Cornelius Eady Essay - Critical Essays


Cornelius Eady’s poetry concerns the construction of identity, the dynamics of memory and reflection as part of the interrogation of the self, and the importance of recording that complex process. Like the blues, Eady’s poetry centers on the struggle to define the isolated self within a chaotic world that harbors little possibility for redemption. Like jazz, however, Eady’s poetry also responds to a world that, given its essential unpredictability, can sustain authentic ecstasy. That texture, the self sustained between sadness and exuberance, is central to Eady’s work. His poetry explores the roles he has played in the construction of his own identity. Not surprisingly, over the time Eady has been writing, this interrogation of the self has become more complex. Initially, Eady explored his role as urban poet; later, he examined more complex relational roles, that of husband, lover, teacher, and, supremely, son; he later began to confront his role as an African American, specifically the struggle to construct a viable black self amid the historical and social pressures around the turn of the millennium in the United States.

The poetic line for such an investigation into the self is appropriately individual and resists conventional expectations of structure and sound. Rhythmic but not metric, Eady’s line can appear deceptively simple, direct, even conversational. However, it is freedom within a tightly manipulated form. Like improvisational jazz, which can, at first hearing, seem easy and effortless, Eady’s poetry is a complex aural event. His poems consciously manipulate sounds, using unexpected syncopations and cadences, enjambment, irregular spacings and emphasis, line length, and sound repetition to create an air of improvisation that is nevertheless a carefully textured sonic weave.


Kartunes is a portrait of the self as young poet, an exercise in testing the reach of the imagination and celebrating the role of a cocksure poet responding originally to the world. “I want to be fresh,” he proclaims, “I want words/ to tumble off my lips/ rich enough/ to fertilize/ the ground.” Giddy with imaginative possibilities, Eady improvises his narrative “I” into outlandish personas (the “cartoons” suggested by the title), many culled from pop culture: He is at turns an inept terrorist, a nerdy librarian, an unhappy woman forced into a witness protection program, a dying philanthropist anxious about the approaching afterlife, a man contemplating torching his own house, the legendary Headless Horseman selecting the appropriate pumpkin to hurtle, Popeye’s nemesis Bluto groomed for a date, and even Adolf Hitler posing before a mirror and dreaming of greatness.

Given such wild fluctuations in the narrative center, the poetry is given over to irreverent exuberance. Despite often centering on alienated characters existing within a contemporary environment of absurdity and brutality, the poems resist surrendering to emotional heaviness. The poems, themselves innovative in structure and sound (witness the wordplay of the collection’s title), offer as resolutions the sheer animation of the engaged imagination, the possibility of love, and the ability of the world to stun with its unchoreographed wonder. With the confident insouciance of a young man, Eady argues that nothing is nobler than “laughing/ when nothing/ is funny anymore.”

Victims of the Latest Dance Craze

The interest in defining the poet and that confident sense of play animates Eady’s follow-up collection, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, thematically centered on the metaphor of the dance. Here the world is in constant motion—the title poem, for example, details a pulsating urban neighborhood. Like William Carlos Williams (whose influence Eady has acknowledged), the poet responds to the seductive suasion of the world that too often goes unnoticed—to a cloud passing overhead, crows battling a strong wind, a waitress’s purple nail polish, the leaden feel of November, the faint stirrings of April: “an entire world,” he trumpets, “on the tip of my tongue.” To respond to that world is to dance, a suggestive metaphor for the body’s irresistible, spontaneous response to being alive, the electric moment of the “hands . . ./ Accidentally brush[ing] against the skirts of the world.” Such animation makes problematic the life of the poet so vital in Kartunes.

In the closing poem, “Dance at the Amherst County Public Library,” the poet describes himself as a “dancing fool who couldn’t stay away from words.” He concedes his jealousy over those who live so effortlessly and of his own poor efforts to capture secondhand that rich experience within his poetry, his “small graffiti dance.” The poetic lines here boldly strive to match the urgent call to respond originally to the world, capturing the improvisational feel of jazz: irregular patterning of lines, multiple stops and starts, a delightful matching of sounds, and wildly unanticipated rhythms.

The Gathering of My Name

In Eady’s ambitious third major collection, The Gathering of My Name, the tone considerably darkens as jazz gives way to the slower pull of the blues. In the opening poem, “Gratitude,” Eady audaciously proffers love to those who have not welcomed him nor his poetry and confesses his greatest weakness is his “inability/ to sustain rage.” It is a familiar brashness, and, indeed, the second poem (“Grace”) offers one of those unexpected moments when the world sparkles: the sight of the neighborhood reflected in the waxed hood of a black sedan.

However, quickly the poems concede to a more disturbing world that crushes dreams and sours love. For the first time, Eady addresses race. Poems introduce figures such as the tormented blues singer Leadbelly or jazz great John Coltrane in the aftermath of the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. In others, a waitress in Virginia refuses to serve a black man, a passing motorist hurls racial epithets at a black man’s white wife, a car breaks down in the “wrong” neighborhood. Like the blues, these are poems of pain and bad luck, the curse of awareness, the dilemma of disappointment, and the need to define the self in a harsh world. What is the poet to do? “Get it...

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