Now that I’ve finished it, I hope I am able to remember Jean Toomer’s novel, Cane. It has been this way for a great many years. The books I read have a way of passing through me. I retain impressions and moods, and lose most of the details. But the deep, dark poem that is Cane, the story of it, the play, is mood, is impression, is nightmare, stirring and frightening as only history and prophecy can be. In this writing, there is no simple progression, no comforting if A, then B. Toomer’s literary math is more subtle and profound, and dangerous, too, like fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is music beyond melody, hearing beyond sound, vision beyond sight. What is the book about? Ultimately, I would say, America’s inevitable, inescapable inheritance. Cane is sweet. It rots your teeth.
I also finished the second and final volume of The Life of Langston Hughes, which, in many ways, is a modern retelling of Cane. But this story has a great and gracious hero who suffers willingly for his art and for the common good. He dies for it, too. This is also America’s inheritance. As such, millions remain incognizant, ungrateful, or both. Their lives have been changed nonetheless. We hear it said that art and poetry cannot change the world. But they are needed even to imagine a world without them.
October 22, 2020
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Categories: New Poems & Pieces