Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems
Sunday, February 21st, 2010
“That a certain degree of reputation is acquired merely by approving the works of genius, and testifying a regard to the memory of authours, is a truth too evident to be denied; and therefore to ensure a participation of fame with a celebrated poet, many who would, perhaps, have contributed to starve him when alive, have heaped expensive pageants upon his grave.”—Samuel Johnson
Johnson was talking about Milton, but it’s not Milton who makes this passage readable more than two hundred years later. It’s that Johnson knew something about starving and being cast aside. I don’t mean to invoke the test of time at the expense of the right now of reading. I’m simply saying: all a reader can do is take every poet seriously.
I take Cornelius Eady’s poetry most seriously when he puts it forward as autobiography, as in the prose poems about his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent difficulty demonstrating that her common law marriage entitles her to the house they lived in. It makes me uneasy—what’s the reader, a poverty tourist? a guilt-tripper?—but these are accomplished poems, where the unbearable tension makes him work every angle he can find. In “Motherless Children,” for example, Eady recounts a visit to the Office of Social Services:
What did I say or do? Who knows, but I do know this look she’s giving me, after telling me that there’s no place for my mother’s well-being in their guidelines, that as far as they’re concerned, she isn’t even legally a part of my family. I know this look. This woman wants to observe a screamer, a ripper, she wants her dreams of a babbling monkey to rise.
You’re reading that right. He calls himself a babbling monkey, then projects the insult onto the clockwatcher, then hands the experience over to the reader, list price twelve dollars in 1995. He’s selling a performance of contained rage, and it’s worth every penny. Some readers will assume the speaker of this poem is on their side. Some other readers will want to know whether he thinks they give him “this look.” Still other readers will have enough experience of “this look” to know if he bends the truth even slightly. He holds his tongue.
I get uneasy when I connect this retailing of his mother’s potential homelessness with his newer poems about the difficulties of maintaining a vacation house. But then, Eady has always been all business. In one of the earliest poems in his new and selected, Hardheaded Weather, Eady repeats the slogan: “NO MORE POETRY FOR POETS.” Another early poem has as its refrain: “Money for reading poems.” In “Hawker,” he describes getting ready for work:
I put on dog’s teeth,
With a silver switchblade
Peeking from the top.
Then the loincloth.
I oil my body.
I walk to a street corner
And sell poems
From a paper bag.
He’s aware from the very beginning of both the stereotype threat he faces as a black poet, as well as the connection between risking his persona and writing his own reward. The implications of that won’t emerge clearly in his work until his fourth book, but even at the beginning he shows a flair for closing lines: “The idiot smiles at the man’s girlfriend / And the unfortunate woman / Smiles back.” And there’s this, from a poem written in 1981, before word processors blunted the physicality of the words cut and paste:
Cut and paste, you
With Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the Academy of American Poet’s Lamont Prize, the cartoonish quality acknowledged in the title of his first collection, Kartunes, is mostly gone. He replaces the jokey exaggerations with effectively erotic ones, many about women’s legs, as in the poem that closes, “The same thing that draws us together / has ruined all these dresses.” It’s in these poems that the narratives start to come back to family, which is to say, to money and home. The poem that introduces his father as a character, “The Good Look,” is the poem that introduces the subject of packing up and leaving for good. It’s a level up moment, and Eady knows it:
Stops at that portal,
And, though totally mistaken,
Takes a hard look at his house.
Everything the words so long were ever
Meant to imply
Is in this look,
A look that, when shown to me later,
As part of a story with a
Raises the ante.
From here on, nearly every line has a confrontation, an unexpected combination, or some other evidence that nothing is ever easy. Poetry is not only melodramatic non-fiction broken into strong-stressed lines, but it does include it. I have no reason to doubt these hard stories are true. For that matter, I don’t know whether Eady is drawn to this material because he can write it perfectly, or because he knows that it will sell. Both, I hope.
In the nine fine sentences of “Almost Grown,” he gets to the core of his sister’s repetitions of their father’s behavior, and the rage it creates in his father: “He will never try this hard again to tell anyone how much he loves them. With his belt, my father tries to tell my sister what he knows a man is capable of, but all he does is tell her fortune.” Or when, visiting his father in the hospital, he responds to the order to look for some cash left lying in the room by saying to himself, “I see just what I expect: tongue depressors, baby oil, the diabetic candy he sniffed and left by the side of the road. If there was any cash there, it is long gone, a secret boon for some nurse or orderly, a justifiable tax for a hard-ass patient.”
He moralizes as much as these quotes suggest, but he’s secure enough with his point of view to let others speak. When he talks about his own actions, he mentions what he imagines other people will think. He makes a good case why. In “The Grin,” he quotes two lines from a plainclothes cop who stops him hurrying through the airport in Norfolk, Virginia: “Will you cooperate?” and “See you soon.” Despite Eady’s apparent one-to-one identity with the narrator of these poems, it’s possible to read him as constantly holding his tongue. He may be.
He actually uses the phrase “I hold my tongue” twice in “Lucky House,” the new to go with the selected. If you told me two years ago I’d admire a book about buying a vacation house, I’d have been surprised. But house is a key word to understanding Eady, or any American. In the selected part of the book, Eady tells his father that “The house has gone down,” and later, he sits in a car “watching my sister’s house.” In a poem from Autobiography of a Jukebox not included here, his mother’s giving up on her collard-and-tomatoes victory garden prompts these lines:
You can’t have nothing, she tells us,
Is the motto of our neighborhood,
These modest houses
That won’t give an inch.
In the earlier poems, when you start to root for him, he smiles and backs away. These new poems feel closer and warmer:
Under the bedroom
every 20 minutes
called a furnace.
An early Eady poem praises William Carlos Williams’s inventions while looking sideways at his failure to appreciate jazz. Neither the prosody nor the pacing of the revelation in these short lines come near Williams for intensity, but what does that matter when “the John Birch Society / Has adopted our section of the highway.”
The selections here are fine, and could have been finer. The previously uncollected poems delay the appearance of his major work, for example, and he’s underweight in material from his best books. While he includes more than half the poems from You Don’t Miss Your Water, an almost-perfect perfect-bound chapbook of short prose pieces, the only plausible excuse for not including all of it is that it’s still in print and selling. He includes less than a quarter of the poems from The Autobiography of a Jukebox, a full collection of poems about musicians, performance-friendly accounts of racially fraught confrontations, and short prose pieces about his family after his father’s death. It looks at first like You Still Don’t Miss Your Water. It’s actually Eady’s most substantial book, second only to the present volume as an introduction to his work. (If you like Hardheaded Weather, find Autobiography next.) The poems he chooses from Brutal Imagination are all from the title sequence, spoken in the voice of the imaginary black man accused by a white woman (Susan Smith) of her own crime—driving her car into a lake and drowning her children. The intensity of the situation comes through, and the poems are okay, but it’s far from his best work, and not an ideal close to the book.
That ideal close would be Eady’s contribution to the subgenre of poems, begun by Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” that argue into being a space for black writers in historically-white college classrooms. In “Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?” he grapples with what to tell a young woman student who wants to know “if all music / Begins equal, why this poem of hers / Needed a passport, a glossary, // A disclaimer.” The rhetorical question he asks himself is exactly the conflict he bravely takes on with each new poem:
Can I say? That if she chooses
To remain here the term
Neighborhood will always have
A foreign stress, that there
Will always be the moment
The small, hard details
Of your life will be made
To circle their wagons?