Issue 11 – Winter 2006 – New Poetry by Michael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper


Letter to John Hope Franklin on his autobiography: MIRROR TO AMERICA

JUNETEENTH was first song   then Roscoe Dunjee’s “Black Dispatch” editorials
(my favorite cousin Michon born in Guthrie when her parents had naught but each other)

Your preface to CHANT OF SAINTS zeroed in a literary grand orchid bouquet
(I grieved over the lynching of Corrie Cheek so nearby  Fisk’s “Briar Patch” taken away)

Majesty of Mollie Buck Sr  Aurelia  Whittington  “Thoroughgood”  Mozella  Buck Jr
(the xenophobic wit of Ted Currier in the bankteller’s vaudevillian sideshow:money)

Then walking the line at Harvard where you could not sit down but taught Newt to read (rental on the carrel was endlessly Blue & Gold  Crimson&Black blood meridian fold)

Sterling called us’uns  senegambians and negritos amidst the Gourmets at Harrisons
(you called them the ‘drinkers and the thinkers’ as Box Brown sent himself NEWS:urrl)

The codes of Cuffy/Uncle Tom:[framed tales] MANY THOUSAND GONE    (“a sacred effort” only grandma’s visit with Fred Bailey at midnight could know)

Inventory: sacred documents  built on slave labor as annals of “black and blue”
 also Lincoln’s handwritten “Second Inaugural”  Douglass heard and reported

“I been down so long that down don’t worry me.”– a sacred effort also
(“Every time I hear the spirit in my heart I will pray”—effortly sacred too)

“Geography is Fate” and ‘Going to the Territory’ a ‘grammar of motives’ in song
(“If You Want To Hide Something From Mose Put It In A Book” with pictures)

“I Shall Not, I shall not be moved  Just Like A Tree Standing By The Water, I Shall Not Be Moved”(“I stand up through your destruction, I stand up.” instrumental “Lucille”)

The greenhouse as the artery against destruction—mean mean mean mean to be free
 (“me and my baby gonna shine, shine, me and my baby gonna shine.”)

“Tell it Like it Is, Baby” again– ‘so you will not cut down trees or kill men’
(“every shut-eye aint asleep; every goodbye aint gone”)MANY THOUSAND GONE




Notes on the Long Poem (Tuscaloosa, AL)

‘letters from an imaginary friend’–begin here
Edwin Honig did a class on this beginning with Lorca

the women and the men meet at scylla/charybdis
(your long suit is lyric grace   short shrift)

always begin with metrics    make them count
whether they can read or write     irmus next

lots of Whitman  in Tuscaloosa  many lessons
in guerilla warfare  ala  Nathan Bedford Forrest

all three volumes of Shelby Foote on battlefields
(Keats’s letters   Proust   Milton   an exegesis

of Donald Justice’s sonnet on Eden for Berryman’s Iowan workshop)
Rukeyser  Bishop  Kumin  Brooks   “For My People”

and JUBILEE together,  Walker’s dissertation on Vyree
(some Alice Walker  student of Rukeyser  tutelage)

make them study the industrial north  Pittsburgh’s
steel   the music of the hill    Homestead Grays    Josh

when it comes to the agrarians   make them translate
Bear Bryant  always won at home  new stadium  museum

no traffic in the olympic swimming pool  your lane
not many eating holes  but lunch on the river  dutch

best bbq is out of town   make sure you visit Oxford
good French restaurant in Birmingham   16th St church

documentary on George Wallace   Owens&Louis   birthmarks
Elvis in Tupulo  angola   lunch on Natchez Trace

you will need AC in the endowed house already there(the parking lot)
get buildings&grounds for pine needles    now record rebel graves

who dug them
why the Big House and those shacks are so close together




Natal Visit of the Theme of Shoes

(for my daughter, Rachel)

You have called me beforehand 
with the good news of the baby turning

acupuncture has done the trick of Chinese
medicine and your doctor approves via sonogram

Your feet are beginning to swell 
you have taken off your rings and bracelets

in preparation for what could be a ‘c’ section 
but as I said ‘the baby has turned’    perhaps for good

I point out the shoes from land’s end with no heel
and pass “discover” to you  to order

what used to be called ‘the house of the happy feet’ 
(the Savoy ballroom quipped by Lana Turner

ages and ages ago when ‘imitation of life’ was vogue)
but this is no film of the American diaspora

and race prevails with gender so you go back to work 
with your good news    and unfinished business

your brother about to get on a train after MoMA 
(he cannot be Picasso or Matisse but his own man)

we must all teach him to walk the walk 
on his own stand   trees   bandstand  natchez trace

so we go on in the dance of our lives 
never knowing enough for any newborn

who will ask questions of all of us 
forgive us for all our sins   those of omission  strong

you are already singing  to him  or her 
as you dream night after night of being breathless

so close is she to your heart of hearts 
so if at the turning and beyond he comes

in a line of procession of angels 
concentrate on omphalos    a string of pearls

ordered from a catalog 
in comfortable feet

your beating heart
awaiting the gift of  acupuncture




Sonny’s Blues

what we will read
as an accompaniment

that issue
of the Partisan Review

with Golding criticism
stolen from the Hawkeye

Mr. Roth

accusing me
of plagiarism

this was not
the first test

it was “Jimmy”
preaching in L.A.

to hitman
Malcolm X

we all knew
about the FBI

that was 

driving through Harlem 
from St. John the Divine

“A Talk to Teachers”
comes to mind

the students
‘they just grew’



Faculty Study #421:Brown University Library

Without Charles Churchwell
there would have been ‘no study’

I put Coltrane up on the wall
the difficulty of the soprano

a legislation to be passed
in Providence Plantations

and could not “sing” on command:
carrying the mace uphill

in the ceremonial past
I conjured presidential

signatures at convocation
[commencement was free]

I stacked my study with texts
to teach the innocent and guilty

alike, taking Lincoln’s “sacred effort”
(across the street at John Hay)

as the only beacon I could follow
after Douglass

who raised troops for the Union
and should have processed

in formation at Harvard
after St.  Gauden’s statuary

I can forgive anything
forget nothing

in the annals of Slavery
this university is built on



Womb of Space (Yaddo)for Wilson Harris


Orb or goblet of crystal    prism 
this is no kidney transplant    eat

or be eaten    the jaguar is king    food line 
vertical and horizontal  coupling indefinite

but not hit or miss  one hemisphere is always 
replete  the other abundant  two halves  devoured

you lie back in the calm of insects  still uneaten 
swarms all around you  yet  becalmed by instincts

not fully hidden or absorbed  protected  haven 
you stroke on your back and sides  but fins pronounce

themselves near the outlet  you have seen deer 
other cats  the anaconda of the hysterical  never

eating often but fully  absorbing all waters  trees 
open and cut bark  cylinders  the change of color

like the skin  shedding is the art of buddhist aura 
as one moves along the food chain  from bottom to top

sky reflected in the water and reversible  clouds 
the billowing of trees  sculpture made in heaven

but fired on the anvil hephaestus knew   myth of return 
not any circle  but oracular   elongated  elliptical

listen to all that inhabits you  watch what happens 
as you move among the biophere   devouring   blessing

all that lives and dies  imminence of bloom  shedding 
you feel this at the top of the adrenals  hormonal

flowering of change   forgive the opposition taxed upon 
fulcrums of mathematical engineering   religion   almanac

keeping score with the infinite  inside you  fully open 
yet closure is separation  the gift of what is  always



What I Know This Very Day:

 [Harry “Sweets” Edison, tribal inventor, dead at 83]

“I began in Kentucky
on a York cornet

I hated that horn
then I heard Pops

I heard Pops again
1 9 3 7   I was with Count

Pres named me “Sweetiepie”
moved to L A in ’50

I hated the horn
(so much practice)

when I could be playin’
with the boys

the Nation changed me
and I changed the nation”

note: Sweets’s father was a Zuni Indian





Though a simple rose under your skin
I look up the bugle ritual of recall

for sailors to regroup – soldiers at parade rest
and your sister who could not read as a child

needing you for sustenance – now you want it removed
Copenhagen (for me)  is Tivoli  played by Dexter Gordon

His love for that city –broad and low in balladry
for making the sound of recall  a lullaby

with his name on it –he would love to see your tattoo
his magic at composition  a call to Basie/Ellington

Hamp  and two full days of practice at seventeen
with the makers of bebop – just off the train from LA

the son of a doctor  whose doctoring  gave such a smile
in the lower registers  he was Mr. “Blue Note” (tenor)

he would venture his signature on conventions ROSE
and turn courtly in the madrigal – play you a hymn

and take you to his church  (which was always the road)
so you know why you came from the north – a town

just out of sight from Copenhagen – and in this poem
provided your sister that special speech of signals

so the faerytale of being pricked into song
just under the skin  was the song of a tent show

the tattooist fully sober  and without shaky hands
and just beneath the surface of your blood

Cezanne’s Polynesian sorcerer – so genial in profile
that eating your salad is a school of painting

primal in the garden of the artist’s magic circle

where every gesture is the canon of tattoo





Michael S. Harper is University Professor and Professor of English at Brown University, where he has taught since 1970. He is the first Poet Laureate of the State of Rhode Island, a term he held from 1988-1993. In 1991 he was Visiting Scholar, at large, for Phi Betta Kappa, visiting nince campuses. He has published fifteen books of poetry, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award (1970 & 1977), Dear John, Dear Coltrane and Images of Kin, New and Selected Poems. Images of Kin won the Melville-Cane Award for the Poetry Society of America : History Is Your Own Heartbeat, 1971, won the Black Academy of Arts & Letters Award for poetry. He has edited the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, which he selected for the national Poetry Series, 1979. He is the co-editor of Chant of Saints, an anthology of African-American Art, Writing and Scholarship, and also co-editor of the “Ralph Ellison” special issue Carleton Micellany, winter 1980. He was guest editor for a special issue of Robert Hayden for Obsidian, 1981.