Derek Walcott, Nobel prize winner, is very well represented in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology. We go outside it, for a lyric by Walcott on oneself:
LOVE AFTER LOVE
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Here’s one of those poems which expresses a simple idea—loving oneself—and makes us stop and think: why hasn’t this been done before, or more often?
Self-love, like vanity, is to be avoided, but here Walcott embraces it. But so that self-love doesn’t seem like vanity or boorishness, he is clever to contrast it with a love affair (the “love letters” and “desperate notes”)—and so the poem doesn’t seem silly, but poignant, when it says, “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another.”
The chief problem with the poem is its imagery, which is plain. We have trouble picturing it dramatically. How is the person feasting at the end, exactly? Are they feasting on the love letters? If so, how are they escaping their old lovers, in order to focus on the self? Or is the command to “feast on your life” meant ironically? The idea of the poem is clear, but its dramatic realization is somewhat vague.
Patricia Smith, a four-time National Slam Poet Champion, is not represented in Dove’s anthology.
In the following poem, Smith embraces the iconography that is Aretha Franklin:
ASKING FOR A HEART ATTACK
Aretha. Deep butter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
‘neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it’s-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father’s handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don’t she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don’t she?
Now every time ‘retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin’, is religion.
Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain’t your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody’s mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin’ shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.
Smith is not shy about telling us how good a singer Aretha Franklin is (“extraordinary gospel”) nor shy about telling us what “is religion.” Nor shy about addressing Franklin’s weight issues. We are not terribly certain why she is not more shy on these matters, or exactly what these three issues have to do with each other.
Walcott’s poem is too shy.
Smith’s poem is not shy enough.
Walcott 60 Smith 59