Issue 72 |
Spring 1997

Crossroads (Introduction)

The crossroads is a real place between imaginary places -- points of departure and arrival. It is also a place where negotiations and deals are made with higher powers. In the West African and Haitian traditions of Legba, it is a sanctified place of reflection (mirrors are used in symbolic travel). The crossroads is a junction between the individual and the world.

When I was asked to edit this issue of
Ploughshares, I did not have a thematic trope in mind. But halfway into the editing, after the wonderful stories and poems had begun to accumulate, a shaped presence began to jell within the collection. As if from some unknown station, the characters and narrators began to wander across varied psychological and emotional territories, and the shape of the crossroads imprinted itself on this issue of

Maybe this overall feeling also arose from the energy of
The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James pouring from the Sony speakers. James's "Standing at the Crossroads" conjured up Robert Johnson. Momentarily, as I sat in my Park Plaza apartment in St. Louis, reading and rereading the stories and poems, I glimpsed that legendary figure standing somewhere in the Mississippi Delta night, clutching his guitar, ready to make a Faustian deal with the devil. But, of course, it wasn't long before the Delta night became a countryside road somewhere in Haiti.

From the cult of Legba, my mind turned to the essence of the Cross. Since creative artists are indebted to the industry of symbolism and numinosity (concerned with how the object is a map for the internal terrain), at this juncture it became illuminating to embrace C. G. Jung: ". . . the imagination liberates itself from the concretism of the object and attempts to sketch the image of the invisible as something which stands behind the phenomenon. I am thinking here of the simplest basic form of the mandala, the circle, the quadrant or, as the case may be, the cross." As with most myths and legends, each is a composite of contradictions and oppositions. Example: Constantine's dream of the cross was probably prompted by how the streets of Rome were patterned; Robert Johnson's deal with the devil probably occurred beneath a full moon somewhere in San Antonio, Texas.

In this sense, many of the stories and poems in this issue seem to exist in two or more places simultaneously, and a narrator or speaker is forced to negotiate multiple worlds. There is an accrued bravery here. It is this cultural dualism, this ability to be two places at once, to be a shape-changer, that strengthens the creative quest. Thus, this collection has a fractured design. There's a jagged persistence that documents and duplicates the awkward reality of our contemporary lives and imaginations.

Many of us are still reeling from the death of Larry Levis. And since this issue of
Ploughshares encompasses numerous paths and diversions, it seems natural to dedicate it to the memory of this American poet who created bridges through his poetry. Throughout his several books Larry was not afraid to invite voices from all communities into his vision. His was a poetry of inclusion: he was not afraid of being in two or more places at once. We can be grateful that his poetry keeps a part of him here with us.

About the colorful, poignant cover: The joined hands of the "Three Great Freedom Fighters"seem to form a symbolic crossroads, a true image of the invisible. This trinity -- John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass -- creates a point of departure and arrival. Of course, the artist, William H. Johnson, seems to have been born at the crossroads in Florence, South Carolina. Here is a black man raised in the heart of Dixie, who ventures to New York City, to Provincetown, and then to Europe. He paints impressionistic pieces of Florence and Denmark, and then decides on portraying black Americans through a "semi-primitive" mode. The colors seem to convey a visual jazz that springs out of the 1920's into our lives today.