Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

 

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.  For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all of those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.


This is the opening paragraph from Their Eyes Were Watching God, the story of Janie, an African American woman who wants nothing more than to “struggle with life.”   Her dreams are crushed when she finds herself languishing, first in an arranged marriage to an elderly farmer, and then as the trophy wife of the wealthy mayor of an all black town (based on the real city of Eatonville in Florida). Jo Sparks gives her the best that money can buy, but treats her as a possession and almost kills her spirit.  Then, widowed and in her early forties, Janie is finally reawakened to life when she meets and falls in love with a much younger man, the itinerant worker, Tea Cake. Together they attempt to carve out a relationship of equals.  But the story takes a frightening turn when the characters find themselves caught up in a hurricane. It then builds towards a shocking, tragic, yet strangely appropriate, ending.

The book was misunderstood when it was first published in 1937 and Hurston was criticised for not adequately representing the racist oppression experienced by black people in the South. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Alice Walker went to work resurrecting Hurston’s reputation and re-positioned Their Eyes Were Watching God as a groundbreaking book about a black woman’s quest for self-determination and personal fulfilment, opening new possibilities for black women writers.  Reading the book now, I can really see its influence on Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

The prose is beautiful and poetic, the use of dialogue vivid, and there is throughout a sense of deep emotional truth. The early stage of Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship is one of the best descriptions of what it feels like to fall in love that I’ve ever read.

Highly recommended.

More: Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Alexander, ‘Ars Poetica #100: I Believe’

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?


 

Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962) is an African American poet, now most well known for speaking at Obama’s inaugeration. She has published a lot of collections and currently teaches at Yale.

Poem: Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Rites for Cousin Vit’

‘Rites for Cousin Vit’

Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

 

Gwendolyn Brookes (1917 – 2000) was an African American poet who published over 20 books of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize.

This sonnet is one of my all-time favourite poems.  I think it really demonstrates poetry’s ability to express thoughts and feelings that just can’t be as well expressed through any other medium.  By this I mean, it expresses Cousin Vit’s energy and the effect she had on other people in such a way that I don’t think any other kind of writing could contain her. Well, the poem doesn’t contain her, perhaps that’s the point; it sets her loose again.