Essex Hemphill is a homosexual black man who died of AIDS related complications. That is the quick version of what mattered about his poem (not the one that follows actually) when I assigned it in a course for 18-19 years olds, lots of alpha males in one of the sections and all largely traditional and underexposed despite what some of their outfit choices and zip codes suggested. Were I to let you imagine how that lesson went I doubt your imagination would take you any further than what happened in real life. But I knew what I was doing when I assigned the poem; did it on purpose: Hemphill is not graphic but he’s not apologetic either; where metaphors can be a mask rather than a vessel, he takes them as the latter.
Without question, Hemphill’s from that school of “message” poets so prevalent in contemporary poetry. I often wonder what it says about our society that so much of the poetry since 1960 has such direct, even bold, leanings toward social themes and issues. Or maybe I’m just such a poor student of pre-modern (is that even a school of thought?) poetry that I missed its social themes.
Anyway, back to Hemphill: metaphors as vessel not mask. That’s what’s up.
Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995)
There will always be nuisance.
or I could let myself be captured
by the magic flute of satyrs
who would gently lure me to entrapment
to drink my blood
for one more day of life.
If in my substance
it could be conveyed
how little I give a damn about tomorrow,
the length of my trousers,
the circumcision I didn’t agree to,
the daily shave, the score, the mythology.
Would they be shocked to discover
contempt clinging to my cells like algae.
Nuisance: dying to assuage insanity.
Religious fervour. Moral pandemonium.
The unexpected lurks near the hours
you thought private.
What will you accept
in exchange for your silence?
What life do you want
for one more day?
If it’s a better vision
let’s die here, a soldier’s death,
the death of tulips — and spring.
If blood and flesh will win us
a new world that is not a token
or a statue covered in pigeon shit.