Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gallery of Harlem Portraits by Melvin B Tolson

Gallery of Harlem Portraits
Melvin B Tolson
Edited with an afterword by Robert M. Farnsworth
University of Missouri Press
Columbia, MO 1979
Copyright © 1979 by The Curators of the University of Missouri
276 pages, softbound, no price given

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Melvin B. Tolson was an interesting man who was born in 1898 in Mississippi and died sixty-eight years later in Dallas, TX.   A black man, he was a poet first and other things second. He is the author of several poetry books, but his masterpiece is considered Gallery of Harlem Portraits.  Its more than two hundred pages of poetic portraits of those living in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, though by the titles (often the names of his subjects) one cannot tell if the people are real, or just the title is made up. Nonetheless it is a fascinating read of Harlem lives.

With language born of Langston Hughes, French surrealists, blues singers and the imaging of white poets, Tolson produces numerous memorable lines. Here is part of the poem Augustus Lence as an example.

When a man is down
He’s all alone.
When a man is down
He’s all alone,
Like a homeless dawg
Without A bone

Augustus sat on the stoop in the November night.
Oblong patterns of yellow radiance
Shaped themselves
Along the naked ugliness of tenements.

A block away,
A homing elevated train
Stabbed the Harlem night
With blades of light and sound.

When you’s got de blues
‘Tain’t no use to pray.
When you’s got de blues
‘Taint no use to pray.
Takes a brown-skin gal
To chase de blues away.

In the first stanza or two of every poem the reader is quick to understand where Tolson is headed.  In Duke Huggins we are treated to:

Duke Huggins was master of the Subway,
A gambling den housed in the sheltering shadows
Of a chambered basement on Upper Lenox Avenue.

He was a bronze colossus of a man
With restless gray eyes
Whose hollow chest was framed by enormous shoulders
Bowed from sitting over gaming tables
Through long, tightening hours.

Or there is the man of the cloth who Tolson describes:

The Reverend Isaiah Cloud preached a doctrine
That wormed its way under the skins of churchgoers.
Like an expert sharpshooter,
He hit tirelessly the bull’s-eye of their egotisms.

He never preached in pleasing generalities,
But discoursed on specific private sins and social corruptions
That left no hearer with that lofty hypocrisy
“I thank God that I am not like other men!”

Tolson’s Gallery of Harlem Portraits is interesting from a number of angles. First, the “bios” of the individuals. Second, the poetry. Third, from an historical view of the people who roamed and lived in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s and finally, for those interested black literature, blues poetry and some history when blacks were Negroes and life was different, this book is where to begin.

Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer, Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010)
Author,  Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies #7 and #8.
Publisher, Muddy River Books

1 comment:

  1. susan tepper7:26 AM

    This sampling by Tolson hit a chord in me. Thanks for bring this poet and his lyrical poems forward here.