POEM OF THE DAY: HERITAGE BY COUNTEE CULLEN

POEM OF THE DAY: HERITAGE  BY COUNTEE CULLEN

HERITAGE

 

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

What is Africa to me?

 

So I lie, who all day long

Want no sound except the song

Sung by wild barbaric birds

Goading massive jungle herds,

Juggernauts of flesh that pass

Trampling tall defiant grass

Where young forest lovers lie,

Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear,

Though I cram against my ear

Both my thumbs, and keep them there,

Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,

Dear distress, and joy allied,

Is my somber flesh and skin,

With the dark blood dammed within

Like great pulsing tides of wine

That, I fear, must burst the fine

Channels of the chafing net

Where they surge and foam and fret.
 

Africa?A book one thumbs

Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats

Circling through the night, her cats

Crouching in the river reeds,

Stalking gentle flesh that feeds

By the river brink; no more

Does the bugle-throated roar

Cry that monarch claws have leapt

From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year

Doff the lovely coats you wear,

Seek no covert in your fear

Lest a mortal eye should see;

What’s your nakedness to me?

Here no leprous flowers rear

Fierce corollas in the air;

Here no bodies sleek and wet,

Dripping mingled rain and sweat,

Tread the savage measures of

Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year’s snow to me,

Last year’s anything?The tree

Budding yearly must forget

How its past arose or set­­

Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,

Even what shy bird with mute

Wonder at her travail there,

Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

What is Africa to me?

 

So I lie, who find no peace

Night or day, no slight release

From the unremittent beat

Made by cruel padded feet

Walking through my body’s street.
Up and down they go, and back,

Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite

Safely sleep from rain at night–

I can never rest at all

When the rain begins to fall;

Like a soul gone mad with pain

I must match its weird refrain;

Ever must I twist and squirm,

Writhing like a baited worm,

While its primal measures drip

Through my body, crying, “Strip!

Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”

In an old remembered way

Rain works on me night and day.
 

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods

Black men fashion out of rods,

Clay, and brittle bits of stone,

In a likeness like their own,

My conversion came high-priced;

I belong to Jesus Christ,

Preacher of humility;

Heathen gods are naught to me.
 

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

So I make an idle boast;

Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,

Lamb of God, although I speak

With my mouth thus, in my heart

Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar

Must my heart grow sick and falter,

Wishing He I served were black,

Thinking then it would not lack

Precedent of pain to guide it,

Let who would or might deride it;

Surely then this flesh would know

Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,

Daring even to give You

Dark despairing features where,

Crowned with dark rebellious hair,

Patience wavers just so much as

Mortal grief compels, while touches

Quick and hot, of anger, rise

To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need

Sometimes shapes a human creed.
 

All day long and all night through,

One thing only must I do:

Quench my pride and cool my blood,

Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set

Timber that I thought was wet

Burning like the dryest flax,

Melting like the merest wax,

Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head

In the least way realized

They and I are civilized.

 

BY COUNTEE CULLEN

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