Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005 ($14.00 U.S.A.) (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Afaa Michael Weaver Reviewed by Pam Rosenblatt

The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005 ($14.00 U.S.A.) (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Afaa Michael Weaver

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Afaa Michael Weaver’s The Plum Flower Dancer, has recently been published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Not only is the cover an artistic pearl, the poetry inside of this 123 page book is just as beautiful, or enthralling. Like his eight previously published books, The Plum Flower Dance proves Weaver the consummate poet.

Through syntax that is structured but with an open form that is sometimes very experimental, Weaver’s poetry reflects his different writing phases from 1985 to 2005.

He writes in a style that is diverse and borrows upon the various forms of African-American poetry: Folk Secular, Spirituals, Literary Poetry, Harlem Renaissance, and The Nineteen Sixties. Weaver understands the history of the African American, using the word “black” instead of African-American to convey a proud and beautiful heritage. And he seems to be striving to establish a new voice, his own individual, human voice. Weaver has created poems with a common language, everyday happenings that are communicated to the reader through the power of the word.

Like such African-American poets as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and
Robert Hayden, Weaver had to make choices in his writing – whether he wanted to be
a “silent” man who adapts to current day expectations or a poet who expresses his sentiments. He chose a mixture. And he didn’t want to be, as many African-American male poets before him, simply reflecting a group. Weaver seems to have created The Plum Flower Dance to “explore the quality of being human.” Through a fine and well crafted book, Weaver has achieved his goal.

The Plum Flower Dance consists of five sections: gold (metal), water, wood, fire, and earth. Throughout the collection, Weaver writes about the African-American experience in the United States, including: history, oppression, freedom, religion, heredity, identity, jazz, blues, popular culture, and more. He uses the technical devices of imagery, description, economy of word, enjambment, juxtaposition, caesuras, and punctuation – sometimes lack of punctuation – to create respect for poetry,in general.

Since a lot of things are going on in The Plum Flower Dance, let’s just focus on the two simple yet loaded words “houses” and “ghosts” that Weaver uses in regards with his identity and ancestry in such poems as “An Improbable Mecca” (pp. 8 – 10), “Beginnings” (p. 19), and “Final Trains of August” (pp. 53 – 57).

Weaver starts the poem “An Improbable Mecca” with the confessional statement, “I am here in the house”. The reader wonders whose house is the speaker in, and he finds that out in the following line that reads, “of my childhood, my youth,/of the quiet whisperings/from walls that have watched/me lose my two front teeth/to a cousin slinging a baby doll,…” Here the speaker reveals himself in the first person pronoun “I” and speaks about his own home. As the poem is confessional, Weaver is most probably the speaker of this poem. Weaver writes “An Improbable Mecca” in such a manner that the reader feels as if the speaker is a friend.

And this friend, the speaker, is kind enough to let us into his world “where the whole of us learned/the premeditated Manhattan/and the snap and flare/of the bossa nova, the twist,/here in this house where quiet ruled like an avenging saint” The scene is clearly taking place in an American setting. And the fact that Weaver is writing about home is significant if the reader puts things into historical perspective, like so many African-American poets have done in their writings.

The African-American situation has changed over the past 250 or so years with people no longer being uprooted from their “houses” in Africa and then owning no “houses” while in slavery. Now, Weaver is saying he and his family are proud to have a “house” to call their own, “even when I rolled, drunk and dirty,/in the living room at seventeen,/home from college with hoodlum friends”.

This house isn’t ordinary to the speaker, who says:

This house opens its eyes,

reaches to me with hands held

together in silent prayer,

begging me to take every lesson

and go on with life peacefully,

out of its contemplation,

Through imagination and metaphor, Weaver has personified the speaker’s house. It’s
almost as if the “house” is human with “its eyes” and “hands held”. A lot about the speaker is revealed in this house. He is from a religious family that has been raised with “silent prayer” and wants to “go on with life peacefully”.

Weaver expresses his everyday observations as he remembers happenings in the house with precise detail. He writes about his “father’s pondering step,/coming home in the evenings,/in his brown, leather bomber jacket, ecclesiastical and provident, out of my mother’s discordant singing as she put yellow ribbons in my invalid grandmother’s hair, singing old spirituals removed from new hymn books, always/falling back to her favorite, ‘Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior’.” Because of the vivid imagery through prudent selection of words, the reader clearly sees that the speaker has fond memories of his childhood, and even of an ancestry he never met as suggested by the “singing old spirituals removed from new hymn books.”

The importance of time’s passing and death in the speaker’s life is revealed in
“An Improbable Mecca”, too, when he writes:

when I slide my hands down the walls

as I ease down the stairs of

this house where mother and grandmother

died, when the bones of this home

screamed until they were thin

as glass when I lost my mind.

This house throws back its head

And laughs in a resplendent roar

When I ask it to remember

The first poem I wrote at eight,

The Sears & Roebuck bicycle

With whitewalls and headlights,

The first girlfriend in the fourth grade,

The first wife at nineteen,

The lessons on ancestry from Grandma,

In these fifteen lines, Weaver has covered a lot of subject matter. He talks about
the architecture of the house when the speaker says, “…when I slide my hands down
the walls” and “as I ease down the stairs of this house”. The reader now knows the house as concrete, something solid, with “walls” and “stairs”. The speaker reveals the powerful effect of death and ancestry, or the ghosts of the past, that had a hold on him as he remembers, “this house where mother and grandmother/died, when the bones of this home/screamed until they were thin as glass when I lost my mind.” Weaver has captured a very sensitive and emotional time in the speaker’s world through the power of words.

The “house” is again personified and the speaker reveals he has had a pleasant series of memories as “This house throws back its head/And laughs in a resplendent roar/when I ask it to remember/the first poem I wrote at eight/the Sears & Roebuck bicycle/with whitewalls and headlights,” and his “first girlfriend in the fourth grade” and his “first wife at nineteen”. It is a list of “firsts” or things he had never experienced before; and then Weaver adds, “the lessons on ancestry from Grandma”, which is something that is probably difficult for the speaker at the age of eight to really comprehend as he never met his ancestors because they, like his mother and grandmother were dead, and in the past. But, Weaver writes this gently, like “the delicate cloth of talking/and sharing I built with my father”, a line which follows “the lessons on ancestry from Grandma”. The speaker is learning responsibility already at the age of eight.

The speaker has been given a structure, or a foundation, on which to grow. Weaver offers the reader the word “house” to create a support structure, or a foundation, on which the reader can build ideas and thoughts about what is beautiful about being human in life as well as poetry.

The next time Weaver mentions the “house” in this poem, he doesn’t personify it but he immortalizes it as the speaker says, “This house stands before me/and in my memory, a monument/perfectly aligned to the stars,/luminescent and sentient,…” The speaker loved the house so much that he brought the house, now “a monument” to the cosmos.

To the speaker, the “house” is a place of security, safety, identity, and history,

“ a life in and of itself and ourselves,/as patient and kind and suffering/as anyone could ever hope a house to be when chattering children/kick in its lap, men lie in it, trying to accommodate their future”, that is until “death comes lusting after it/with sledgehammers and stillness – “. The “house” is no longer personified or immortalized or even a structure as it has been taken down. And the poem concludes:

I come to the front steps

and sit as I did when I was a child

and hope that I can hold to this

through life’s celebrations and calamities,

until I go shooting back

into the darkness of my origin

in some invisible speck

in an indeterminable brick

of this house, this remembering.

“Beginnings” and “The Final Trains of August” are two more “house” poems
written by Weaver. Both these poems show Weaver’s imagination at its height. In “Beginnings”, the speaker starts off with a simple and ordinary line, “The house on Bentalou Street/ had a cemetery behind it…” By the third line of the poem, Weaver lets the reader know this is no ordinary cemetery. This cemetery is special because it’s “where the white hands of ghosts/rose like mist when God/tapped it with his silver cane.” Here Weaver reminds the speaker of past ancestry and identity. He is having fun with words.

Through vivid imagery, Weaver has developed his imagination and takes the reader on a journey where “giant cedar trees/out front [of the house]…snapped when/we hit them from the porch,/jumping like big squirrels from the stone ledge.” The “giant cedar trees” or the whites, are angry, and the speaker and his family are fighting back, though they are only “big squirrels” that jump “from the stone ledge.”

Weaver develops the story further in the third stanza as he brings us inside the house like he did in “An Improbable Mecca”. This time this “house” isn’t filled with memories that are mostly pleasant; many are sad. This time the speaker refers to the “house” as “it” and doesn’t personify the place. Weaver makes “The house on Bentalou Street” very unusual, so different is it that “Inside it had no end;/the stairs led to God’s tongue/the basement was the warm door/to the labyrinth of the Earth.”

Here Weaver suggests the “house’ is like heaven and hell, and the speaker’s family “lived on the chest of a rising star.” Through vivid imagery, the reader can see the “star” as a person with its “chest” “rising”. The speaker and his family are headed towards the cosmos, then to heaven.

In the second to last stanza, the innocent tone of voice of the speaker changes. The speaker tells the reader now he is getting angry, so angry that “And on one still day,/ I hammered a boy until/he bled and ran/the blood/like red licorice on my small hand.” Like his ancestors before him, the speaker has begun to pick up on oppression,indicated by the “giant trees/out front [that] snapped”. The speaker is growing up and his “world became many houses,/ all of them under siege.” He is beginning to understand the history of African Americans.

In “The Final Trains of August”, Weaver doesn’t mention anything about being “black” or “white” but has written a poem that really “suspends" the idea of the [human] race.” At the end, he reminds the reader that the speaker is probably African-American because the poem concludes with Walter, “At the road’s edge, he lights a Marlboro,/blows the smoke ahead, walks into it,/ as he listens to the regrets of the dead.” Here Weaver seems to be reminding the reader of the importance of remembering ancestors, those who follow before us, which is a common theme in his book, and African-American literature as well.

Weaver’s “houses” and “ghosts” in The Plum Flower Dance are just a tip of the journey to deciphering his style of writing and the depth of his thought. To understand where he is coming from, it may be a good idea to pick up an anthology of black poets in the United States. The Plum Flower Dance is an aesthetically beautiful work of writing and shows Weaver to be a poet who stands on his own.

Highly Recommended.



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