Aug. 2, 2005
Poem: "Reunion" by Amber Coverdale Sumrall, from Litany of Wings. © Many Names Press. Reprinted with permission.
In your old pickup we drive the length of the island looking for
blackberries and trails that lead to the lighthouse, tell stories
about our six cats, the ones we divided when I left. I took your
favorites, the ones that were mine before we met. Your fifth
marriage is faltering. I am falling in love for the third time since
we separated. All you want to do is fish in your father's rowboat,
build a small cabin on five acres of land. Beyond right now,
I don't know what I want. Somewhere on Orcas another woman
dreams of you, waits for you to enter her life.
We smoke from your well-seasoned pipe, nervous as new
lovers. Those last months I refused to get high with you; we
always fought afterward. I remember why I loved you and why,
after ten years, I left. The reasons blend together, rise with the
smoke and dissipate. You ask me to tell you why, once again.
Each time the story is different, a work in progress. Days pass
in one afternoon. Is there still a chance, you ask.
We smile at one another, our defenses down. No one knows
us better. At the trailhead you pick purple flowers, hand
them to me, suddenly shy. I trip over exposed roots as we walk,
instinctively take your outstretched hand then let it go. In the
lagoon a pair of herons dance for one another, lowering their
long necks in courtship. Hidden behind boulders, we watch in
silence until the birds lift and disappear beyond the lighthouse.
There is always a chance, I say.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of James Baldwin, born in Harlem in New York City (1924), the oldest in the family of nine children. He was often put in charge of his younger siblings. He spent much of his childhood with a baby in one hand and a book in the other. He never knew his biological father. When he was three, his mother met a preacher from New Orleans. And when he was 14, young James Baldwin followed in his stepfather's footsteps. He became a Holy Roller preacher in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. He enjoyed the power that he had as a teenage preacher. He was accepted into a prestigious, mostly white high school, and there he fell more in love with books and also learned something about racism.
He decided that he had to get away from his family and become a writer. He said, "I would turn into a writer before my mother died and before the children were all put in jailor became junkies or whores. I had to leave Harlem. I had to leave because I understood very well ... that I would never be able to fit in anywhere unless I jumped. I knew I had to jump then."
So he moved to Greenwich Village. He was a dishwasher. He was a waiter. He had a little bit of success, and used what money he had to buy a ticket to Paris. He arrived with $50 in his pocket, sold his clothes and his typewriter to survive. He was thrown into a French prison. And then a friend set him up in a cottage in the countryside. He started writing in isolation, and he finished his novel in a few months. Go Tell It on the Mountain came out in 1953. It was about a young preacher, based on Baldwin's stepfather. It was a big success, and it was the beginning of his career.
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