They purge the soul with their infinity

Five poems by Jessie Redmon Fauset, from the anthology Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989), plus two poems from The Crisis:


“Oriflamme

“I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’ And she would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!’”
—Sojourner Truth.

I think I see her sitting bowed and black,
Stricken and seared with slavery’s mortal scars,
Reft of her children, lonely, anguished, yet
Still looking at the stars.

Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons,
Pounding our stubborn hearts on Freedom’s bars,
Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set,
Still visioning the stars!”

Original source: The Crisis, January 1920. Also in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)


“Dead Fires

If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm
Than this gray calm!

Is this pain’s surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night’s white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath
Than passion’s death!”

Original source: The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922). Also in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)


“Stars in Alabama

In Alabama
Stars hang down so low,
So low, they purge the soul
With their infinity.
Beneath their holy glance
Essential good
Rises to mingle with them
In that skiey sea.

At noon
Within the sandy cotton-field
Beyond the clay, red road
Bordered with green,
A Negro lad and lass
Cling hand in hand,
And passion, hot-eyed, hot-lipped,
Lurks unseen.

But in the evening
When the skies lean down,
He’s but a wistful boy,
A saintly maiden she,
For Alabama stars
Hang down so low,
So low they purge the soul
With their infinity.”

Original source: The Crisis, January 1928. Also in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)


“Rencontre

My heart, which beat so passionless,
Leaped high last night when I saw you.
Within me surged the grief of years
And whelmed me with its endless rue.
My heart which slept so still, so spent,
Awoke last night-to break anew.”

Original source: The Crisis, January 1924. Also in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)


“Oblivion

I hope when I am dead that I shall lie
In some deserted grave — I cannot tell you why,
But I should like to sleep in some neglected spot
Unknown to every one, by every one forgot.

There lying I should taste with my dead breath
The utter lack of life, the fullest sense of death;
And I should never hear the note of jealousy or hate,
The tribute paid by passersby to tombs of state.

To me would never penetrate the prayers and tears
That futilely bring torture to dead and dying ears;
There I should lie annihilate and my dead heart would bless
Oblivion — the shroud and envelope of happiness.”

Original source: The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922). Also in Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)


“Rain Fugue

Slanting, driving, Summer rain
How you wash my heart of pain!
How you make me think of trees,
Ships and gulls and flashing seas!
In your furious, tearing wind,
Swells a chant that heals my mind;
And your passion high and proud,
Makes me shout and laugh aloud!

Autumn rains that start at dawn,
‘Dropping veils of thinnest lawn’;
Soaking sod between dank grasses,
Sweeping golden leaves in masses,-
Blotting, blurring out the Past,
In a dream you hold me fast;
Calling, coaxing to forget
Thing that are, for things not yet.

Winter tempest, winter rain,
Hurtling down with might and main,
You but make me hug my heart,
Laughing, sheltered from your wrath.
Now I woo my dancing fire,
Piling, piling drift-wood higher.
Books and friends and pictures old,
Hearten while you pound and scold!

Pattering wistful showers of Spring
Set me to remembering
Far-off times and lovers too,
Gentle joys and heart-break rue,-
Memories I’d as lief forget,
Were not oblivion sadder yet.
Ah! you twist my mind with pain,
Wistful whispering April rain!

Summer, Autumn, Winter rain,
How you ease my heart of pain!
Whispering, wistful showers of Spring,
How I love the hurt you bring!”

Original source: The Crisis, August 1924


“‘Courage!’ He Said

Ulysses, debarking in the Lotos Land,
Struck the one note that the hapless Ithacans
Travel-sick, mazed, bemused, could understand,
And understanding, follow.

“Courage,” he said, “remember, is not Hope!”
He left the worn, safe ship, spume-stained and hollow.
“To be courageous is to face despair.”
And through the groves and ‘thwart the ambient air
Resounded reedy echoes:
“Face despair!”

But this they understood.
And plunging on prepared for best, and most prepared
For worst, found only in their stride
A deep umbrageous wood,
And grassy plains where they disported; eased
And bathed lame feet within a purling stream
And murmured: “Here, Odysseus, would we fain abide!”

But neither the stream’s sweet ease
Nor the shade of the vast beech-trees,
Nor the blessed sense
Of the sweet, sweet soil
Beneath feet salt-cracked and worn
Brought to them even then,
(Still fainting and frayed and forlorn),
Such complete recompense
As the knowledge that once again
Facing the new and untried,
They had kept the courage of men!”

Original source: The Crisis, November 1929


A celestial map by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, 1670

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