Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Poet in Pursuit of Freedom: a Review
of The Sparrow’s Plight: Woes of a 21st Century Black Poet

By Rudolph Lewis

In Terry a. O’Neal’s “The Sparrow’s Plight: Woes of a 21st Century Black Poet” one discovers a master poet well-aware of poetic traditions of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. As she makes notes, for example, in her poem “a matter of kindness,”

 “i’m a poet—yes / molded by all time / 20th century greats / Hughes, Brooks, Rodgers, an’ such / not to mention / i’m a mother, a wife, a teacher / among other things.”

It’s more, however, than her historic awareness that will enthrall the reader, but it’s also the unique angle—the anguish of the poet alone, the freedom sought in the midst of suffering, betrayal, and frustration—that intrigues and will cause one to read this volume, again and again. Her deft approach— in rendering beauty and tragedy in the relationships of lovers, of parents and children, and all that what we owe to each other but fail to appreciate—captures our imagination.

One aspect of a mature poet is the achievement of voice. It can be quarrelsome and cantankerous like a mockingbird, or dissonant and dark like a crow. Ms. O’Neal chose, however, among the feathery crew the sparrow. Maybe the tiny melodious and seemingly insignificant sparrow is indeed an appropriate metaphor for her poetic ecstatic voice. Or maybe the poet has in mind as well the well-known song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which views this bird as important enough to gain the attention of the divinity because it is essentially “free” and “happy.” The sparrow learns songs from other birds and puts its own stamp on these songs of joy. In her “voice in poetry,” O’Neal sets herself apart from the performance poets and the “hip hop per/former” who go for “dramatics,” appealing primarily to the emotions. O’Neal, not inappropriately, views herself in contrast as “a classical note / accompanied by rhythmic percussion / in harmony with poetic jazz / arousing the consciousness.”

But, as we can glean from the title of this volume of poems, the poet’s appreciation of joy and beauty in life is also grounded in the harsh and troubled realities wherever black life appears, either in the Americas or Africa. O’Neal confronts her audience with just this point in “a poem”: people do not want in poems “sadness and grief,” a “wo/mans / tales of woe.” They prefer rather “what’s lovely, what gleams . . . ophelia roses that bloom / a soft pink hue in spring / . . . printed ivory sheets / of hushed rhyme / line upon line.” This most serious and committed poet reminds us in her “thief of eternity” that “keeper of our fate / time— / it can be merciless.” In a great sense, her poems, though governed by time past, is about now in its harshest realities. In “slave rituals unbroken,” the poet conjures up a past that is still with us, a past of betrayal and setbacks—“the relentless cycle of (d) words: / discord/disunity/demise.” The ancestors are relentless in reminding us where we come from and where we are: “the echo of a voice from way back speaks / wisdom peeks through time / striking chords of past suffering, great struggle and / triumph . . .”

O’Neal, in a maternal guise, has fears for young black men “full of rebellion / and ripening before . . . time.” Maybe as mother she sees danger for her own son, as in the poem “awakenings”: “thinking he’s grown / without a whiff / of the troubles / that accompany / a black man.” Then there is the distance between parent and child, he in Galveston, an island once used as a slave port or market, where Jim Bowie bought and Jean LaFitte sold enslaved Africans. The poet writes, “my soul lay south, where / fragments of a young boy subsist / motionless, longing / to escape / life’s sad realities.” The themes of loss—of love, of opportunity—and betrayal run throughout this volume of poems. O’Neal writes, “shaken / is my spirit set adrift / through the gulf / where ferryboats float off / to Galveston.” The “sands of time” is a most beautiful poem so much so I’m pressed to share its ending:

a decade now past, yet
unbroken remains my affection
the memories
left unfinished escort me
over waterways, through bayous and
we meet face-to-face
an unlike place
no longer the “little black child” but
a young man
passed through the sands
of time

There’s also the rupture between daughter and father, for whatever the reason the sociologist may delineate or whatever the explanation the psychologist might provide of its effects. Clearly, there is fury that bursts forth if only in words as O’Neal writes in “Says a fatherless child to her father”: “no voice / telling me I have a choice / not to settle / for a no-good dead-beat cheat / too lazy to lift his feet / get a job—be a man / not raise his hand / to a woman.” The abandoned child hurt lugs “a case / of inherited traits / stubbornness and pride / waiting to see / who will set aside one / for the greater good of two.” Abandoned, the “fatherless” child is left “in solitude” with “time and its merciless ways,” which whittles away at the self, replacing it with a false self of “half mooned smiles” attracting “passersby” while “her eyes told / half truths.”

In her poem “and i shall proclaim,” a homage to poet Carolyn M. Rodgers of whom I will have more to say), O’Neal draws a portrait of the social world of the black community, of the relationships among black men and women. There are too many black women unable to fulfill their womanhood because of an absent black man. Why? The reality is that “half lie shackled and bound / while the other quarter / head for the border / leaning on roadblocks / of tired stereotypes . . . twenty-five percent / free-for-all to contend.” The poet proclaims in refrain ““there is a shortage of brothas in the world.” What does a “sista” do to escape the illusions? There’s an irreconcilable uncertainty: “my sista has stumbled upon / an ethical dilemma and a choice / to live out her fantasy / of being caressed and loved.” In a manner the disruptive situation is emblematic of an undeclared race war, she suggests in these lines: “it’s a merciless world and / that border line was crossed / back in Brownsville / long ago.”

The Brownsville, Texas Incident of 1906, only a decade or so within the era of Jim Crow, concluded with the injustice of 167 black soldiers dishonorably discharged by President Theodore Roosevelt for a crime in which none of them committed. It was just one among many and continuous example of black collective punishment. These soldiers were never sufficiently repaired though the truth of the frame up has been repeatedly revealed. The source of the tragic relationships of black men and women, O’Neal suggests by her Brownsville allusion, is not fully an internal cause brought on entirely by something lacking in the character of black men. Dishonor of black men and black life by unjust incarceration, police brutality, racial discrimination, and the steady diet of inferiority propaganda must be considered and deconstructed. Of course, there is always the needed struggle we all must engage for there is always the existential choice not to give in to stereotypes and the ubiquitous impact of racial oppression.

Neither Gil Scott-Heron nor Richard Wright could have written as poetically with such depth and beauty as Terry a O’Neal does with regard to two recent issues, namely, the tragedies of Fukishima and African child soldiers. I can imagine some poet might have been quite graphic when it comes to the inhuman wreckage caused by the tsunami and earthquake in northern Japan and the meltdown of six nuclear reactors. But in the nine-line poem “disaster zone,” O’Neal captures the horror in words of wondrous awe:

i won’t watch the news
because it’s gloomy
like the sky
after the quake that shook Japan
leaving her spirit broken and bruised
ten thousand misplaced amid devastation
and bodies washed ashore
like seashells at low tide
after a storm

The same kind of photographic coupling of horror and beauty is also achieved in O’Neal’s anti-war poem “plight of Africa’s child.” There are the lines “on the outskirts of Luanda / sit abandoned tanks / where small children play / clueless to if / they’ll see another day.” And then, the images of death and dying are rendered exquisitely, “digging their own shallow grave / fearless fighter / young soldier at the age of seven / trails of smoke / be your stairway to heaven.” Here in both passages is imagism and passion rendered unparalleled in a call for peace and creative engagement.

I conclude this critique and admiration of Terry O’Neal by a return to her portraits of the poet, which can be found in numerous poems in this volume. Among these is “dead at 69. born again,” dedicated to Carolyn M. Rodgers (1940-2010), the Chicago-based poet a founder of Third World Press as well as the Black Arts Movement. Rodgers, especially in her "How I got ovah," says O’Neal, wrote “about how living while black / and a woman /wasn’t easy and / how loving a world / with her in it / was hard / and her fondness of the black man / was even harder and / how she gave her life / for mere words / to seek undefined meaning / of soul existence / in an attempt / to inspire those willing to listen.” In short, O’Neal contends the poet must be the “revolutionist” who sacrifices for the good of the many, of the larger ideals of community.

In “life, liberty and a pursuit…so to speak,” O’Neal suggests that there’s a larger community that confines the poem within narrow borders of “sensory” and “political correct/ness” and “judgment.” The poet must be bold and courageous despite these societal chains. The poet must be ““free to live / to dream, to love / to write.” But poetry is also a means to pursue freedom in space and spiritually, to “tread barefoot along the bridge / above the Rhine, shaking hands / with kindred spirits.” Intimacy can also inhibit and thwart the poetic process, as she notes in the short poem “1/15/11”: “and it seemed to ease him / her love, her restraint, her presence / her life was no longer her own.” She laments, in “if—a crooked word,” about the uncertainty, the loss of love: “if I / travel across the world / passing out my love / on ivory paper / to men, women, children / will he wait for me . . . knowing / that tomorrow / may never come?”

This despair over aloneness—the fate of the poet or any arist—appears also in the poem “montage,” in which she imaginatively tries to recapture the wild vigor and beauty of youth. She’d like “to ignite this glimmer of light / towards a burning flame / once again?” And in “the closet,” where the writer is at work with “only my typewriter, book light / and me / between four walls / and a door—shelter / from the storm.” This withdrawal for the creative process destroys or undermines intimacy. O’Neal contrasts wonderfully the inner emotions of loneliness and fury with an imagined outer world of “simple pleasures of life, I dream of / bare feet chasing butterflies / whirlwind of autumn leaves / dance in the breeze / settling in summer’s song.” In a poem written “1/21/11,” she “dreamt of sitting on the dock / barefoot / with my pen and pad by candlelight / writing my final words—my last / i love you’s to the world.”

I exit my introductory enthusiasm for Terry a. O’Neal with her poem “the nearest exit.” It is a poem about death and anonymity, in short, the poet’s fear of failure. There is the haunting refrain, “who will dare to notice? / who will even care?” But in this moment, this whirl of fears, “a twisted web / against the winter dusk,” the poet recovers “still / the circle of life / pushes on.” Ms. O’Neal, as she continues her committed work, will indeed be assured again and again by many— beyond family, friends, and lovers—that what she leaves behind with this volume and others that her sacrifices will not have been in vain. The larger community of poetry lovers will indeed discover that she has indeed done well and will be rewarded for her toils and for her pursuit of spiritual freedom in this world.

The Sparrow's Plight: Woes of a 21st Century Black Poet
By Terry A. O'Neal

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