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Poet's Choice

By Rita Dove
Sunday, February 27, 2000; Page X12

Helene Johnson (1907-1995) was one of the youngest of the poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of black expression in music, art and literature that accompanied the influx of black Americans who left the rural South in favor of jobs and opportunity in the cities of the North. She was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston and a cousin to the novelist Dorothy West. Helene Johnson proved herself a lyricist of utmost delicacy yet steely precision; restraint attends her every meditation on love, race and loss. In the following poem, what's not said is what compels us; the silence of the tomb is deafening. The story has already happened, the tragedy survived; we discover the details only though implication as the speaker's instructions to us:


Let me be buried in the rain

In a deep, dripping wood,

Under the warm wet breast of Earth

Where once a gnarled tree stood.

And paint a picture on my tomb

With dirt and a piece of bough

Of a girl and a boy beneath a round, ripe moon

Eating of love with an eager spoon

And vowing an eager vow.

And do not keep my plot mowed smooth

And clean as a spinster's bed,

But let the weed, the flower, the tree,

Riotous, rampant, wild and free,

Grow high above my head.

Although we recognize that something tragic has happened to make the speaker desire such a burial (the woods dripping with rain, the gnarled tree), we can't know for sure the nature of the tragedy until we are told to draw a tableau of perfect love ("eating of love with an eager spoon" -- what a vibrant image of puppy love!) using "dirt and a piece of bough" . . . hardly a cheerful choice of artistic media. Love is lost and our speaker devastated, struggling to maintain a veneer of decorum while her emotions rage inside. And yet one senses that the spirit of this woman is not easily subdued; for she rejects the conventional well-kept grave (as well as, one could extrapolate, the well-kept life) and asks that the vegetation be allowed to grow unchecked -- "riotous, rampant, wild and free." Helene Johnson was hardly a blushing flower.

(Reprinted by permission of the Univ. of Massachusetts Press from "This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance," edited by Verner D. Mitchell. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2000.)

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