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Reading South: Poets mean & poems signify - a note on origins.

Sarah Webster Fabio published a considerable amount of her poetty in seven volumes under the collective title Rainbow Signs (1973), an autobiographical gesture of leaving evidence. A native of Tennessee, Fabio left rainbow signs of a moment in the history of African American poetry that will not be repeated, however much our current rap artists/ poets scratch, sample, and synthesize the DNA of their oral heritage. The poems printed in Rainbow Signs ought to be compared with Fabio's performances on the Folkways albums Boss Soul (1972) and Soul Ain't: Soul Is (1973). Clearly, much of Fabio's work was designed to be performed - not read in the absence of her voice - or at least r-ead with the assistance of the inner ear, as one must read Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters.

So, you read/listen to Fabio's poetry, trying to grasp the form "expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos" that another Black Southern poet early in this century asserted was necessary for "giving the fullest interpretation of [our] character and psychology" (Johnson 42). The sound and sense of American English revitalized are clues to what Fabio was doing in poetry.

In Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues, volume 1 of Rainbow Signs, Fabio provided two versions of "Of Puddles, Worms, Slimy Things (A Hoodoo Nature Poem)" on facing pages. Consider these opening stanzas:

Hv merci on d po wrm who dares go it alone

fr luv of d rest left b'hind'm

lest d moving shd b mistak'n

as d step brkng chains that bind'm; (version 1, iv)

Pity the poor worm who dares go it alone

for love of comarerie [sic] left behind

Lest this leave should be mistaken

as the first step to break the chains that bind. (version 2 [standard

translatior.], v)

The musicality and felt authenticity of the first version is superior to the second on aesthetic grounds. And then you ask, Is this really how Fabio meant for the poems to be read?

In her author's note, Fabio remarks that images can remain clear despite the language, but that "a rhetorical stance is far more than diction. Pity is a white stance while mercy is a Black one" (vi). Such attention to the racialized language that American English is, the heard difference between the semantics of orality and the restrictions of print, marks an acuity to which history has enabled some Black South poets to give priority. The casual (and wrongheaded) assumption that Black poetry is about "race" often precludes our giving sufficient attention to the language (signs) that may freely "racially" signify.

Fabio was aware of this danger, for she urged Black writers and rhetoricians" to enter a period of exploration and theorizing which w[ould] help free the language and liberate the thoughts of the Black subject people throughout the world" (vi). The two versions of "Of Puddles, Worms, Slimy Things" and the rest of Rainbow Signs signify wonderfully on their readers as racial subjects trying to grasp what Fabio meant and how Black South poems continue to mean.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., is Professor of English at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and coeditor with John Oliver Killens of Black Southern Voices (1992).
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Title Annotation:Section 3: Sayings, Sermons, Tall Tales, and Lies - Contemporary Black Poetry
Author:Ward, Jerry W., Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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