Arna Bontemps

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Arna Bontemps Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Several themes dominate Arna Bontemps’s poetry: protest against social inequity, the decline in religious belief, and the search for identity through examination of the past. His social protest was more suggested than directly stated, however. He always wrote in a brooding, sad way, never showing joy or laughter. His dismay at what he considered the loss of right behavior, ethics, responsibility, and faith is pronounced in some of his poetry. However, his greatest interest was in exploring roots, most often African, summoning up the past by returning to it and seeing what could be learned. The return could be to a memory or be an actual relocation to a place or to a loved one. The Africa of his poetry is a bit idealized, with verdant grasses and scarlet birds in lush palms and tom-toms beating out hypnotic rhythms and never sounding warnings of impending danger.

“Golgotha Is a Mountain”

Often, further study is necessary for a complete understanding of Bontemps’s poetry, in which biblical references abound. For example, the poem “Golgotha Is a Mountain” refers to Golgotha, a hill near Jerusalem believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The name of the hill comes from an Aramaic word that means “place of the skull.” Golgotha is a place of death, as evidenced through Bontemps’s oblique reference to those who “. . . hanged two thieves there,/ And another man,” causing a flood of tears then and now, enough to make a river. Romans and Jews in biblical times carried out executions on the outskirts of cities, preferably on elevated spots so that the executions would serve as warnings to passersby. In this poem, Bontemps may be linking the suffering of Jesus with that of blacks. The excavation at the mountain could serve as a reminder that the Africans who dig precious stones out of mountains get no recompense. The mountains are theirs, but the wealth eludes them.

“The Return”

“The Return” describes the poet’s attempt to summon up the past and understand it, one of Bontemps’s major themes. The poet states, “The throb of rain is the throb of muffled drums;/ darkness brings the jungle to our room// . . . This is a night of love/ retained from those lost nights our fathers slept/ in huts; this is a night that cannot die.” He hopes that calling up the sounds and smells of Africa will give life to racial memory, saying, “Oh let us go back and search the tangled dream.” He knows that such trips are only temporary, soon interrupted by reality, with street noise, weather, and birds.

“Nocturne at Bethesda”

The Bethesda of the poem “Nocturne at Bethesda” is the biblical site of miracles, where the afflicted gather and wait for angels to stir up the waters of a pond. Those who enter the pool before the water settles are released from pain. According to the biblical account, a man, hobbled for thirty-eight years, was too crippled to reach the pool in time, so Jesus healed him. In modern times, a person might wait at that ancient pool for some kind of revelation or cleansing, but it will not come. Bontemps reflects on the twentieth century’s demise of faith and concludes that the forces that once sustained people no longer have the power to heal or transform. He laments that the healing waters are no longer there to help blacks, noting, “. . . This ancient pool that Healed/ A host of bearded Jews does not awake// . . . No Saviour comes/ with healing in his hands. . . .” There...

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is no solace for blacks at this site, causing him to ask “. . . why/ Do our black faces search empty sky?” He looks for an answer and mourns the loss of spiritual values where God was once immanent: “I may pass through centuries of death/ with quiet eyes, but I’ll remember still/ a jungle tree with burning scarlet birds.// I shall be seeking ornaments of ivory,/ I shall be dying for a jungle fruit.”

“A Black Man Talks of Reaping”

The last poem in Personals, “A Black Man Talks of Reaping,” is probably the most anthologized. In this poem, a man who has prepared his land well, planting his seeds deeply enough to save them from the wind and birds, takes pride in rows that could, in his mind, run from “Canada to Mexico.” However, the times are bad and the crops have not done well. The man, like many blacks after the Emancipation, is either a tenant farmer or a sharecropper, and finds that he has nothing to pass down to his children. He says his children “glean” or take from “fields” they have not sown and “feed on bitter fruit.” Bontemps feels it is unnatural and disastrous for humans not to be able to reap what they sow, but he credits blacks for their endurance and for believing that a better day will come. In “Day-Breakers,” he wrote lines conveying this mind-set: “Yet would we die as some have done./ Beating a way for the rising sun.”

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