The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination consists of five sections; the first four are numbered, and the last section bears the title “The Running Man Poems.” Section 1 dealts with Susan Smith and Charles Stuart, two murderers who blamed their crimes on nonexistent black assailants. Eady suggests that the police and the public, who believed their stories, are the ones with “brutal imaginations.” Susan Smith drowned her two boys by keeping them in the backseat of a car that she pushed into John D. Long Lake, near Union, South Carolina. In Boston, Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife for insurance money.

The speaker of “How I Got Born” is the fictional young African American man whom Susan Smith invented and accused of her crime. He says, “Susan Smith willed me alive/ At the moment/ Her babies sank into the lake.” Together, the young man and the children “roll sleepless through the dark streets, but inside/ the cab is lit with brutal imagination.” Other poems imagine this fictional young African American assumes a life in the popular awareness that goes beyond Smith’s fiction. In “Sightings,” a man sees the speaker pumping gas with the children in the backseat. Someone from North Carolina sees him “move like an angel/ In my dusky skin/ And knit hat.” Another witness sees the car on a highway, with the well-behaved children in the back. A motel’s night clerk hears the car’s tires as it pulls up to the motel. All of these sightings are part of a brutal imagination.

In “Where Am I?” Eady describes attempts to find an African American driver with two white children in his backseat. In “The Law,” the speaker describes driving as an African American:

I’m black, which meansI mustn’t slow down.I float in forcesI can’t always control.

The poems emphasize the racial dimension of the imagination’s brutality:

How long do you think the cops would listenHad Susan not swornI was black, I was a bad dream.

Even when the car is found in the lake, the invented culprit continues in the sheriff’s mind and in the public’s mind, fed by the posters that a police artist has drawn. Scenes, images, existential dilemmas, and matter-of-fact prejudice are all crisply and clearly drawn in this first set of brutal imaginations.

Section 2 consists of five poems that deal more broadly with the brutal imagination of American culture. “Uncle Tom in Heaven” laments:

I with another black man pour from aWhite woman’s head. I fearHe’ll live the way I did, a brute,A flimsy ghost of an idea. BothOf us groomed to go only so far.

Uncle Ben “was pulled together/ To give, to cook/ But never to eat.” “Aunt Jemima’s Do-Rag” refers to the original Aunt Jemima, a round-faced woman with a headscarf, based on the image of a real African American woman named Nancy Green of whom almost nothing is known. The poem highlights the cognitive dissonance between corporate icons and fully dimensioned human beings.

While the first is a literary character and the other two are marketing devices, Uncle Tom, Uncle Ben, and Aunt Jemima are all icons of the white culture’s brutal imagination. They serve a purely and unrealistically servile role. Eady similarly addresses such cultural caricatures as Buckwheat—a member of the Little Rascals who, as an adult, becomes an alienated outsider—and Stepin Fetchit, a character played by Lincoln Perry. Eady highlights the complexity of Perry’s own life, which exists in tension with the caricature he helped...

(The entire section is 1643 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Eady, Cornelius. “Cornelius Eady.” Interview by Patricia Spears Jones. BOMB 79 (Spring, 2002): 48-54. Discusses the relationship between Eady’s poetry and classical Greek theater. Includes a detailed discussion of Brutal Imagination.

Eady, Cornelius. “Did Your Mama Hear Those Poems?” In Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz and Literature, edited by Sascha Feinstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Interview in which Eady discusses the relationship between jazz and poetry; part of a collection of interviews with musicians and writers on the mutual influence of literature and jazz upon each other.

Peters, Erskine. “Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water: Its Womanist/Feminist Perspective.” Journal of African American Men 2, no. 1 (Summer, 1996): 15-31. Touches on themes of family relationships in Eady’s work that are important for understanding the “Running Man” poems.

Poetry Society of America. “For Want of Nail: Neglected American Poets.” Newsletter of the Poetry Society of America, Autumn, 1994, 44. Includes a short statement of praise for Eady’s poetry.

Trethewey, Natasha. “A Profile of Cornelius Eady.” Ploughshares 28, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 193-197. Brief biography of Cornelius Eady and summary of his work by another significant African American poet.