James Baldwin, poet? But of course.
[This story has been corrected. See bottom of post for details.]
National Poetry Month is almost over, but we’d be remiss to overlook “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” by James Baldwin (Beacon: 94 pp., $16 paper), which collects all 25 poems the essayist and novelist published before his death in 1987 at age 63. If you didn’t know Baldwin was a poet, you’re not alone — although it makes sense because his prose was always visionary and poetic, built on a torrent, a flow of words.
“When we reentered the streets,” he writes at the pivotal moment of his essay “Notes of a Native Son,” “something happened to me which had the force of an optical illusion, or a nightmare. The streets were very crowded and I was facing north. People were moving in every direction but it seemed to me, in that instant, that all of the people I could see, and many more than that, were moving toward me, against me, and that everyone was white. I remember how their faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut.”
We can debate the blurry borderlines of genre forever, but there’s no denying that such a passage is, in every way that matters, poetry. A similar charge runs through the finest efforts in “Jimmy’s Blues” — especially “Staggerlee wonders,” the long poem that opens the collection with a meditation on race.
“I would like to believe you,” Baldwin writes, addressing those who claim solidarity, “[b]ut we are not talking about belief.” Rather, we are at the point where “History must change.”
“Staggerlee wonders” was written in the early 1980s; like many of these poems, it was published in a first edition of “Jimmy’s Blues” in 1983. In its drive, its movement (not to mention its invocation of that legendary blues archetype Stagger Lee), it attempts to reckon with discrimination in America, much as Baldwin did throughout his work.
“During this long travail,” he writes, “our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened, / and we tried to make you hear life in our song / but now it matters not at all to me / whether you know what I am talking about — or not.”
And yet, there is also personal writing here, such as “Inventory/On Being 52,” which traces the author’s shortcomings in middle age (“My progress report / concerning my journey to the place of wisdom / is discouraging,” he informs us), or the exquisite brief poem “Amen,” which begins: “No, I don’t feel death coming. / I feel death going: / having thrown up his hands, / for the moment.”
Here, we see what makes Baldwin so vivid, what National Book Award winner Nikky Finney calls in her introduction to the collection his “prophetic understanding, harmony and swing.”
Finney continues: “I believe he wrote poetry throughout his life because poetry brought him back to the music, back to the rain. The looking close. The understanding and presence of the oil on top of the water. Compression. Precision. The metaphor. The riff and shout. The figurative. The high notes. The blues. The reds. The whites. This soaking up. That treble clef.”
This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.
Or, as he writes in one of his late poems, left untitled: “Lord, / when you send the rain, / think about it, please, / a little? // Do / not get carried away / by the sound of falling water, / the marvelous light / on the falling water. // I / am beneath that water. / It falls with great force / and the light // Blinds / me to the light.”
[For the Record: 11:24 a.m., Apr. 22: An earlier version of this post misspelled Nikky Finney’s name. It has been corrected.]
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