Joanne V. Gabbin

Jon Woodson: "On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

Libretto for the Republic of Liberia begins with a question, "Liberia?," that is an oblique allusion to the third stanza of "Heritage," Countee Cullen's pseudo-Keatsian meditation on Africa, which importunes: "Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes." It is not Cullen’s poetic that Tolson finds objectionable, for he pursues his satire of Cullen in meter and rhyme, nor is it Cullen's attempt at a reductive textualization of Africa; it is, instead, the being out of which Cullen’s attitudes project. In contrast to Cullen's decadent limpness, Tolson's poet-narrator speaks in the indomitable voice of the Nietzschean superman, and from that towering vantage he satirizes Cullen's under-manly romanticizing of African historical reality.

The Pindaric gist of Tolson’s opening movement, "Do," is that Liberia is an example of the "will" that is necessary if the forces ranged against liberty are to be overcome: thus Tolson sets up a dialectic between freedom and "an alien goad." Liberia is "no waste land yet" since the Liberian moment in the "Heraclitean continuum" has not been exhausted, its "will" used up, though the "protagonist of the poem" is able to look forward to the moment in which Liberia falls like the empires of the past.

It is tempting to read the second movement, "Re," as the description of the past glories of Africa and their destruction at the hands of European invaders; however, much more transpires here: Tolson is refuting Hegel's assertion that Africa "is no historical part of the World." Yet none of this "argumentation" is on the surface of the poem, for Tolson's Pindaric project, his celebratory lyric, must be allowed to soar. Below the song resides the dross of an ideological substitution of universal history for ethnocentric history. To allow himself more room for the transaction of politico-historical argument, Tolson has relegated these matters to his extensive notes. Rather than being notes that explicate his poem, Tolson's notes are designed to mislead the reader without allowing the reader to realize that he or she has gone astray. Thus, the notes do not provide a gloss indicating that the "micro-footnote in a bunioned book" of the second line is a key allusion to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, in which Spengler asks the rhetorical question—"Do we not relegate the vast complexities of Indian and Chinese culture to footnotes, with a gesture of embarrassment." Again, as with Hegel, the "protagonist of the poem" (here revealed as a universal historian who holds up "the Good Gray bard" as a mediating persona) casts before the reader the historical reality of Africa in the face of its obliteration by Hegel and Spengler. Thus, Tolson's poem is positioned as a countertext to the European philosophy of history in which Africa is theorized into historical nonexistence. In other words, the subject of Tolson's Libretto is not so much the founding of Liberia as a questioning of the nature of historical reality.

To keep before us the Pindaric strategy of digressive mythical narrative that Tolson employs in Libretto, let us recall that Hayden presents Cinquez much in the way that Crane presents Pocahontas, as a real person "transfigured" into a mythic significance in a digression that presents her narrative. Similarly, Tolson builds his poem toward his world-historical hero, Jehudi Ashmun, the founder of Liberia, by digressing through five sections: "Do," the invocation; "Re," a consideration of historical change; "Mi," an expository movement that summarizes the, conception of "the wren Republic"; and "Fa," an imagistic treatment of the Heraclitean alternation of peace and strife as the engine of history, only reaching the climax of the poem's narrative with "Sol," the account of the founding of Liberia led by Elijah Johnson.

Even though Libretto narrates the return of African slaves to their original continent, the poet-narrator finds it necessary to turn to the subject of Hayden's poem, in order to conjure up the etiological horrors accompanying the transformation of African to slave: "This is the Middle Passage: here / Gehenna hatchways vomit up / The debits of pounds of flesh. / This is the Middle Passage: here / The sharks wax fattest and the stench / Goads God to hold His nose!" (152-54). Tolson reverses Hayden’s practice, giving Elijah Johnson only nine lines where the griots receive forty-two lines in which to speak the aphoristic wisdom of their "vertical" tradition. In speaking of vertical culture, Tolson was alluding to his idea that in every age, there existed few individuals who were aware on an esoteric, or "vertical," level, while the majority comprised a mass who were aware on a limited "horizontal" level.

The language of the description of "today" in the first eighty-five lines of "Do" perhaps owes much to the prose of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The scope of Tolson's practice is illuminated by Altieri's comment that "the epic and the joke become necessarily fused elements in a process of losing and finding the letters that can return 'his tory' to the state of the anagogic book, which must, therefore, also be an antibook." Lest the reader miss Tolson’s aim to write an antipoem, he spells this out in the extraordinary fourth stanza of "Do," in which the protagonist offers a description of himself: among the labels is "a pataphysicist" (509): the relevant part of note 509 reads, "Cf. Jarry, Gestes et Opinions du Dr. Pataphysicien," thereby confronting the attentive reader with the text of an antinovel that, like Tolson’s Libretto, is divided into eight sections, is metasemiotic in method, contains an occult subtext, explicates its own generation, and provides for the unmasking of its own subtext.

Dialectically, the opening movement of "Do" looks toward the text of the future, for the imagined/prophesied future is incommensurate with the "chaos" of Today. The protagonist looks for the glory of the past in the future because he sees no sign of its becoming in the destruction of "Today": "only the souls of hyenas whining teneo te africa / only the blind men gibbering mbogan in greek / against sodom's pillars of salt / below the mountain of rodinmashedstatues aleppe" (551-54). However, the text contains the resolution and reconciliation of even these universal oppositions. Like all anagogic texts, Libretto is an initiatory text that looks simultaneously to the fool in need of initiation and to the griot, superman, or alchemist that represents the end of initiation. Thus, Tolson’s protagonist is, like The Waste Land's Tiresias, simultaneously inside and outside of history. On the symbolic level, Tolson’s poem enacts the transformation of Caliban, the Fool, into Prospero, the Magician; however, Tolson’s concern is more for Prospero's book of knowledge than for the man himself. History must be textualized if it is ever to be conceptualized, for the shape of history can only be passed down through the text. Yet it is through the reading of the text that the Calibanic reader becomes metamorphosed into Prospero, the Magician. Thus, Tolson has tried to write an ultimate poem that, like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, we do not know how to read unless we become as well versed as Prospero.

Joanne V. Gabbin: On Dunbar's Life and Career

Other nineteenth-century African American poets anticipated Paul Laurence Dunbar’s question concerning "why the caged bird sings." James Monroe Whitfield appears to speak for several of his contemporaries when he has the speaker in "The Misanthropist" say, "In vain thou bid'st me strike the lyre, / and sing a song of mirth and glee." For Whitfield, James Madison Bell, and Albery Allson Whitman, the thoughts that troubled their minds--the evils of slavery, the hope of freedom, struggles with oppression and violence--were frought "with gloom and darkness, woe and pain." These poets continued

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Old Lem"

In the poignant statements of "Old Lem," he captures the bitter resentment of a man grown weary of mob violence.

[ . . . . ]

With stark simplicity devoid of false sentimentality, Lem tells the story of his buddy, "Six foot of man/Muscled up perfect/Game to the heart," who defied the traditions of caste and "spoke out of turn at the commissary. . . . " For his "insolence" he is murdered.

Much of the power of the poem emanates from the complex and fully realized sensibility of Old Lem. His cogent wisdom and clarity of vision allow him to articulate simply and directly the consequences of racial injustice. In one part of the poem Brown has Old Lem recycle the wisdom of the folktale, "Old Sis Goose," in which a common goose seeks justice in a courthouse of foxes and ends up having her bones "picked."

[. . . .]

Lem's voice is charged with the vibrancy of the folk secular. Within this large body of non-religious music which includes the blues, songs of ridicule and recrimination, game songs, and numerous varieties of work songs, Brown recognized not only innovative musical elements but also attitudes, language, and circumstances--often cynical, ironic, signifying, and scatological--that are not the metier of the collectors of spirituals. It is the irony, the pithiness, and the elemental force of this material that informs Old Lem's speech. A comparison of a slave secular recorded by Frederick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom with a passage from "Old Lem" reveals Brown’s skillful assimilation of the form.

We raise de wheat,

Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,

Dey gib us de crust;

We sif de meal,

Dey gib us de huss;

We peel de meat,

Dey gib us de skin;

And dat's de way

Dey take us in;

We skim de pot,

Dey gib us de liquor

And say dat's good enough for nigger.

In Old Lem's speech Brown achieves a similar syntactical pattern and cadence.

They weigh the cotton

They store the corn

    We only good enough

    To work the rows;

They run the commissary

They keep the books

    We gotta be grateful

    For being cheated;

Whippersnapper clerks

Call us out of our name

    We got to say mister

    To spindling boys

They make our figgers

Turn somersets

    We buck in the middle

    Say, "Thank yuh, sah."

Patterned on a rhythm prevalent in Black folk speech, the passage contains lines with two stresses each, often irregularly arranged. Several of the lines have verbs used near the beginning of the line that must be strongly stressed. Also, with a tightly controlled satiric tone, Brown contrasts what "they" do to what "we" are forced to accept, thereby having his structure effectively convey the great disparity that exists between the position of whites and that of Blacks in a caste-ridden society.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Rent Day Blues"

In another poem, "Rent Day Blues," Brown, using extended dialogue, tells the story of a couple facing rent day without any money. As the man wonders where they will get the rent, his woman turns up with the money from a mysterious source. Though the man is briefly troubled, he finally resolves to let their good fortune stand. In "Rent Day Blues," Brown clearly presents one of the major themes of the blues--poverty and economic uncertainty--within the context of the blues' preoccupation with the love relationship. Here, Brown breaks with the blues tradition by having his blues poem "proceed in a narrative fashion." According to blues critic Charles Keil, the blues lyric rarely proceeds in this fashion but "is designed primarily to illustrate a particular theme or create a general mood." Using dialogue as a narrative technique, Brown is able to add a dramatic dimension and bits of characterization not typical of the blues lyric. For example, in the following stanzas the willingness of the woman to get the rent money any way she can and the man's suspicions and cynicism come through clearly.

My baby says, "Honey,

Dontcha worry 'bout the rent.

Looky here, daddy,

At de money what de good Lord sent."


Says to my baby,

"Baby, I been all aroun';

Never knowed de good Lord

To send no greenbacks down."

Brown is also experimenting with the rhythm of the blues poem. For example, he infuses a jazz-style offbeat rhythm in the poem. The established pattern appears to be iambic trimeter. However, in the first stanza cited above, the last line breaks from this basic pattern with a syncopated pentameter line. In a solidly aesthetic gesture, Brown is taking on the risk and challenge of the literary rather than the oral poet.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin

Joanne V. Gabbin: On the Slim Greer Sequence

Perhaps nowhere else does Brown take humor more as his metier than in the Slim Greer tales. [In "Slim Greer"] Slim is the familiar trickster in the folktale who by strength of his wit and his agility deceives, eludes, and outsmarts his opponents. The outcome of Slim's adventure could have been the same as that delivered in the tragic tale "Frankie and Johnny." Yet here Brown, turning the events around for his hilariously funny purpose, has Slim make tracks "with lightnin' speed." He skillfully takes the timeworn material of racial jokes, exploited and repeated on the minstrel stage, and reshapes it in such a way that the humor is intraracial. The butt of the joke is no longer the ludicrously dressed "coon" who wears "no. fourteen shoes" but the hypocrisy of sexual racism. . . . [I]nforming the "Slim in Hell" poem is not only black folk tradition from which the familiar images found in sermons and spirituals are drawn, but also allusions to the Orpheus and Eurydice story in classical mythology. Slim, like the favored Orpheus, is allowed to go to the underworld and is allowed to leave it. Here also is Cerberus, the terrible dog which guards the entrance to the internal regions, now transformed to a "big bloodhound . . . bayin' some po' devil's track." By a synthesis of two viable traditions, Brown creates this ballad through a process mentioned earlier called "cross-pollination." Brown accomplishes the fusion of the folk ballad using, as well, other resources of the literary artist: allusion as a means of reinforcing the idea of the descent into hell; language and imagery that have fidelity to the folk sermon; the right combination of irony, overstatement, and humor for an effective tone; and the use of the ballad form which accommodates the narrative.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin.

Joanne V. Gabbin: On "Memphis Blues"

In "Memphis Blues," Brown uses folk rhymes, working in concert with "the rhythm and imagery of the black folk sermon," to convey "the black folk preacher's vision of the threat of destruction" and a deeper, more pervasive "comment on the transitory nature of all things man-made." Charles H. Rowell recognizes Brown's "excellent employment of the rhythm of black folk rhymes" to emphasize the speakers' indifference to the inevitable destruction of Memphis . . . ."

As Rowell suggests, Brown, projecting on the speaker a child's indifference to death, uses playful, teasing, lines to heighten the poem's message. The Black man is indifferent to the destruction of Memphis, for he has never seen it as his own.

In part two of "Memphis Blues," Brown employs the call and response patterns of certain spirituals to create voices similar to the folk preacher's exhorting his congregation to salvation and those of the members responding to his call.

[ . . . .]

Here, however, is a difference. "Ironically, the response of each speaker in the poem has nothing to do with the impending destruction; while Memphis is being destroyed, each speaker plans to do what he thinks is best for him. " Implicit in their responses is "the sensibility of the blues singer--his stoic ability to transcend his deprived condition." Also present is the blues song's emphasis "on the immediacy of life, the nature of man, and human survival in all of its physical and psychological manifestations." The preacher man, the drinking man, the gambling man, and so on, see themselves as outsiders. As they have been excluded from the society by proscription and prejudice, they define their survival in their own terms; they take their pleasure and their meaning from within the boundaries set for them. However, moving at a deeper level is Brown's paradox. Being outside will not keep them from destruction. Even those distinctions made and boundaries set among men will have no meaning then.

As Brown brings into play a combination of folk forms--the secular rhyme, the sermon, the blues, and the scattered notes of the gospel shout--in "Memphis Blues," they function not only to further the meaning of the poem but also to suggest the essential interrelatedness of the forms.

From Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Joanne V. Gabbin.