top of page

In the Body of Etheridge Knight’s Work, A Storied Life




Etheridge Knight


The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems


Norman Minnick, ed.


Kinchafoonee Creek Press / 2022 / 267 pp / $16


Reviewed by Debra Kang Dean / April 2023




 

In “Editor’s Note,” Norman Minnick describes The Lost Etheridge as “a companion to The Essential Etheridge Knight.” To this end he has brought together poems from earlier out-of-print books not included in the latter book, poems that were published in journals or magazines, some posthumously, and poems found among his papers in several archives. Readers already familiar with Knight’s life and work will be especially thrilled to encounter poems appearing in print for the first time.


On the other hand, for those unfamiliar with Knight’s work or who may know him as a poet who was a veteran, an ex-con, a junkie, and generally a person of questionable character, the prose pieces Minnick includes may be a useful place to begin. The Lost Etheridge includes a foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a very brief introduction to Etheridge Knight by Modupe Labode, and several prose pieces. The first is the preface to Born of a Woman (1980), a new and selected volume preceding The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986). In this preface, Knight provides two examples of revisions he’d made in response to criticism by which, he writes, he “became aware (sometimes [he] was made aware)” of “perpetuating” the sexism and racism inherent in the language.


I find it curious that in the first piece, the rightfully called out offending phrase “like indians at a corral” was replaced with “like a herd of sheep,” which changes our view of how the inmates feel. And yet the original simile in “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane* was perhaps a spin-off of a cliché in Westerns where one might expect “cowboys,” instead, who were breaking a wild stallion. In the other, he revised “sons” in “The Idea of Ancestry” to “children.” Years after he wrote this poem, Knight, who was called “Junior” by his family, had an adopted son, Etheridge, and an adopted daughter, Tandi, and later still a biological son, who was given the middle name BuShie, Knight’s father’s nickname.


The second piece is “Lend Me Your Ear: A Column,” which was published in American Poetry Review in 1977 and addresses his dilemma as an editor of The Lakeshore Outlook, an Indiana State Prison newspaper, and, implicitly, his being a Black poet in a world whose gatekeepers were predominately White. In his piece, Knight discusses his response to “a ‘hostile letter’ from the young / brother in the Hole” with the salutation, “Dear Brother Tom.” Knight opens his reply with “Dear Young Fool, I said (I just / couldn’t help being a smart / ass)” and goes on to school the writer about language and communication in communities, and offers insights into the rock and hard place from which he addressed the questions about whom he wrote to and for. Along the way, he addresses his correspondent as “lil br’er” and “young br’er.” “On the Nature of Oral Poetry,” the third piece (a talk subsequently published in 1987), relates how he became a poet and outlines a poetics that underscores the news in Pound’s phrase “news that stays news.”


While news of Tyre Nichols broke in the midst of continuing stories about banning books and African American Studies courses, I foolishly went down the rabbit hole, moving from The Essential Etheridge Knight to the two books Yusef Komunyakaa mentions in his foreword: Michael S. Collins’s Understanding Etheridge Knight (2012) and Terrance Hayes’s To Float in the Space Between (2018). (As I am finishing work here, the editing of Roald Dahl’s books is in the news, the Mellon Foundation just hosted “Imagining Freedom,” an online event for an initiative centered on incarceration and the arts, the New York Times ran “One Year Inside a Radical New Approach to America’s Overdose Crisis,” and the exhibit “Art Against the Odds (Art of Incarcerated Individuals)” is currently up at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.) I went on to read Knight’s earlier volumes of poetry, which brought into clear focus the opening of Komunyakaa’s foreword: “The collection of poems The Lost Etheridge edited by Norman Minnick seems perfectly timed. Etheridge Knight, the toastmaster—the man and the poet—is certainly hard to pin down.” The man and the poet.


·


In her preface to Poems from Prison (1968), the first collection of Knight’s own poems, Gwendolyn Brooks writes: “[This poetry] is certainly male—with formidable austerities, dry grins, and a dignity that is scrupulous even when lenient. But there are centers of controlled softness too.” In “On the Nature of Oral Poetry,” Knight writes:


. . . there are two sides to a word. What I call the masculine, lineal side: the authority

for that side of the words comes out of Webster’s or the Oxford dictionary. On the

connotative side, the feminine side, the authority comes from common agreement.


One also finds “masculine” and “feminine” invoked in thinking about poetic craft in Donald Hall’s “Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird”—the dance of rhythm, melody, and rhyme—and Seamus Heaney’s “The Fire i’ the Flint”—the play of consonants and vowels. Unlike them, Knight applies the terms to diction, and, in this, the ideas are much closer to what Hawaiians call kaona, “hidden meanings,” which, like the parables in the Bible, address more than one audience. Think of that “br’er” in the letter noted above. On the surface, it could be shorthand for “brother,” but on it rides Br’er Rabbit, Knight using adjectives and spelling to cleave the two senses of that word—dividing by age and uniting by circumstance—and revealing a mind given to metaphorical thinking and using it to play two sides at once.


·


There is much to appreciate about what I read as experiments in The Lost Etheridge. There are the experiments with punctuation beyond his signature use of the break (virgule), such as the open-ended left parenthesis in “One Day We Shall All Go Back” that appears as both an introduction of and separation from a chorus of voices; the right parenthesis that severs a connection to “of Africa” in “Notice”; and the use of white space to turn the poem as spoken into what Denise Levertov in “On the Function of the Line” called a “written score.” From haiku in strict syllabics to what Knight styled jazz haiku and into memos as well as his work with the blues form—his working in and around received forms is made clearer by the rough chronological order of the poems.


There are also the surrealistic elements in both “April 1975” and “First Week in June 1975.” These titles locate the poems at specific points during the Vietnam War, and the dates may indicate that Knight wrote them while he lived in Minneapolis. The latter also for me evokes Frost’s “Out, Out—”; alongside the early “For P.F.C. Joe Rogers,” the poems are reminders that Knight was a veteran of the Korean War. Written before we had a name for it, I wonder if we might read these poems as attempts to make visible his experiences of PTSD. “Vietnam Is Harlem” and “What Is Love” might also be read in relation to Knight’s serving time in the Army.


Though it seems linked to the mud of Mississippi in “A Poem for Myself (or Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy),” in the simple ditty “Song of Br’er Mud-Turtle,” I also see Chuang Tzu’s preference to be a turtle (“tortoise” in Burton Watson’s translation) “alive and dragging its tail in the mud”; since we know that Knight had been a voracious reader during the better part of the time he spent in an Indiana prison for robbery, it is not so far-fetched to think that he’d read a version of this parable. And there’s the spin “Br’er” adds in “The Hypocrite”: “He preten’ that he loves, but he don’t love men; / How can he love when he hates Br’er Ben?”


·


While Knight’s play with denotation and connotation can make the significance of his poems slippery, he does sometimes pin poems down in time and place, as is the case with “The Bones of My Father”: “Connecticut / February 21, 1971.” In 1970, Knight had been arrested for drug possession and jailed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he received a five-year suspended sentence and spent time in one of Daytop Village’s drug addiction treatment centers.


A line runs through “Belly Song,” which is dedicated to the “the Daytop Family,” and “The Bones of My Father,” a three-section poem. “There are no dry bones / here in this

valley. . . ,” the latter's opening lines, might allude to two spirituals: “Dem Bones,” also called “Dry Bones,” which turns on connection, and “Dry Bones in the Valley.” Both are songs about resurrection. “The Bones of My Father” ends:


The skull of my father

grins at the Mississippi moon

from the bottom

of the Tallahatchie.


In 1979, Knight visited Corinth, Mississippi, the place of his birth, in search of a relative named Pink Knight, who, along with other relatives, appears in the photo on the back cover of Born of a Woman (1980). On the page following “The Bones of My Father” in The Essential Etheridge Knight are two haiku-like poems. Beyond their presence on a single page, the gap the white space creates between the two poems points to the transformative nature of the experiences they represent. They are titled “Evolutionary Poem No. 1” and “Evolutionary Poem No. 2.” The bodies of the poems are identical except for a shift in pronouns—in the first, “I” and “myself” and in the second, “We” and “ourselves.” The poems also differ in the added tag of place and date: “New York City / August 1972” and “Memphis, Tennessee / September 1979,” respectively. Knight’s appending of place and date to these poems suggests that, in rearranging his poems, he was, as Stanley Kunitz puts it in “The Taste of Self,” aiming “to convert life into legend.”


·


Central to this work in the thread I’ve been following was Knight’s grappling with ideas of manhood. It is no accident that, after the italicized prefatory poem “Genesis,” the first poem in The Essential Etheridge Knight is “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” where, after the lobotomy, Hard Rock, in whom honor/dignity and manhood are intertwined, is likened to “a freshly gelded stallion.” This real or borrowed or imagined event inside the prison is no less dispiriting than the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X outside it.


In “Feeling into Words,” Seamus Heaney makes a distinction between craft, which “can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self,” and technique, which “is what turns, in Yeats’s phrase, ‘the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’ into ‘an idea, something intended, complete.’ ” Using the metaphor of a well, Heaney describes that mysterious moment when “miming the real thing” by reading and imitating to learn one’s craft gives way to technique: “one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin of the pool of yourself.” Then he turns back to a sexual metaphor introduced earlier: “Your praties will be ‘fit for digging.’ ”


·


I hadn’t understood why I felt compelled to read beyond The Lost Etheridge, but later I realized that I was searching for contexts—in particular, a chronology of Knight’s life and some sense of how the separate books were related to each other—contexts through which to read these poems for the kinds of questions they raise. Read alongside The Essential Etheridge Knight, The Lost Etheridge offers a look not only into a poet’s honing of his craft and a view of what he culls from previous books, but also a tantalizing glimpse of how The Essential Etheridge Knight was shaped toward something “intended and complete”—and clues about how another manuscript might have emerged the way The Essential Etheridge Knight had from Born of a Woman, as lived experiences continued to shape his thoughts and feelings.


For this reason, in The Lost Etheridge, I especially appreciate the unpublished poems from 1982–1991, during the latter part of which he lost a leg and was diagnosed with lung cancer. These poems suggest that Knight’s late-life battle with lung cancer turned his gaze toward the cell of his body, and the tension between male vitality and “controlled softness” Brooks had noted in 1968 was being tendered. He had returned to the family he kept fleeing as a teenager and, bewilderingly, given all that he had been and done, was reconciled with Elizabeth McKim, whom he addresses in “O Elizabeth”: “I thank thee, goode Giver, / for the gift of Time and Tenderness.” Rather than another resurrection, redemption, sort of. While Knight’s movement was confined and he was often in the grip of physical pain, some of these poems reflect a mind and spirit free, leaving us to consider how the news he delivered has, sadly, stayed news and, at the same time, how a life might be resurrected in a book of durable poems that had made it out of prison.


“Chance Dancer” and “The Dance” read the titles of the last two poems in The Lost Etheridge, both part of a collaboration he worked on with Elizabeth McKim. This is not the bravado of a man driven by the fear of death, but a poet who is an African-American man living in the light of Death. He’s here in these stanzas of “Poetfolio”:


Come! Bring breath, body . . .

On Blue mountain, trees, lakes,—sing!

I dance, day and night.


O Br’er bo’ weevils!

Way ’way from Mex’co—eat—eat!

Boss be mad; me,—I’m glad.


And “Continuation Blues,” another late poem, is suffused with karumi, the late aesthetic Bashō, who also lived by poeting, developed after his health began to fail. Here is the entire poem because you have to see it to hear it.


Well I / woke / up this morning—

Lord, and I don’t know south from north,

Lying here looking / out / my window, Lord—

And I don’t know south from north—

Just watching the Fall wind blowing

The dead leaves back and forth.


There’s a little red red robin

Singing in a cedar tree—

There’s a brave lil robin

Singing just as pretty as can be.

Lord—that damn / fool / robin’s

Gotta be as confused as me.


The Lost Etheridge serves to shine a little light on a poet who had his finger on the pulse and the know-how to lay it down on the page; buy it, and undertake a search of your own to find him.


* NOTE: The poems with links to printed or audio versions used in the body of this review were published in The Essential Etheridge Knight (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986).


 

Debra Kang Dean is a Vietnam-era veteran. Her late husband Bradley P. Dean, a Vietnam-era veteran and independent scholar, was court martialed during his stint in the Navy; while in the brig, he read Henry David Thoreau and, if she has the details of the story right (though it may have been after he was released), was also poring over the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Totem: America, her third full-length collection of poetry, was shortlisted for the Indiana Authors Award in Poetry in 2020. Her poems recently appeared in They Rise Like a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets and The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit. The launch for Chiburu: Anthology of Hawai’i Okinawan Literature took place in March 2023 at the Hawai’i Okinawa Center, where her immigrant maternal grandfather’s sanshin resides. She joined the poetry faculty at Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing in 2003.

Σχόλια


bottom of page