Reading the poems of Everett Hoagland is akin to being in the presence of a great teacher. This is the teacher who, it seems, has read everything, has seen and heard everything, and who shares everything in such a way that the student never forgets. Indeed, there is a generosity and an integrity in these poems, a commitment to word and principle, characteristic of the best teachers. From them we learn history or politics, to be sure, but also how to think and feel and live in the world. This thirty-year compendium of poems from Everett Hoagland teaches and teaches.
The people crowding these poems might spring from a vast mural of African and African-American history. We see Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson; the last of the "Scottsboro Boys," falsely accused and imprisoned for rape, but still free of hate; Joann Little, a prison inmate who killed the white guard attempting to rape her; the Beat poet Bob Kaufman; jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, on the occasion of his death; Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela, who fell from grace in South Africa. Aside from the famous and the infamous, we also meet Nate Shaw, an unknown sharecropper who told his extraordinary life story in the book All God's Dangers; anonymous slaves and their descendants on Gorée Island; and the nameless victims of "King Leopold's Voice Box," a diabolical instrument used in the Belgian Congo to coerce Africans into speaking French.
The poet's own family ghosts stare at us from the vast mural too, like his great-grandfather, William David Holmes, a soldier in the Union Army, and extended family like his maternal grandmoher's ancient, ex-slave friend, miz greenwho knitted Hoagland's baby bonnet as a gift to his grandmother, and to his mother when she was pregnant with him during America's first year in World War Twowith her "shiny crinkled / black ribbon keloid scars right / up there to the neck where / master had whipped her sunday morning / on the way to church for burning / breakfast biscuits." The image, like the scars, is indelible.
Everett Hoagland speaks and sings for them all. He speaks and sings for the black man in the poem "Georgia on His Mind:"
His tongue is cotton;
his mind a cotton gin;
his life a mill wheel on
the river, oils the machine.
His soul is a boll weevil.
He is a poet of the defiant. But he is also a poet of the dejected, the despairing, the ones with boll weevil souls. Damaged people are always with us, and almost always invisible, but when the poet tells us that their souls are boll weevils, we suddenly see them, and cannot forget them. They have human faces though they may have larva-stage souls. Yet history affirms that those larvae-souls could escape the cropped bolls of slavery, sharecropping, jim crow, unemployment, or criminal injustice, to rise and fly through blues, like Ray Charles' "Georgia," to self-acceptance, to some kind of gritty, self-mocking reconciliation with black life's all too frequent unfair and oppressive circumstances.
Everett Hoagland is a poet who speaks and sings of the dust. He understands that, "We are dust...Its stuff will not / make good statues of your heroes. / Heroes are made of it...Explosives never destroy it. / It cannot be slung or thrown. / Primitive / but it can kill you." He searches for signs of humanity in the dust, driven by an acute sensitivity to human suffering and the struggle against it. He cannot stand at the edge of a lake without wondering "who walked in, fell in, jumped in, went / under to lake bed long ago."
The title of the collection, Here, is revealing. Everyone in these poems is here, with us, now. History is here; the ancestors are here, not in some vague abstract sense, but with immediate clarity, summoned by the poet. Their labors, their sacrifices, their languages and music, their legacy, still have real daily consequences for all of us.
When the poet Pablo Neruda died in September 1973, his funeral became the first demonstration against Chile's murderous military junta. Some mourners in the march cried out: "¡Compañero Pablo Neruda!" Others answered: "¡Presente!" Here. Those who cried out, and those who answered them, risked their lives to tell the world that a dead man was still alive. Neruda was and is here.
That is the same here of Everett Hoagland's poems. Angry, celebratory, incantatory, there is a presence in these poems that will not be denied. The poet is here, and he is a teacher. Learn from him.
Martín Espadas latest collection of poems is A Mayan
Astronomer in Hells Kitchen. His other books of poetry include Imagine the
Angels of Bread, which won the American Book Award; City of Coughing and Dead
Radiators; Rebellion is the Circle of a Lovers Hands, and Trumpets from the
Islands of Their Eviction. He has edited several anthologies including the now-classic
Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination. The recipient of numerous
other awards, he lives with family in western Massachusetts and is an Associate Professor
of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
PUB DATE: April, 2002
CATEGORY: Poetry / African American Studies
TRIM: 6 x 9
PRICE: $14.95/ Paperback Original