Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems.
In Alvin Aubert's new collection, his second since his 1985 new and selected, South Louisiana, we meet the same wistful, playful man, in this book grown older, wiser, perhaps a bit sadder. Despite its unevenness the new book touches us with felt tenderness. Aubert begins with poems of self-declaration, moves through a wide range of interests and curiosities, and concludes with a cluster of poems which face age. The groups of poems which begin and end the book are its strongest; Aubert for the most part avoids the introspection they prove him capable of, choosing instead to skitter on the surface of too many poems. He is a gifted and often clever writer. One wishes him more of the courage borne witness to by such poems as "Dreamscape" and "A Cappella," "Marbles" and "A Minute Anatomy of Nostalgia."
Aubert is near his best, however, in poems like "And Once More For Etheridge," an homage to the shooting star of Etheridge Knight's career. He captures the pain of Etheridge's life, his absolute dedication to the vocation of poetry despite its cost, and he invents to describe him a git-down praise-song passage which Etheridge would have loved:
... your full-blown
time defying shit defining neo-blues
crying ultra signifying self.
Etheridge would have slapped his knee at that. This fine poem sees Etheridge as the embodiment of the heroes he created, as "at times outshining titanic shine." It is true that Etheridge stood "forever up to [his] neck / in this perilous flood," cursed by alcohol, drugs, and despair. It is also true that
... like ravaged orpheus
you went on singing kept the night bells
ringing with nothing but the buoyant words
tumbling out of your earthy throat
keeping your severed head afloat.
The associative range of this poem demonstrates Aubert's own range, from Aframerican street oratory to Greek mythology. And how subtly Aubert twists the knife of irony, opening the poem with the survivor's admiration for the martyrdom of one braver and more deeply wounded than himself: "man how we envied you."
The buoyant power of this and other strong poems cannot, however, raise a book so heavily weighted. In "Ever Since" Aubert rationalizes his not making a donation to National Public Radio; in "Surrogation," a poet sleeping alone masturbates on a pad of paper--a poem inspired, one hopes, by Derrida. In "Rosary," a man sentenced unjustly to life imprisonment knots together a rosary from pieces of string given him by his jailer; the rosary becomes an object of two hopes: one, the solace of prayer; the other, the escape of suicide. It's a very nice parable. But the prisoner gets the germ of the idea
when he came upon the passage in one
of the german poet rilke's letters
touching on the french painter cezanne
Hello? He's reading Rilke's letters? Is it fruitless to speculate on how long an ordinary man sentenced justly or unjustly to life in prison would have to be in prison before he picked up and actually read Rilke's letters? One year? Five years? Ten? Would he just happen to find a volume of them in the prison library? Rilke? Rilke's letters? I don't think so. I think this is the retired professor of English confusing himself with the character of his poem. The Rilke passage he quotes--the knot in the rosary at which / his life recites a prayer--is lovely, and the rosary of rope which might, for one pressed, double as a noose is a wonderful discovery. But the poem, which seems to want to be a parable, is betrayed by the vehicle Aubert has chosen.
But there are many pleasures in this book. "Dreamscore," for instance. In this long, unpunctuated poem Aubert dreams he introduces himself on a city bus to a rough gang of teenaged girls as "Chubby," because in "one of my sudden rushes of heightened humanity i get the urge to be included." He dreams he's lying, and that the girls know it: "... the littlest of the three girls sitting across from me says you don't look like no chubby to me you ain't got enough fat on you to fry a gnat's egg." As the girls laugh at him, he remembers his real nickname, and its history:
... my nickname's not chubby but tubby short for tub boy which my uncle
jake started calling me on account of the way they said i liked playing
around in those old fashioned galvanized wash tubs we used to bathe in
out in the country down in louisiana where i grew up.
The memory leads him to re-experience the sound of the tub's rattling handles: "a / tambourine gone wild in the wind." Now, there's a fine line. One of the teenagers wakes him from this dream-within-a-dream by reading his mind. Referring to his reverie of his game of shaking the tub from side to side, she observes that "you don't look like no damn shaker to me either." And with that, he wakes up. What a delightful poem!
"A Cappella" is another delight, another long, unpunctuated sentence. It seems a shame to subject to analysis the many pleasures offered in the poem. There's something absolutely magical about it. At first making us recognize the folk traditions which hold that the seventh son of a seventh son has special power (I believe Malcolm X was a seventh son of a seventh son) and that a single surviving twin carries a special gift, Aubert spins out for us a fascinating genealogy which ends with his blood relationship to "Fats" Domino as well as the origin of Domino's name:
whose father made the long trek
from british nova scotia to the swamplands
of south louisiana as the boy
who was to become the common law cajun
spouse of an afro-native american woman
named marie last name domio which
my cousin the rhythm & blues man
altered to domino for the stage
Thus, in his poem of serf-definition Aubert describes the complexities of Aframerican and American identity. We know ourselves through our personal histories, and our histories do not begin with our birth. Aubert's poem begins with the assertion that "i know who i am." The page-long sentence in which he recites his place in his family proves him right. In an apparent reply to those who might question his sense of serf, as a man, as a black man, as an American, Aubert responds, "and i am not supposed to know / who i am? i know exactly who i am." How lucky are those black families that have passed on the gift of history. And what a pleasure it is to read this poem.
Several poems in the book give similar pleasures. But beyond pleasure, "A Secular Prayer" offers deeper introspection, a sharing of pain and doubt. Here Aubert confesses to "the loneliness" most often hidden behind smiles and pleasantries, the hope against hope of one who searches, yet believes:
... I listen
for your call yet stand as one doomed
to everlasting faithlessness, resolved
that the summons will never come
that nowhere in your world is there voice
enough for any call i am likely to hear.
Don't we all listen for that huge call, unmindful of the many small voices with which God calls us by name? Yet Aubert turns the poem around in the end, no longer awaiting God's call, but instead fashioning in his poems "my humble pipe of reed" with which to seek words worthy of being addressed to God:
... you who in the words
of your poet paul claudel "speak to us with
the very words that we address to you,"
to what disturbance of nature, storm
or roaring conflagration, should i turn
for the right words for you?
This is a thoughtful and a wise poem, not at all content with the easy path. In it Aubert wrestles not with straw men (as he does in the title poem), but with the question of meaning. In this poem and the other strongest poems in the collection, he opens for us the heart of a black man secure in his self-worth, generous in his sympathies, and honest in his confrontation with aging and death. The best poems of Harlem Wrestler touch us with their intimacy.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
|Previous Article:||Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.|
|Next Article:||Wounded in the House of a Friend.|