Livesay’s “New Jersey: 1935?

I suspect my favorite part of the section entitled “Struggle: The Documentaries“ in Dorothy Livesay’s The Self Completing Tree is actually the introduction which she ends with this paragraph:

In defense of the poet as unacknowledged legislator, I like to quote an English poet of the thirties, C. Day Lewis:

“We make art of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,? Yeats has said, “but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.? … This conception … expresses the opposition between the divided selves of the poet; his poetic self and his human self, a conflict of which Yeats has always been acutely aware. Yeats’s own magnificent political poems … are sufficient proof that a deep feeling about political ideas and events is not necessarily synonymous with that “quarrel with others? which produces only rhetoric.

Deliberately then, I have chosen to reprint some poems that sprang out of these ironies and dichotomies; and some where hope flies free.

Many of the poems remind me of Archibald McLeish’s poems, though they don’t resonate with me quite as much as his did — and even his often times seem too didactic for my taste.

Still, I like “New Jersey: 1935?


In the landlady’s garden
we walked entwined in moonlight
Luella and I
tree and shadow of tree
linked white and black.
It was a time
before this present darkness
before flashes of violence
tore clouds with lighting crack —
but in the moonlight
we were visible
walking the landlady’s garden
we were seen entering her house
climbing upstairs for supper.
And when Luella had left
(at least she waited till I closed the door?
the landlady shoved her shoulder
into mine
and her frog eyes
into my face:
“Was that a coloured girl you dared to bring
into my home?
“Why, yes, a social worker,
we have jobs together in the Settlement House.?
“For that I could whack
the liver out of anyone. Don’t ever
let a nigger enter my door again.?
“Why no!— I never will—
not a white girl, either.?
And I went upstairs
to pack.
They say it’s the same thing, now
even in the North, the same
animal fear, frog eyes —
and in response
the same dark guttural laugh:
“You just don’t understand things, honey.?

And I guess I don’t understand
for I haven’t been back.

Luckily I was never faced with a similar situation, but I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing if I’d been confronted with the same situation.

I can still remember how angry I was when temporarily stationed in Alabama and the post was told that white and black officers should avoid being seen together downtown. My reaction was then the Army should damn well shut that post down rather than telling officers that they couldn’t fraternize with fellow officers off post.

Of course, it turned out that having been raised on the West Coast that I wasn’t aware of the prejudices that seemed to pervade other parts of the country. In Armor School I was criticized by a fellow officer for running around with a group of Jewish lawyers who had just graduated from New York City College.

I didn’t even know they were Jewish, much less that I shouldn’t be running around with them. I just looked blankly at the officer and continued running around with them until school was out.

My favorite part of the poem is Livesay’s apt reply to the landlady’s comment, “You just don’t understand things, honey.“ Brought up to believe everyone’s equal and a healthy skepticism towards those who feel better than others, not to mention an underlying suspicion that most rich people aren’t quite “equal,? I’m sure that I earned the scorn of some fellow Army officers, not to mention the scorn of some working folks who didn’t like my “liberal ways.?

4 thoughts on “Livesay’s “New Jersey: 1935?

  1. Loren: I doubt you would have let her finish the sentence before moving out. But in the case of those Jewish lawyers, you missed the point. It was LAWYERS they were warning you to avoid. Pretty sensible, I’d say.
    Sort of like not hanging out with Republicans.
    PS Why does text in this preview box look like a pile of alphabet soup?

  2. I have no idea why the preview has suddenly gone south, Mike. I understand how this blog works about as well as I understand why this computer works.

    I’ll have to ask Shelley why that’s happened recently,

  3. Damn, it’s the chicken part I forgot.

    Even my wand’s not in as a good a shape as it used to be.

    But thanks, Shelley.

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