Michael Harper, in the poetry and essays he has written since his first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, was published in 1970, has assumed as his artistic responsibility one of the most ancient and esteemed offices available to a writer. Locating himself in a tradition that can be traced back to Homer and beyond, Harper has accepted the obligations inherent in working to establish and proclaim a record of a community’s history, and to celebrate the accomplishments of those outstanding figures of that community whose achievements stand for the values and spiritual qualities of a cultural realm. Framing the volume, Harper has placed at the start and close of the book a poem of six stanzas, each line repeated three times, beginning with the triad, “When there is no history,” and followed by an image of “a blind nation in storm” that is “belted in these ruins.” This is an emphatic declaration of a poetic credo, an insistence on the reclamation from silence and suppression of the three-centuries epoch of African Americans in the United States. In accordance with the more personal perspective of the postmodern poet in the late twentieth century, Harper has balanced his exploration of significant figures in his community with a deeply felt, intensely evocative expression of the members of his own close family, tender and touching poems that illuminate the origins of the “songlines” in the “Michaeltree” that stands as an emblem of the poet’s life.
Harper has carefully arranged the book to recall the poems he regards as particularly important from previous volumes and to provide additional material to assist the reader in understanding a life committed to teaching and writing. There is an explanatory section of “Notes to the Poems” which contains contextual information that enables even those readers familiar with Harper’s themes and concerns more fully to understand and appreciate the specific details of many works. For instance, while people who have followed Harper’s progress as a poet will immediately recognize the name of the great musician John Coltrane who is central to Harper’s sensibility, the note to “Here Where Coltrane Is” points out that the poem “shares a title with a recording of a live concert” but adds, “The poem is meant to suggest the real and imaginary losses and gains of the sixties.” This kind of candor enhances a prior perception and is very helpful when Harper is probing historical data that may elude all but those who share his expertise. The note to “Deathwatch,” for instance, acknowledges “two resonant debts,” including “W. E. B. Du Bois’s correspondence when experts’ on race relations asked him, Are Negroes unable to cry?’” These extensions of the poems are akin to the conversational introductions that might occur at one of Harper’s public readings and function as a teaching text complementing the poem’s other qualities.
Along with the “Notes,” there is an invitation directed “To the Reader” in which Harper takes the reader through a journey that describes the evolution of his creative consciousness. The essay is conceived as an acknowledgment of crucial asistance, gratitude for the encouragement of mentors such as the “pioneering writers: Robert Hayden, Sterling A. Brown and Ralph Ellison” mingled with illuminating personal items such as the fact that “My godson, Rafael Stepto, gave me the monikerMichaeltree. He was four years old, in 1979, and the riff caught and held,” or the anecdote which describes Harper reading on the University of Zululand campus where a listener asked for a copy of Southern Road(1929) by Sterling Brown, and then “proceeded to copy the poems, in ink on both arms, writing with either hand.” Like much of Harper’s prose, this essay assumes that the reader will be ready to accept the intellectual challenge of thinking through a statement like the use of the “pietà motif” in the painter/sculptor Oliver Jackson’s work, “’an improvisation in the classical mode, by rigorous attention to the line, figurative wholeness, shadow and light, and his own signature in fraternal rendering with full implications of brotherhood, sacrifice, and the mysterious dimensionality of race.” The third of these pieces, “Notes on Form and Fictions,” is presented as a classical ars poetica, in which a serious examination of poetic technique is interlaced with an individual artist’s own accommodation to and innovations with the materials of his craft. As the heart of this essay is Harper’s essential proclamation of purpose: “I began to write poems because I could not see those elements of my life that I considered sacred reflected in my courses of study: scientific, literary, and linguistic.” This leads directly to the most characteristic features of his work,...
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