Jean Toomer

Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s poem is by Jean Toomer. Toomer was a playwright, poet, novelist and critic, whose work was widely praised for its modern realism and psychological depth. The grandson of the first African American governor in the United States, Toomer moved between white and black schools and resisted attempts to be categorised by his race. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and his influence can be seen in numerous works by other black writers. However, despite being well received it was only after his death that Toomer’s work was acknowledged by the white literary establishment for its importance and brilliance. He became a Quaker later in life and spent his last years in reclusion.

The poem we are reading today is from “Cane.” An experimental novel, “Cane” consists of short stories and poems interwoven to create a layered and intricate picture of the United States, particularly Georgia, in the early 1900s. The novel explores race relations, the psychology and social structures of the day, and contrasts rural and urban life in the North and South. Each section of the novel can be read individually; as a whole, they come together to form a complex portrait. Despite it’s innovative structure and literary nature, the novel is accessible and easy to read due to the short segments and engaging writing, including poems reminiscent of folksongs.

Georgia Dusk

The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…
Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars…

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.

You can find this poem in “Cane” on Project Gutenberg. Read more about Toomer at The Poetry Foundation.

Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!