I first encountered this poem by Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894 – March 30, 1967) when I was a teenager, in a Norton Anthology of North American Literature I had picked up somewhere, and which would become my primer for all the great literature of the past (from, at least, this side of the Atlantic. ) Because I was an avid reader and had developed a taste for poetry in Grade Eleven (it was Eliot who hooked me, with his “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas”–the perfect descriptor of the interior of any teenager) I knew many of the poets in the book, but not this one.
The dense and remarkably rich imagery in the poem not only moved me, but stayed with me, and I can see now some of my own poetry has been influenced by it. I would go to bed at night and read the poem again and again, thrilled with the way Toomer’s words painted rather than tinted, his visceral “dusky cane-lipped throngs” and cinematic “high priests, an ostrich and a ju-ju man.” Toomer was, like Langston Hughes, part of the Harlem renaissance, but unlike Hughes he seems to me now to belong to the over-all modernist tradition rather than any specific movement within it. Stylistically, he resembles Eliot, yet he was, by writing about slavery and other issues of the African American community, his own man, and poet. Toomer brought the issues to the poetry, and not the poetry to the issues. For this one poem alone I will remember him as an important poet not only in the 20th century canon but my own development as a reader and a writer. I add an audio reading of the poem just for fun’s sake.
Georgia Dusk by Jean Toomer
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbeque,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds.
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.
Their voices rise…the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain.
Their voices rise…the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars.
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Being dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.