Welcome to Plume Issue #116 —April: and, as you’ll be happy to find, forgoing my usual reminisces. Instead, struck as I was and am by our cover art this month, from Faith Ringgold, its formal composition and its subject’s unfortunate currency, I can think of nothing better than to offer the artist’s own words, which appear in the article below, from MoMa:
Recalling her motivation for making this work, Ringgold has explained, “I became fascinated with the ability of art to document the time, place, and cultural identity of the artist. How could I, as an African American woman artist, document what was happening around me?” Ringgold’s American People Series confronts race relations in the United States in the 1960s; this work, the mural-scale painting that concluded the series, evokes the riots that were then erupting around the country. On the canvas, blood spatters evenly across an interracial group of men, women, and children, suggesting that no one is free from this struggle. Their clothing—smart dresses and business attire—implies that a well-off professional class is being held accountable in this scene of violent chaos.
Ringgold has allied herself with a range of artists who took contemporary violence as their subject, from Jacob Lawrence to Pablo Picasso. In particular, Die’s scale, composition, and abstract background explicitly refer to Picasso’s Guernica: Ringgold studied that monumental 1937 depiction of the tragedies of war at MoMA when the painting was on long-term loan there from 1939 to 1981. Even as she was looking back, however, Ringgold was also looking ahead: “I was . . . terrified because I saw Die as a prophecy of our times.” The children grasping each other near the center of the painting give form to this fear of the future.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum
of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Yes, you see? Much better.
And now, to the ever-insightful Mr. Campana’s take(s) on James Baldwin’s untiled poem.
So much happening right now. A phrase like “enough is enough” saturates the air, hovering if often unspoken. It’s a sentiment about reaching limits, perhaps passing them. Frustration mounts, exasperation rules the day, and the phrase triggers, trips from the tongue. Idioms act like rituals of speech, working not just to say but to accomplish something. As if to say: this is the limit.” The accompanying gestures are many: quitting a job, exiting a room, exploding into speech, swinging into action. And then, so often, one realizes enough is not enough. Reality explodes all limits while imagination labors to keep up. Enough is enough collides with a time of more and more. I know why I keep quoting King Lear: “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” I keep hoping for limits, for a horizon that won’t recede as I approach.
This month I find myself turning to James Baldwin if not for hope, precisely, then at least for clarity. The entitled poem easily could be titled “Prayer” or even “Prayer for the Liminal ‘I’,” which its initial address makes clear. I’ve been interested, for some time, in the curse, sometimes called an “imprecation,” and so much so that I’ve probably been blinded to the virtues of the prayer, also known as a precation. Etymology teaches that “precation,” like the word prayer, comes from the Latin praecavere, which means to see and to take heed (cavere) in advance (prae). Prayers see trouble ahead, solicit protection or insight. Curses hone the pain of injury, seeking redress or revenge for what was either not seen in advance or not successfully warded against. Curses and prayers operate, also, on a spectrum of blame and praise, along with other poetic forms. Prayers try to create intimacy with beneficent powers beyond, while curses can create gruesome intimacies, not just with a revenging power but with the perpetrator of the harm.
It’s fascinating Baldwin’s brief, untitled lyric seeks protection not through the speaker’s gained insight but by instructing the creator he supplicates. The astonishing request? “Think about it, please, a little?” It may seem a querulous, small gesture, but the impact is tremendous, as is the case of the often-diminutive prayer. This creator is a figure with whom it may be easy to sympathize, one caught up in the wonder of creation. How easy to be enamored of “the sound of falling water, the marvelous light / on the falling water.” How easy not to see that there are limits to what people can bear despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Maybe this is how too often the lyric “I” works: imagination would crown itself creator, not supplicant or sufferer.
Nothing is more moving to me than the moment I hear: “I / am beneath that water.” The one and only “I” in the poem appears set off to the left as does “Blinds.” Some may be dazzled but others will drown. So it is now, a time when not all water and light feel marvelous. The poem asks for mindfulness, which, in these exasperating days, seems to be a great use for a prayer.
BY JAMES BALDWIN
when you send the rain
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.
You can find out more about the essential and inimitable James Baldwin here.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
As previously noted, our annual anthology, Plume Poetry 9, is at the publisher’s now. Again, we look for an April/May release date.
As promised last month, in support of the anthology, we are hosting, thanks to the good offices of The Writers Center, a number of interesting Zoom readings, each featuring two sets of “partners” from Plume Poetry 9, moderated by members of our crack Plume staff, Leeya Mehta, Amanda Newell, and Nancy Mitchell. (Not by me, you’ll be happy to learn.) Please consult the calendar at The Writers Center. All are scheduled for Saturdays, 5:00 – 6:00 PM.
April’s session will include Plume Poetry 9’s Featured Poet, Dianne Seuss, and James Allen Hall. Station to Station Plume at the Writer’s Center April 10, 5-6pm EST, RSVP required. Moderated by Nancy Mitchell, Associate Editor, Plume
Again, our cover art cover art this month is Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series # 20: Die (1967). For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here
Finally, some new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors – thank you to all, and to all our wishes for great, well-deserved success.