freed people and her high gifts somehow got her into Oberlin College -- where however she was beaten up badly.  In brief, she found some world to belong to among the abolitionist of Boston and then moved to and stayed in Rome.  What wikipedia does not tell you, and the reviewer of Kirsten Pai Buick's apparently discreet biography, Child of Fire, barely does is one reason we know so little of Lewis's private life and thus she is not well-known is she was probably lesbian in sexual orientation and lived out the life that was within her (to quote Daniel Deronda's mother).  Happily, this review is online: Her style of sculpture is the one most American artists followed in Rome at the time; she is mentioned in Vance's America's Rome.  She is very much a sister of Harriet Hosmer, sculpting in the same style from the same haven city for them.   I'll bet Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew of them both or was acquainted.  Come to that, George Eliot too

Tags: female archetypes, foremother poet, poetry, women's art, women's poetry

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