The Big Hair Aesthetic

Kathleen Cleaver, 1968

Could’ve been my penchant for big hair and accessories made from natural materials.  I dunno.  But the Black Arts Movement’s aesthetic spoke to my poetics at just about the time I decided that defining it would be useful to my writing growth.  It seems restrictive that art should only exist to be admired; it should have some use to the world, at least to its audience.

Overtly political poetry, much of what the Black Arts Movement produced, sometimes gets a bad rap for its unapologetic emphasis on culling emotional response at the expense of craft.

In looking toward an aesthetic that employs both, I found Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, a collection of poems about the civil war in El Salvador between 1978 and 1980 which Forche witnessed while working there as a human rights activist.  (Oh, but she’s not Black).

The Memory of Elena
Carolyn Forché (1950 – )

We spend our morning
in the flower stalls counting
the dark tongues of bells
that hang from ropes waiting
for the silence of an hour.
We find a table, ask for paella,
cold soup and wine, where a calm
light trembles years behind us.

In Buenos Aires only three
years ago, it was the last time his hand
slipped into her dress, with pearls
cooling her throat and bells like
these, chipping at the night—

As she talks, the hollow
clopping of a horse, the sound
of bones touched together.
The paella comes, a bed of rice
and camarones, fingers and shells,
the lips of those whose lips
have been removed, mussels
the soft blue of a leg socket.

This is not paella, this is what
has become of those who remained
in Buenos Aires. This is the ring
of a rifle report on the stones,
her hand over her mouth,
her husband falling against her.

These are the flowers we bought
this morning, the dahlias tossed
on his grave and bells
waiting with their tongues cut out
for this particular silence.

1981

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