A WORD MADE FLESH IS SELDOM:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CERTAIN POEMS OF
EMILY DICKINSON AND ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE
by Elaine Maria Upton
Page 6But what seems more constrained, or simply most often absent in Grimke's poetry, is the subject of race in a time when (the early twentieth century) migrations from the South brought many changes in the lives of black people, when race riots occurred and continually threatened in the cities, and Alain Locke and others were proclaiming "the new negro," while Marcus Garvey advocated a return to Africa. Nella Larsen wrote of the complexity of racial "passing" in her fiction, and Langston Hughes celebrated Harlem in his poetry. Yet oftentimes women lyric poets, on the surface at least, wrote a kind of color-blind poetry. Grimke was no exception, although she does have a few poems that show clear racial consciousness--for example, the poem she wrote celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dunbar High School in Washington, where she taught, and a playful poem celebrating black beauty, "The Black Child."
At least two of her love poems seem addressed to a light-skinned or white woman, and while this is certainly no flaw in the poetry, nor in Grimke's life, if the poetry reflects the life, Grimke's sense of who she was in the context of race in the U.S.A. does not always seem clear. Is her color-blindness, when it occurs as often as it does, simply a matter of free personal choice, a condition of her bi-raciality by blood, or part of the seemingly apolitical view of poetry held by her and perhaps many of her contemporaries and forebears, including Dickinson. I cannot arrive at any definitive answer to these questions. It does, however, seem that Grimke's early childhood experiences in a mixed and troubled marriage, and her eventual separation from her white mother and her longing for a mother (expressed in her first diary entry, July 18, 1902), as well as other factors contribute to Grimke's frequent racial disembodiment in her poetry. It seems.
And would Dickinson have been able to speak to Grimke about race? Likely not. About the loss of a white mother? Perhaps not. About the loss of a mother? I am not sure. About childhood traumas? Perhaps yes, as in
Softened by Time's consummate plush,"So easy to repair?" Then again, likely not.
But here I venture into dangerous territory. Am I requiring a didactic poetry, a poetry of moral edification? Not quite. Poetry does not have to each us lessons, and certainly Dickinson does not have to console a little black girl on the loss of her white mother. But modernism and postmodernisms notwithstanding, I, like Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and a host of other embattled women, black and white, hetero-and homosexual, do read/write in order to save my life. As Lorde has said for many of us, "Poetry is not a luxury." Still, it is not a sermon either. And that is the trick, I believe. In poetry, there is a fine line between sermon and luxury, between "a poem should not mean but be" and "I read for instruction on the meaning of life." Poems, I believe, do console, reveal, imagine worlds, give name to, open possibilities. And here Grimke, in her small but important way, especially gven the limitations of her complex raciality, her sex and her sexual preference, and Dickinson, given the limitations of her nineteenth- century privileged and confining New England upbringing, her role as a woman, and her love for another woman, both by their very confluences of reticence and writing, withholding and speaking, disembodiment and embodiment (however seldom) of words console, reveal and open many possibilities. Their disembodiments tease and fascinate reality. Their seldom embodiments do make space for us the living to live and speak. And as they speak to each other perhaps, they also speak to us, and help us not only to live, but to die when time comes, for the embodiment we may yearn for, nevertheless implies disembodiment, something both poets seem to have known well.
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