rev. of Folks Like Me by Sam Cornishby
Folks Like Me
Poems by Sam Cornish. Zoland Books, $12.95 cloth. Reviewed by Sven Birkerts.
Sam Cornish has written a book that subtly defies the norms. This is not a gathering of "poems," or a showcase for isolated tours de force, but rather an ambitious vocal collage in which each poem is a voice and a stance toward the world, with each voice then modifying or refuting the others. More ambitious still is the scope of the undertaking. The "folks like me" of the title are African Americans of all descriptions -- working people, entertainers, disaffected radicals, sober churchgoing folk -- and they step forth one after the other from the decades of our century to present their testimony. We hear the Depression-era sentiments of the unidentified speaker of the title poem: "In the unemployment line / with those early morning / economic blues / at home / on my feet the president / said the economy is doing fine / (guess it's just taking its time getting / down to folks
Cornish is, of course, playing off the old tune "Got Those Early Monday Morning Workin' Blues . . ." Then, on the very next page, in "What Can (Blind) Lemon Do?," he draws on the blues lexicon to celebrate Blind Lemon Jefferson, who: "cocky in his Stetson hat / said / (me & my guitar / makes ev'rything all / right) a fat man / picking / for my liquor / my women (fine meat shaking / on the bone) / on the sidewalks / my guitar and me."
But this is a sliver. The hundred-plus poems -- many short, most terse if not downright repressed in their diction -- finally give the reader the impression of a great force held strictly in abeyance. This is the other part of Cornish's defiance. He refuses the easy path, refuses to release his people into song. Their voices are, by and large, determinedly restrained. "Negro Communist," for instance, reads like this in its entirety: "When white / workers find / hotel rooms / the Negro worker / hits the street." End stop. You stand there with the telegram and search for subtext. If you are black, you know; if you are part of the white culture, the message may or may not dawn on you. After a hundred telegrams it does.
It is only when Cornish introduces the voice of John, identified in the Glossary as "Personal friend who lived in Baltimore, and reflected a common attitude toward the sit-ins and bus boycotts," that we get the rage we might have expected sooner: "Thinking with his M-1 (red meat / lives in this nigger / body) / instead of
the bar / the bottle / the hip / black world / or thinking / NAACP Negroes / this is me my gun" (from "Homegrown Nigger #1"). But rage is not the last word, either. After the poems of the Sixties and Seventies, which refer to the Black Panthers, the Move bombings, and such, Cornish concludes with quiet celebrations of James Baldwin and poet Robert Hayden. Hayden, it seems, did not lend his voice to the cause of those who cried "burn / baby burn," but as the last lines of the book affirm, "it is Hayden's star / burning / now." Cornish has compacted a world in these pages. Read slowly, give his people their elbow room, and let the undertones gather into music.
Sven Birkerts is the author of three books of essays, An Artificial Wilderness, The Electric Life,
and American Energies. He has edited a new anthology,
Literature: The Evolving Canon, which has just been published by Allyn and Bacon.