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No More Ghettos: On The Death Of James A. Emanuel, Poet

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In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.

Photo by Godelieve Simons

Photo by Godelieve Simons

The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.

Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, James Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate and individuated for each human being, as opposed to merely having some personal ax to grind.

Perhaps the best way to show just what I mean is to look at Emanuel’s art, itself. Take, for instance, the following poem. It is not only one of the greatest sonnets ever written, but also encapsulates both his mission, as well as — alas! — the mission all writers of consequence ought to have, if they could only get themselves the hell out of the way:

Sonnet For A Writer

Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art’s control.
To stray across my own mind’s half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame’s recline.

Could anyone reading this poem guess Emanuel’s race? More importantly, why would anyone want to? What kind of contemptible, self-limiting mind would — when faced with the above — do little but immediately force the thing into a style or tradition, capsule, or expectation, when the poem’s accomplishment is so universal, and will remain so, centuries on, when blackness is a mere curio (if, in fact, it’s still around), a kind of quaint reminder? At that point, our socio-political struggles will mean so little, and only those that have extrapolated themselves into something bigger will subsist. Yet the feelings expressed, here, will remain regardless, infecting artists that, too, wish to do exactly what the poem espouses: to “exce[l] mimcry,” re-create “a fragment of our common self,” and not be content with what’s been done, but try to better the example for the sake of — well, the species, I guess, if it’s to ever truly grow out of its shell.

There are many such moments in Emanuel’s work. Consider the simplicity of the following poem, which is belied by the unexpected word choice, near the end, and child-like feel:

I Wish I Had A Red Balloon

I wish I had a red balloon
Clinging to my wall
Filled with spouting, boyish breath
Tied up when I was small.

I wish I had that happy breath
That laughed at every sky
Still rolling in a red balloon
That quivers near my eye.

This is eight short lines, yet they are eight lines that leave you with something utterly laden with images and their implications. Emanuel does not diddle around here: the balloon is “clinging” (a startling, original verb to use with a balloon), implying the groping of or desire for childhood; breath is “spouting,” indicating energy and vigor. Then, the attention suddenly turns on the breath, itself, with a penultimate line that is satisfying in its duplicity: is it the breath that’s “still rolling in a red balloon,” or is it the sky, itself — its symbolic essence? The final line simply devastates, as it brings the reader way into adulthood, all the while implying that childhood is not so far away, even as it’s something that must be captured in the imagination or the periphery, now. In short, every line has immanent function, and not a moment is wasted. Flip through pretty much any contemporary poetry journal, and try to find a poem — or anything, really — that can distill its purpose so well, touching on nostalgia without getting maudlin, and actually have something to say, to boot, instead of merely pretending to communicate.

Two fine poems, thus far, and both are quite different in scope and effect. Yet, perhaps it’s all a bit too familiar, in a sense. Rhyme, meter, clear emotional bursts — aren’t these mere trinkets of the Romantics, which ought to have been buried two centuries ago?  This, of course, is not a legitimate complaint. Good art can come from any style, genre, or time period. The only denominator is its execution. The above two poems communicate something deep, and do it well. But, let’s pretend this gripe, in some alternate universe, holds water. What now? It is simple, really. Emanuel has got you, still. Here is free-verse, rhyming only in the margins, and emptying on to the modern palate, as good, as memorable as any free-verse, from any pen or modality before or after it:

To Kill A Morning Spider

Like a thick black pencil-mark
whipped suddenly across the pinewood floor,
his blot at the bed corner
leaped to my tightening shoe,
swelled into an eight-legged coil,
oozing fur, it seemed,
angering to be recognized
as spider.

He quivered once, in a paroxysm
seized his stomach, gripped something there.
A tiny thing hopped from him, whirling
just as my foot, clutching at itself,
smashed his eight legs.
The wheeling little thing, in pausing,
killed itself:
my shoe, an engine on its own,
crushed what was there.

Such is surprise, is destiny:
a spider in disguise,
an insect fleeing,
and we watchers from our sleep awaking
to close their being.

Notice how the poem begins with a seemingly banal event: the spotting (and recognition) of a spider, followed by its death. It’s commonplace, in that pretty much everyone has experienced this very same thing, yet even the first two stanzas are ingeniously constructed: the spider is a “thick black pencil-mark/ whipped,” “angering” that it’s “recognized as spider”; the speaker’s foot “clutch[es] at itself,” and the shoe becomes “an engine on its own.” The description, itself, lifts the poem into excellence. Yet it’s really the final stanza that changes the nature of the poem, and really lets it thrive. Suddenly, there is a twist to deep, philosophical territory, with the wonderful phrasing (“and we watchers from our sleep awaking”) calling forth human beings as some vague, mysterious agents that spiders cannot understand, paralleling, in a way, people’s own thoughts about the same: those forces that bring us into the world, then sap us out again, and how little we know of the in-between, and their etiology.

So far, then, we’ve had three poems: a heavy, very much Classical take on the craft of writing, itself, as well as a kind of distorted nostalgia that tricks the reader into thinking the poem might go one direction, then goes subtly elsewhere with only the barest sprucing. Then, there was the free-verse, the most “naked” of the three, to the un-tutored eye, yet probably the best, most surprising, and most subtle of them all. Now, that is a lot, and not everyone, of course, is willing to think or do much hard work at all. How about a poem, then, of no tricks whatsoever? No linguistic virtuoso? No grand imagery, nor edifice immemorial? How about good ol’ plain apparel, full on the feelings and sentiments expressed a million times before, by a million people, yet done so simply, now — and so damn well — that the thing feels altogether new? Ask on, for Emanuel had such trappings, too:

Wishes, For Alix

Always searching,
may you find;
if you run-down,
may you wind;
every year
may you grow
reaping only
what you sow
sowing only in the seed
what will ripen into need
what will sweeten to the touch
seeming little, being much.

May your playmates be a song,
may your friends just skip along
laughing you into their game
letting you remain the same
in their hearts and on their lips
even when their fingertips
have to let you go your way —
glad they saw Alix today.

Notice how the poem takes a series of simple and even expected words and either gives their natural (yet rarely voiced) analogues, or adds a word or two that alters the meaning: run-down/wind, reaping only, the conflation of friends with songs, friends that “laugh” a child into their play. The final line can be immediately apprehended, even as it telescopes “out” from all the imagery, so that the reader simply sees the boy, and the smiles on the kids’ faces while Alix fades out. No, it is not as deep as some of the other poems I mention, but it’s as perfect as a “birthday poem” as one can get, yet still avoids the saccharine and the expected.

Of course, James Emanuel was a black poet, and it’s only natural that his racial concerns would make their way into his art, even if they were not central to it. The issue is never what a poet does or does not discuss, but how. Practically anything can be worthy of discussion, but discussing it well, and being able to extrapolate it into the world, at large, is quite rare. Most, for example, have heard of the story of Emmett Till, a boy who was killed for possibly flirting with a white woman, then thrown into a river with a gin mill tied around his neck. Such a grisly image is overripe for melodrama and banal musings on the “evils” of racism, as if such a thing ought to be espoused to any intelligent reader, anyway. James Emanuel’s solution, then, was to not discuss race directly, but merely refer to it in the poem’s title, and turn the violent encounter into something quite child-like and sinister, something that, decades later, could still make people cringe by doing little more than “warping” the event by — ironically — highlighting its very facts:

Emmett Till

I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Little Emmett
Won’t be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
Edging through
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
River Boy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
Necklaced in
A coral toy.

Then, there are more straight-forward political poems, such as this one on Malcolm X, ending with a wonderful inversion which turns Malcolm into one’s “native land,” a metaphor that sticks in the mind long after the poem’s imagery boils away:

For Malcolm, U.S.A

Thin, black javelin
Flying low,
Heads up!
Hear Malcolm go!

Cheekless tiger
On the prowl
Hear Malcolm growl.

Lighting, lighting
Shot the sky,
Did Malcolm die?

Brother, brother
Hold my hand.
Malcolm was
My native land.

Given its year of publication (1968), it would have been all too easy to wallow in the emotions such an event naturally calls up. Yet simply leaving the thought — the posit — to crystallize at the very end, and briefly making such a grand conflation, then, is so much richer (and eviscerating) than drawing things out beyond the point they’re artistically welcome.

Yet, two weeks after James Emanuel’s passing, there is barely a mention of his life, anywhere, except on Cosmoetica, some other site or two, and a small obituary in the New York Times. I wonder: where is black academia at this moment, to give their laurels to a dead man, now safe as ash, and thus open to the love and approbation they deemed he was unworthy of when living? For can someone tell me what differentiates James Emanuel from all these celebrity “poets” (black and not), artificially selected by forces no one understands, to be the antennae of the human race? Is it sheer luck? Perhaps, for a few days ago, Alice Munro — a middling prosist, to put it gently — won the Nobel, along with the million-plus dollars the award comes with to further fund her projects. By contrast, Emanuel earned a funeral, and his Collected Poems is still out of print and inaccessible to most. One communicates. The other — well, the other runs. Yet the latter is unbecoming of an artist, as Emanuel argues here:

A Poet Does Not Choose To Run

A poet does not choose to run.
His prior nomination
Cannot be undone,
Unwound around the middle
Of his evening self,
His riddle.

What day is this?
He does not count your way,
Hold to your artifice
Of dates and computed men.
He sits uncalendered,
Puzzled thin.

A poet is not yours.
Locked out, locked in,
He opens doors
But cannot stay
To speak for long
Or sit at bay

Unless — and this is strange —
He sits in silence,
His pledge to rearrange
The clues of some wild track,
Trail it lonely out,
And lone come back.

Perhaps, then, the poet is alone, after all. Confucius wrote that to see excellence — to watch it grow and deepen everything it touches — yet be unable to lift it into high office is mere “destiny.” This was true 2,500 years ago, and it is still true today. James Emanuel is not an exception. He is merely one of the many casualties.

Yesterday, I had a little time to stop in front of the statue again. I was in the midst of a puzzling query, one that has nicked at me to no end. Do I do what’s right, to be the man I know myself to be, if only I’d let him loose, or do I bludgeon him with covers, adumbrations? And my ills at work: do they have an end, or is man, essentially, a beast of burden, with only the nature of the burden changing hands, from place to place, and time to time? I noticed I was not even as angry as I would have been, five years ago, in hearing of Emanuel’s death, and the lack of public comment. Have I lost something here? Or am I merely getting older, and growing into reality?

The specifics of what my own questions were are irrelevant, and seem paltry to me, now. Typical mid-20s angst, I guess. Looking around, however, I was, again, completely alone, and Confucius seemed to be looking down on only me. Well, I thought to myself; the Chinese, they’ve been beat-up, ghettoized by Confucius until he is mere identity, to them, a name only, and just as so many Chinese never leave the Bowery, for the Bowery has everything, even fewer could “really” let the man in, given how saturated they are with his example. Yet one has to be careful, very careful, to recognize things for what they are, and not let familiarity (or unfamiliarity) discolor what is, in fact, truly there. People have been ghettoized too long. A lot of this is not their fault. And a lot of it is. It is welcomed. It is easy. Yet a few, like James Emanuel, have said No. Will poets, in the future, say the word more firmly? Will the world, then, continue to progress? I’ll wager Yes, and quickly, at that. But, what of James Emanuel, then, and others of his kind, who had come first? What happens when the record finally breaks? Perhaps the poet had an answer for this, too:

After The Record Is Broken

My mind slips back to lesser men,
Their how, their when.
Champions then:
Big Stilley, with his bandaged hands,
Broke through the Sidney line, the stands
Hysterical, profuse the rival bands.
Poor Ackerman, his spikes undone,
His strap awry, gave way to none,
Not even pride. The mile he won.

Now higher, faster, farther. Stars crossed
Recede, and legends twinkle out, far lost,
Far discus-spun and javelin-tossed,
Nor raise again that pull and sweat,
That dig and burn, that crouch-get-set
Aglimmer in old trophies yet.
Now smoother, softer, trimmed for speed,
The champion seems a better breed,
His victory a showroom deed.

Oh, what have we to do with men
Like champions, but cry again
How high, how fast, how far? What then?
Remember men when records fall.
Unclap your hands, draw close your shawl:
The lesser men have done it all.


The Dan Schneider Interview 5: James A Emanuel

The Not So Strange Emanuel Case

Review Of Whole Grain (Collected Poems)

New York Times Obituary

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About Alex Sheremet

I'm a poet, critic, and novelist living in NYC, and the author of "Woody Allen: Reel To Real." You can contact me at my arts website.
  • Godelieve Simons

    Good morming MrAlex Sheremet,
    In this artikel about James Emanuel, you use a photo and I’m the autor of this photo and I want just to ask you to put my name onder the photo: Godelieve Simons. In o otherway I thank you for this artikel about James.