To Conrad Kent Rivers – a sonnet
“To teach? To write. Above all . . to learn how to write and rid myself of color consciousness and ignorance.” – Conrad Kent Rivers
The internet won’t tell me why you died.
Or how. You were young, your best years ahead.
It was tragic – life snatched away so early
and with so much more poetry still pent up,
unexpressed, unshared with a cruel world
unworthy of your gift to it, to us.
I found your letter in our collection*:
I still see traces of your unfulfilled
trajectory. Well acquainted with your
hopes and fears, I’ve learned the “private idiom”
you sought, still feel the “joy in the seeking.”
I left two lines aside to close this poem –
your words work best: “I wish time had no end
for black poets; we need time to forget . . . ”
*Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. Rosey Pool papers. Correspondence, Box 82-2, Folder 133
A sample of his poetry:
What did we watch last night?
What ritual did we re-enact?
Was it an altar call
(it certainly seemed like one)
For guilty conscience whites?
Or was it a crystal ball
(I didn’t mean to make a rhyme)
(But oh, yes, it must have been!)
For conscience-ridden blacks?
Or was it everything
For everybody (in the audience
And on the stage, on both stages).
And why wasn’t there
a curtain call at the end?
Why was there no end?
Yes it was immersive.
Yes it was interactive.
The invisible vertical membrane
Perpendicular to the edge of the stage
That we have come to believe in
Was forever smashed.
And we are ruined forever for any play
We subsequently see
If we expect that craziness
To every happen again.
Now I am confused.
Who were the players?
And who the hell were the watchers,
From an all-knowing vantage point?
And were we, my wife and me,
Players or watchers? I’m not sure.
And does it work on smart TV?
That was many poems ago, rivers crossed.
At least that’s when it was written, expressed,
Verbalized, spoken in words and recorded.
I had the best English teachers in school.
I loved languages and all their expression.
But there didn’t seem to be money in teaching,
And plenty of good opportunities
In science and math. So that’s where I made
My home. Later it came as no surprise to me
That Gertrude Stein cut her writing teeth
On stories about Negro women recently freed.
There was money writing Negro stories –
From millions newly taught to read and write –
After ages being denied those skills by law.
Happy 93rd, JC.
Summer is slowly dying.
Autumn is slowly dawning.
I’m on a fast train home from work
& I’m reading Autumn Rivulets
In Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The cool creatives leave my name
Off the invitation list. It makes me sad.
They won’t let me worship at Uncle Walt’s
House because I sleep with woman.
But they have no control over what I read
When I am on the subway home.
Not that it matters; I do as I please.
Knowing doesn’t solve my problems.
I see spirits dart and dash through
The stacks at work. I never see
Them arrive but I catch their departure
Out the corner of my mind’s eye. It’s not new –
I’ve always seen spirits in libraries
And at the house my mother called home.
Sunship was the first JC album I bought.
It was 1969 at a tiny record shop on Tate Street.
What the hell was I thinking spending
My paper route money on this “confusion”
And “garbage” as my parents called it?
Truth is, Giant Steps may have been a
Better place to lose my virginity.
On a night of perfect
(& there were plenty
in Cold War America),
the WLAC Nashville
AM waves would rise & bend,
finding their way over
the Great Smokies to the east.
Then, when WEAL Greensboro
signed off at midnight,
we could tune in for the latest hits
and news from the big city
at the same AM frequency.
I thought that was pretty cool.
It inspired me to earn
the Radio merit badge.
Now everything is available
on the goddamned internet,
all the time, day or night,
no matter the atmosphere.
I don’t know what today’s kids
think about the ubiquity
of everything. I wonder
what they do for coolness.
It all started yesterday
So already I’m a day behind
But it’s ok – It’s still the weekend
For me that makes it all on schedule
This year I’m making an effort
To steer away from the orthodoxy
Of thought and analysis
In understanding the poems we cover
Week one makes it easy –
There are only the two poets,
Whitman and Dickinson –
And I have a plan for cognitive diversity :
How a translator deals with her dashes
And rule-breaking and syntax shifting –
How Whitman changes with each reader
And each time it is read (“To have great poets
you must have great audiences too!”)
And each week I’ll attempt
a wrap-up poem, like This.
And each week I hope to memorize
something tweet able from the list.
Me: No, August Postcard Poetry Fest is not related to August Wilson.
Walt: “Well, how do you know? August Wilson wrote poetry, didn’t he?”
Me: Yes, he did, but the Postcard Poetry Fest didn’t start until two years after his death.
Walt: “He did live in Seattle, didn’t he?”
Walt: “And the Poetry Fest is run out of Seattle?’
Walt: “And he did write poetry and plays on all types and bits of paper, right?”
Me: So they tell me. I have yet to see his papers, though as an archivist I would love to see them.
Walt: “So how do you KNOW he never wrote a poem on a postcard?”
Me: I don’t KNOW with certainly that he didn’t. In fact, he might have. Now I’m just as crazy as you!