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The Poetics of Conjecture
Countee Cullen's Subversive Exemplarity
Countee Cullen's "For a Lovely Lady" appeared in his debut volume Color in 1925. It appears to be minor, but this appearance should not prevent a thorough analysis of such a key poem. Such an analysis will demonstrate its significance as a means of appreciating the subversive quality of Cullen's poetics. Like the often anthologized "For a Poet," which has been the subject of an extended reading by Amitai Avi-Ram, "For a Lovely Lady" appears in a section of Color entitled "Epitaphs." As is true for all of the short poems in this section, death is a primary theme. In contrast to the way in which Cullen's treatment of death has often been seen as effete, affected pessimism, 1 this article will demonstrate that Cullen's figurative associations of death with sexuality and sexual identities prove to be significant and complex metaphors. Invoking the overdetermined association of sex with death and at the same time forging within that conceit a markedly more exacting elaboration of queer politics, Cullen's poetics performs a brilliant folding of straight and queer readings within each other. This poetics acutely addresses the socialization of same-sex desire, specifically located in early 1920s Harlem.
With the exception of Jean Wagner's remarkable analysis of Cullen in his 1962 Black Poets of the United States (though the argument regrettably construes homosexuality as a pathology), Avi-Ram's essay was the first work to discuss the ways in which same-sex desire substantially informs Cullen's poetics. In the later essay, "The Unreadable Black Body: 'Conventional' Poetic Form in the Harlem Renaissance," Avi-Ram argues that the "box of gold" in "For a Poet" is a figure both for an actual coffin, and, more obliquely, for "that closet into which the poet's gay sexual identity, both in the public eye and in so many poems is placed" (42). The "box of gold" also stands for the poetic form itself (in this case a sonnet), which is at the same time self-evidently conventional and implicitly sensuous. As Avi-Ram points out, Cullen's manipulation of form and use of verse repetition "threatens to obscure the sense" (40) so as to obfuscate the representation of the poet's body within the poem, employing form both as a decoy and the site where the speaker's body experiences and is experienced. 2 This keen attention to form enables Avi-Ram's Derridean reading in which "the poem's attempt at translation of the untranslatable [is] itself an experience in the failure of all codes to read the meanings and values of their own bodies" (34). In this way, "For a Poet" both implies a body for homoerotic experience, and makes the meanings of that [End Page 1250] body indeterminate. "For a Lovely Lady," on the other hand, does not, finally, manipulate formal closings to prevent the body's being read; nor does it involve the problem of an absent body, as might be strictly said of "For a Poet." Instead, it is the presence of the body, presented within the conventions of the ballad form, that creates tension in the poem. Here is the poem in its entirety:
For a Lovely Lady
A creature slender as a reed,
And sad-eyed as a doe
Lies here (but take my word for it,
And do not pry below).
The first movement of the poem involves a substitution of the first verse for the poem's title, whereby the gendered "lovely lady" of the title is refigured as a "creature slender as a reed." A familiar technique of amatory verse, this slippage seems to be a recognizable and conventional strategy: as the apostrophe to the woman negotiates the female body, it substitutes for that body abstracted figures of the poet's invention. 3
But an historicization of Cullen's poem demonstrates that this mystificatory anamorphosis may merely be the effect of a particular (though culturally dominant) mode of reading. Rather than...