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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Her verses capture the spirit of the man poet whose work she admired and whom she came to know through

the Melvin Butler Black Poetry Festival at Southern University, which she directed for seven years, and

through their joint appearance at a nine-week poetry seminar in Port Townsend, Washington.



Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  /

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Song for a Poet Gone

The Poetics of Pinkie Gordon Lane

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis


There are some poets who draw you into their interior worlds, where feelings of love and loss and longing are laid bare. Pinkie Gordon Lane was one of these. I scarcely knew her, but I saw her from time to time at annual meetings of the College Language Association—a beautiful woman, quiet and reserved, who seemed to linger on the periphery of groups, smiling, encouraging, and engaged. And then in 1991, I received a copy of Girl at the Window, which I could not put down or part with, although, as book review editor of Sage: A Journal of Black Women, I was obliged to send her collection of poetry out for review.

I never did.

It is the photograph on the book’s cover that first catches my attention, the photograph of a woman half in shadow, the light caressing her forehead, pale cheeks, and elongated neck, as she gazes out of a window—perhaps?—her face partially reflected in the pane. I am reminded of Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring: the same earring, the same luminous eyes, the same light falling on the face. The photograph on the cover evokes the two realms of this lovely woman: a dark inner world of black shadows, where she is centered (“I always write my poetry from the very center of myself,” she notes), and a light-filled outer world, colored by a greenish blue turquoise.

A voyeur, I open the book and enter the poet’s inner world, where her lyrical narratives trace memories and explore feelings about loved ones: her father, now gone, whom she loved fiercely, “disgust, anger, love—all / lumped together,” and her son, now a jazz musician, her “manchild, / grown to midproportions.” But it is “Prose Poem: Portrait,” with the subscript For Inez Addie West Gordon, her mother, that stops my blood.

The road came up to meet her sinking body in one quick embrace. She spread

out like an umbrella and dropped into oblivion before she hit the ground. In

that one swift moment all light went out at the age of forty-nine.

The words are so precise, the sentences so tight; and the images so palpable. Like a storyteller, the poet sketches the lines of her characters with deft, economical strokes: Inez has “the blackened knees of the scrubwoman who ransomed her soul so that I might live.” It is her figurative language—“the tight little drum of a house” and “I carry her with me now like a loose sweater that sucks out the chill on a snowy winter night”—that marks Lane as an exceptionally gifted poet.

She is a painter whose canvasses cover the walls of her Baton Rouge bedroom.

She is a poet whose use of color reveals the eye of a visual artist.

She is an imagist whose metaphors birth a lush, sensual style.

I feel her searching for le mot propre, for the precise word or image that will convey the pain of death. (“I write to come to terms with pain, or to dissipate it,” she explains.) She lost her father, a “poor wild, sad, raging / creature who had forgotten / how to love,” when she was only seventeen, her mother died when she was twenty-two, and her husband, who underwent dialysis and an unsuccessful surgery, left her a widow while she was still a young woman. Death, then, is a central theme in her work, and the elegy is one of her most significant forms, as the following poems indicate: “Marion, an Elegy,” written on the death of a nineteen-year-old friend, “To a Female Poet That I Know,” commemorating the death of Sarah Webster Fabio, and  “Elegy,” for her husband, Ulysses Simpson Lane, known as Pete.

One of her most beautifully crafted works is “Elegy for Etheridge,” the title poem of her last collection, published in 2000, which was occasioned by the death of Etheridge Knight (1931-1991), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Poems From Prison, Belly Songs, and Born of a Woman. “When he died of cancer, that poem seemed to just float out,” Lane explained in a 1999 interview with John Lowe. She begins her elegy with lines 1-5 and 21-22 of Knight’s “Another Poem for Me (after Recovering from an O.D.)” from his Born of a Woman, and, throughout the elegy, she quotes lines from other poems of his and alludes to titles, topics, and figures from his work. The first three stanzas, written in the third person, evoke the almost mythic life of the troubadour, the prison knight, who created spirited songs and journeyed through life with total abandon, but, in the nine stanzas that follow, the poet addresses Etheridge by name, using his lines about silence, a dance of death, and a mother’s prayer to conjure up his own demise, his self-destructive “headlong / final plunge.” In lamentation, she writes:

You left us your songs

         to mourn your death

         to mourn your life.

Her verses capture the spirit of the man poet whose work she admired and whom she came to know through the Melvin Butler Black Poetry Festival at Southern University, which she directed for seven years, and through their joint appearance at a nine-week poetry seminar in Port Townsend, Washington. Although Knight is associated with the Black Arts Movement, as are Sonia Sanchez, Lane’s friend, and Gwendolyn Brooks, her spirit mentor, the Louisiana Poet Laureate resisted the political agendas of other poets, although her later poems, including “Nuclear Peril,” “Environment Poem,” and “Sexual Privacy of Women on Welfare” reflect a deep concern for social and environmental issues.

Pinkie Gordon Lane’s poetry is intensely personal but also profoundly universal, because she writes of experiencesdeath of a parent and a lover’s abandonmentthat touch the heart. Her love lyrics are exquisite, and perhaps the most beautiful of these is “Love Poems: Epitaph for the Blues,” a long meditative poem, divided into twenty-one parts, like the movements of a symphony, parts that trace the evolution of a love affair from “Awakening” to “Healing.” She first called it “Love Song of an Outcast” and, later, “Elegy for the Blues,” because it deals with an extramarital affair, but she explained in the Lowe interview, “I don’t identify with my being an outcast, but I call them the blues because they are unhappy love poems.” The language is simple, unadorned, unembellished; the sparse images describe familiar elements of nature such as spring blossoms and singing crickets; and the epigraphs of writers like Leroi Jones and Joyce Carol Oates are connected, thematically, to the verses that follow. 

In this quiet poem, Lane writes of silence and sleepless nights, of soft light and listening shadows, of bright-eyed fear and a troubled mind. In lines like these

. . . moving towards you is like

touching leaves in autumn

or reading Yeats and Cummings

together on a special night—

she reveals skillful craftsmanship and a keen poetic sensibility in her use of plain language and in her juxtaposition of a simile drawn from nature and allusions to two avant-garde poets. Her verses are inspired by simple objects (an owl or a photograph) and events that she reads about in the newspaper (an oil spill in Alaska or the rape of girls in Bangladesh), as well as her work as a poet (“Port Townsend Poems”) and as a college professor/administrator (“On Being Head of the English Department”). Most important, she creates beauty out of despair and loneliness, makes music from night calls and wind songs, and paints canvasses of red earth and purple bayous. Like the girl at the window

She sits there,

hand on cheek, head

turned towards the open window

where shadows pulsate

like quivering beasts

posted 5 February 2009

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Girl at the Window

By Pinkie Gordon Lane

Pinkie Gordon Lane, Louisiana’s poet laureate, has created in Girl at the Window a volume of poetry stitched together by love of place, love of language, and love of family, a volume both intimate and generously welcoming. The logic of the poems is lyrical, rather than narrative, but this poet’s lyric is large enough to include a five-year-old child’s memory of violence, a trip to the bootlegger’s with a father likened to Ulysses, and in a prose poem, memories of a mother who “tumbled around in the tight little from of a house in North Philadelphia, guarding its walls fiercely, as if they belonged to the Smithsonian.”

Her eye is unflinching, but through precision of language and daring emotional leaps, Lane locates beauty even within troubling prospects.

Pinkie Gordon Lane, professor of English emeritus at Southern University, was the first black woman to receive the Ph.D. from Louisiana State University and in 1989 was named the first black poet laureate of Louisiana. Her poetry has appeared in the Journal of Black Poetry, the Black Scholar, the Southern Review, Nimrod Callaloo, and Ms. Magazine. She has given lectures, readings, and workshops throughout the United States and in Ghana, Cameroon, and Zambia. LSU

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 27 February 2012




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Related files:  Angle of Song: Pinkie Gordon Lane  (Ward) /