Helene Johnson: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance
This Waiting for Love
Edited by Verner D. Mitchell
University of Massachusetts Press 2000 130 pages
Foreword: “Chromatic Words”: The Poetry of Helene Johnson written by Cheryl A. Wall
These poems first appeared in magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s
Helene Johnson’s cousin grew up to be an author: Dorothy West
The cousins were avid readers and aspiring writers. “Restless, fun loving Vicky could be sobered and inspired by the simple act of opening a book. She turned pages tenderly, not wanting to break the ebony thread that wove itself into a wonderful pattern of words. And the words were the explanation of life, the key to understanding” (5).
“Years later, speaking of the writer’s need for ‘a certain laxity,’ Johnson explained: ‘It’s very difficult for a poor person to be that unfastened. They have to eat. In order to eat, you have to be fastened and tightly…[Y]ou don’t have too much time to go in another direction. And to write anything (it can be poetry or anything at all), you have to have time. You have to sit and rock like a fool or look out the window, and something will come by’” (8).
Most of Johnson’s early poems focused on nature.
Here are the poems and their topics featured in the book:
“Trees at Night”: about nature and looking at trees at night (something I’ve always loved)
“My Race” is about her race and their characteristics
“The Road” is about nature, race, and their shared characteristics
“Night”: nature and the moon as a woman with long hair
“Metamorphism”: changing faces of the sea
“Fulfillment” is about the beauty of life. Here it is in full:
To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth.
To hear the rain drool, dimpling, down the drain
And splash with a wet giggle in the street,
To ramble in the twilight after supper,
And to count the pretty faces that you meet.
To ride to town on trolleys, crowded, teaming
With joy and hurry and laughter and push and sweat–
Squeezed next to a patent-leathered Negro dreaming
Of a wrinkled river and a minnow net.
To buy a paper from a breathless boy,
And read of kings and queens in foreign lands,
Hyperbole of romance and adventure,
All for a penny the color of my hand.
To lean against a strong tree’s bosom, sentient
And hushed before the silent prayer it breathes,
To melt the still snow with my seething body
And kiss the warm earth tremulous underneath.
Ah, life, to let your stabbing beauty pierce me
And wound me like we did the studded Christ,
To grapple with you, loving you too fiercely,
And to die bleeding–consummate with Life.
“Fiat Lux’: a Black female prisoner flogged to death for picking a flower
“The Little Love”: secret lovers
“Futility”: being prim and proper can keep you from participating
Soft hair faintly white where the angels touch it;
Pale candles flaming in her eyes
Hallowing her vision of Christ;
And yet I know
She would break each Commandment
Against her heart,
And bury them pointed and jagged in her soul–
That I may smile.
“Love in Midsummer”
Is like a throbbing wind,
A lullaby all crooning,
Is like a summer sea’s soft breast.
A sobbing violin
That naïve night is tuning,
Is down from off the white moon’s nest.
“Magula”: the missionary can take away your true happiness
“A Southern Road”: visions of a lynching
“Bottled”: the outside can be ‘bottled’ but the inside is still an African man dancing
“Poem”: This poem is about falling in love with a musician. Here is a small portion:
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t-care in you.
“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem”: race and characteristics
“Summer Matures”: nature and love. Here are a couple bits:
Summer matures. Brilliant Scorpion
Appears. The pelican’s thick pouch…
And here Pan dreams of slim stalks clean for piping,
And of a nightingale gone mad with freedom.
Come. I shall weave a bed of reeds
And willow limbs and pale night flowers.
I shall strip the roses of their petals,
And the white down from a swan’s neck.
Come. Night is here. The air is drunk
With wild grape and sweet clover.
“What Do I Care for Morning”: is about the night. That is why I love it:
What do I care for morning,
For a shivering aspen tree,
For sunflowers and sumac
What do I care for morning,
For the glare of the rising sun,
For a sparrow’s noisy printing,
For another day begun?
Give me the beauty of evening,
The cool consummation of night,
And the moon like a love-sick lady,
Listless and wan and white.
Give me a little valley,
Huddled beside a hill,
Like a monk in a monastery,
Safe and contented and still.
Give me the white road glistening,
A strand of the pale moon’s hair,
And the tall hemlocks towering,
Dark as the moon is far.
Oh what do I care for morning,
Naked and newly born–
Night is here, yielding and tender–
What do I care for dawn!
“A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America”: about a natural soul, bottled
And as the moon grew large and white
Above the roof, afraid that she would scream
Aloud her young abandon to the night,
She mumbled Latin litanies and dreamed
Unholy dreams while waiting for the light.
“Cui Bono?”: she wants romantic love, not sex
“I Am Not Proud”: race
“Invocation”: about nature and death
Let me be buried in the rain
In a deep, dripping wood,
Under the warm wet breast of Earth
Where once a gnarled tree stood.
And paint a picture on my tomb
With dirt and a piece of bough
Of a girl and a boy beneath a round, ripe moon
Eating of love with an eager spoon
And vowing an eager vow.
And do not keep my plot mowed smooth
And clean as a spinster’s bed,
But let the weed, the flower, the tree,
Riotous, rampant, wild and free,
Grow high above my head.
“Regalia”: yet another reference to the force of religion taking the life out of everything. By listening to the foolish restrictions of religion (and the white man) the janitor lost all his love and joy for his favorite thing. His fancy lodge outfit took him above and beyond his janitor’s position; made him so proud. The preacher took all the fun out of it and the janitor fell further below his position by losing his joy; by listening to someone else, and not following his heart.
“Remember Not”: the end of love. Yesterday.
“Rustic Fantasy”: nature. She uses the word “anchoret” which in the footnote you learn is a hermit.
“Why Do They Prate?”: age
“Worship”: struggling with religion. The church is so confining. One can worship outside the walls of the church in nature.
“Vers de Society”: young love is bold and rushes in. Get it while it’s hot!
“Sonnet [Be not averse to Beauty]”: experience all the love and beauty you can. I like this phrase: “keep the tingleness of life”
“Sonnet [Wisdom May Caution]”: she knows he is bout to leave her, but this knowledge does not help the pain
“Monotone”: mediocre, boredom
“Widow with a Moral Obligation”: a widow ready to love again
“Plea of a Plebeian”: fantasizing about being royalty
“Let Me Sing My Song”: let me be one with nature. We all sing
“Goin’ No’th”: all the mishaps getting on the train north
“Rootbound”: the frustrations of a Black man
“Foraging”: too prudent. Too proper. She wants out!
[End part one]
“He’s About 22. I’m 63”: an older woman’s inner fantasy dialogue about a young man
“A Moment of Dignity”: going job hunting to be turned down?
“Time After Time”: here is the last bit:
Drink up! Crush the paper cup and
Let it quiver to the floor.
Gulp the joy!
Belch the pity!
Straddle the city!
“War”: irony. War.
“The Street to the Establishment”: the have-nots speaking to the haves
Little boys are so pleasant
Why not love them as they are?
Cheer their jousts. Shine their armor
Know their wonder,
Share their star.
They are not far below us.
Why can’t we kneel a bit?
See what they try to show us.
Sit in reverent surprise.
Are we afraid of the reflection in their eyes?
“A Boy Like Me”: two boys wising they could be as God and create the perfect playmate
“The Whimsy of It All”: a favored space
“The Quest”: old age
The poems end and there are letters reproduced. Here is one from Wallace Thurman to Dorothy West. In part:
“But I grown facetious. What I do want you to do is not be like Helene, and for your intellect’s sake get rid of the puritan notion that to have casual sexual intercourse is a sin. It’s a biological necessity my dear. More tragedies result from girls clinging to their virginity than you would imagine. Physically, mentally it is bad after a certain age. Celibacy is certainly admirable under certain conditions and at certain times, but sex is after all but an expression of bodily hunger and must be appeased like the hunger of the stomach. Not immoderately of course, for gluttony is always harmful to one’s physical and mental organs. But when one is hungry one should eat, and an 18 year fast may bring about chemical disturbances as the 18 day diet brings on acidosis. I don’t say just saunter forth and give yourself to the first taker. I only say don’t repress yourself, not violently suppress your sex urge, just because you are Puritan enough to believe that hell fire awaits he who takes a bite of the apple, unless you re profoundly inoculated with the illusion of love. You might be too sensible to entertain that illusion, but you will certainly be subject to chemical affinity, and when the call comes do not wait to decide if this is the man. The man may never materialize or else be halted in his rush to you. And unplucked fruit soon loses its fragrance and rots. Be discreet but be adventurous is a good motto for the literary tribe” (104-5).
Afterword: A Daughter Reminisces
In any case, a word should be said about the family economics since the only written evidence we have is Dorothy’s version in The Living Is Easy, which caused such a catastrophic uproar in the family that most members stopped speaking to Dorothy. To this day many family members still don’t speak to one another as a direct result of that book.
Helen used to accuse me of ‘ghetto thinking,’ and because we were black and we lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, I always assumed that it meant thinking from the bottom up instead of from the top down. It was not until I was about ten years old that I discovered what she meant. She meant that my thinking was controlled by boundaries, that I was encircled by limitations in the same manner that a geographical ghetto is within boundaries. What she wanted me to realize is that with imagination there are no limitations to thought. Once I was able to understand this, I could see how limitless life was and how all things were possible. And since I have always been a big showoff, I went and accused Sondra Johnson of having ghetto thinking, with the assumption that I could expand her horizons. Instead she punched me out.