When the American poet William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there," he was pointing out that although poems do not provide us with the daily journalistic information we crave, they carry a kind of news that might offer solace and respite in the face of difficulty and even misery. Williams' claim for poetry is really a claim for poetry's ability to elevate the human spirit and imagination above the prosaic conditions of our age.
The poems in A. Van Jordan's Rise come as close as poems can to telling both the news of the moment and the truth of the human spirit. Rise takes its title from the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire's exhortation to "bind me with your vast arms to the luminous clay / bind my black vibration to the very navel of the world / bind, bind me, bitter brotherhood / then, strangling me with your lasso of stars / rise, / Dove / rise / rise / rise ... "
The urgency to rise above the ordinary and the difficult is felt everywhere in Jordan's poetry. In "A Woman from the Projects," he writes, "On your head, pink rollers / peek from under a scarf. / As you move, I dream / them into a diadem." Jordan's portraits of contemporary African-American life are finely drawn and acute.
Rise is his first book, and as such it pays homage to many great 20th-century poets such as Langston Hughes, Melvin Tolson, and Sterling Brown and to the many great jazz and blues musicians of our era such as Robert Johnson, Eddie James "Son" House Jr., John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet. In fact, only a few of the poems in Rise do not take music or musicians as their subject.
"The Overcoat" tells about a childhood memory in which Jordan and an older brother are searched at gunpoint by four policemen who suspect what policemen often suspect of black kids shopping in a white neighborhood. But Jordan's poem is more than just a recapitulation of a common tale. At one point he says: "Maybe this is a story you hear every day / and I have nothing to report -- / no bruises or death or visible pain." What Jordan reports -- the news he delivers -- is that prejudice, even though it can lead to death, can yield a "blessing," what Jordan calls "the relief of nothingness."
Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.
is not what I remember,
not how I felt in it, my first taste
of being clean, as my brothers put it,
put in a way that a ten-year-old
but what I remember now
is the emptiness of the coat,
not the sure cherub effect of me
in an ankle-length, maroon, velour
overcoat with a black, faux-leather collar.
No. What I remember
is all of this not being enough to prevent
suspicion of shoplifting
on a lazy stroll through a shopping plaza,
in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a suburb
we blacks in town called Caucasian Falls.
I get confused by guns; they erase memory.
You don't remember eyes of adults
who thought better of you. Any of those memories
rub against a blue uniform, handcuffs, billyclubs.
It's years later before I remember
a white man, just a few weeks before
my window-shopping excursion,
in another mall, on another day, telling me
he could see Jesus in my small face.
If I had remembered his words
then, looking down the barrel
of that gun, I would have thought
he had just set me up. Just another face
with words, another lie....
I look at all three feet of the coat,
lackluster now in my hands,
and wonder what would make four
cops pull guns on my brother and me,
both of us well-dressed and polite
and not much bigger than our coats.
Please, don't tell me the one about
them just doing their jobs, that we looked
like we may have been concealing weapons
in our Robert Hall mark-downs.
Could they have had, instead of surveillance,
time-lapse photography cameras in the stores?
Could they see that we
were two boys with hope growing
in our hearts like tumors, that we
would have grown into two men
who would have thought life for us
would never be so close to death
on the wrong side of town,
so vivid, like these worn spots on the coat
singed bald by age, empty as bullet holes?
Maybe not. Maybe I have said nothing.
Maybe this is a story you hear every day
and I have nothing to report --
no bruises or death or visible pain.
Like I said, I barely remember the coat,
the faces of the cops,
or what my mother said
when she came to pick us up
and found us surrounded;
you see, if I remember,
if I make it something to hold onto,
instead of a blurry dream,
they win. My life repeats itself
every time death shakes her finger
in my face and I walk away.
It's not that I don't believe death
can come so close and miss every time,
but I recognize the blessing:
I know what it means
to stand here today and tell you
what it feels like when a white hand reaches
into my pockets--hoping for drugs
or any excuse they can find--and pulls out
the relief of nothingness
-- A. Van Jordan
"The Overcoat," from Rise (Tia Chuca Pess, 2001). Copyright c 2001 by A. Van Jordan. Reprinted with permission of the author.