Sunday, October 13, 2013

ModPo 2013 #32 Caged Birds Sing: On Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel"

Image from littleblackbirddesignstudio.

Yet Do I Marvel

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,  
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare  
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.  
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune  
To catechism by a mind too strewn  
With petty cares to slightly understand  
What awful brain compels His awful hand.  
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:  
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Countee Cullen, “Yet Do I Marvel” from Color. Copyright 1925 by Harper & Brothers, NY. Renewed 1953 by Ida M. Cullen. Copyrights held by The Amistad Research Center, Tulane University. Administrated by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY. 

Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)


I liked this poem. First the speaker states he does not doubt that God is kind and good. And if God could stoop to the speaker's level or a lower level, at any rate (and did He stoop to quibble could tell why), he would explain His paradoxes and cruelties (even non-Christian ones like Sisyphus and Tantalus). He goes on to call God's brain and hand awful. This reminds me of William Blake's "The Tyger" ("What dread hand"  and "in what furnace was thy brain?").  And lastly, those two striking lines that finish his perfect Shakespearean sonnet: "Yet do I marvel at this curious thnig:/ To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"

There's a lot of pathos in it. If he were merely celebrating the black man as a poet, he would not have chosen the words "this curious thing." He talks of God's cruelty and it frames this thing that he marvels at. It is as if he were saying: what cruelty of God compelled Him to make something the wrong shape or size or color and then command it to perform or do some exalted thing like "sing."

I am particularly moved by the Harlem poets because I see in them a struggle that I see in myself: recognizing my color and ethnicity even as I have grown up with an English canon. I am of color. I'm yellow and brown (in a culture that's obsessed with turning white). And even if it were true that the world has gone color blind, there's no denying that there has been a history of politics that accompanies any talk of race and color.

I have questioned my own preference for English. In a poem that addresses my national hero, Jose Rizal, I have asked why we express ourselves in our colonizer's language.

A Filipino Writer of English Poems to a Filipino Writer of Spanish Poems

I think of the whiteness of snow
on a postcard from an immigrant aunt.
How sweet, how pure
and unreal like props
in a high-school play.
The closest I have seen of it is
crushed ice on halo-halo.
Why do I end up speaking
of white things?
I feel blond -
bleached and painted over.
But this is how I speak:
misted over with a foreign flavor
but in essence a native blend
of brown and yellow.
I think of how you must have
shivered in the European snow,
words warm in your heart.
I wonder if you dreamt
in Spanish.
Perhaps we dreamt
the same dream,
our incandescent souls
glowing beneath
the translucent veils
of tongues-to-suit-our-needs.
We were born in a land
of two seasons, not four,
unused to and awed by
words like:
autumn, winter, spring.
I think of snow and
how it melts into a
gray-tinged slush,
how these words of ours
will melt with the heat
of what we really mean.
But I think we wear
our costumes well.
If it is cold
we have to put
our coats on
but it will always be
with our skins
that we feel.


I appreciate Countee Cullen's poem and why he chose to write in a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. Why does a caged bird sing? Now that's another chapter altogether. Whether it is the form or even the language itself...there has always been a tradition of the colonizer and the colonized, of the slaver and the slave. We mustn't forget that these things have happened in history. And then we move on. 

No comments:

Search This Blog