Last spring, as part of my volunteer stint with the Conference on Southern Literature, I got to play chauffeur to a couple of really great writers: Gerald Barrax and George Singleton. Naturally, I picked up some of their work, and both books have sat on the TBR shelves since then.
Barrax is a soft-spoken and thoughtful man. His poetry is equally thoughtful although not always soft-spoken. My job last spring was to take him to speak to a class of high school students, and his insights into poetry were excellent. He read from his work one of the poems in this collection, and though it is not my favorite, I can see why he might have chosen it. It is called "Special Bus," and it reflects upon his experience idling at a red light next to a bus of special needs children. Clearly, the poem is his way of working through the conflicting feelings many of us experience when faced with this kind of challenge. In the poem, he considers - and even names - his own children, born without disability, and he wonders "why I've been five times / blessed or missed by Chance / and others not" (6-8). In the end, though, the face of one of the children rebukes him for thanking God for his children's lack of disability because that thankfulness implies that those "others" would somehow do the opposite, cursing God for their challenges, for the children themselves. The poem makes a strong point, and I'm glad he shared it with the class. Again, I feel this poem is not his strongest, but he chose it for its accessibility and because the moment was clearly important to him.
As for what might be his strongest in the collection, I have several I did like very much. Barrax, a musician, writes of opera, instrument, and song often, and as a musician myself, there are many that resonate with me. He also writes often of love - emotional and physical, especially in the earlier poems - and it is these two together that make up "If She Sang" (120):
I would feel better if it were song I heard:
in the kitchen, amid the harvest of utensil noise
she sows around her like dragon's teeth;
or in the corner of our room
where she stitches quietly to herself, quietly
until she bursts into speech,
so far from both of us
that a third person is its only possible medium.
"What did you say?"
I sometimes challenge and retreat,
taking the risk of intrusion
because no alarm that brings someone who loves us
Yet I would feel better
if she sang.
I understand song and could enter
uninvited into its world;
but in her moments of self
and counterself is a dimension with room
for the two only, where even love
is suffered with the patience reserved for fools.
And one more, this time, about silence:
Your Eyes Have Their Silence (20)
Your eyes have their silence in giving words
back more beautifully than trees can rain
and give back in swaying the rain
that makes silence mutable and startles the nesting birds.
And so it rains. And I speak or not
as your eyes go from silence suddenly
at love to wonder (as those quiet birds suddenly
at rain) letting, finally, myself be taught
silence before your eyes conceding everything
spoken as experience, as love, as reason
enough not to speak of them, and my reason
crawls into the silence of your eyes. Spring
always promises something, sometimes only more
beauty: and so it rains. And I take
whatever promise there is in silence as you take
words as rain and give them back in silence before
there are ways to say that more beauty is nothing
for you before my hands can memorize
the beauty of your slender movements and nothing
is beautiful as words nesting in your eyes.
I chose these two about the relationship between a man and a woman, but there are many more in this fine collection, many that deal with social issues, especially regarding the African-American experience. There are poems about family, about yardwork, about the pleasures of hanging clothes on the line. There is a life's work in this collection, and I am glad to have read this life and met the man who has lived and will go on living this life.