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  • Five PoemsThe Gospel According to Toni Morrison
  • Stephanie Li (bio)

In 2002, Toni Morrison published a short collection of poetry entitled Five Poems. Printed by Peter Koch Printers, only four hundred and twenty five copies were issued by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, Nevada. The five free verse poems are extraordinary because they represent Morrison’s first and only foray into verse, and also because each poem is accompanied by a silhouette image by contemporary artist Kara Walker. Surprisingly, these poems have yet to receive any critical attention and have been omitted from Morrison bibliographies.1

Five Poems remains largely unknown because of the limited copies produced by Peter Koch Printers and because Rainmaker Editions disintegrated soon after the book was printed. Promotion for Five Poems has been limited to the websites of Peter Koch Printers and the Black Mountain Institute, which absorbed Rainmaker Editions in 2006. Five Poems also does not have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), an identification usually assigned to a text by the publisher, and therefore it does not appear in library catalogs, though a few universities and public collections have the book.2 Moreover, in the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetry.

The partnership between Morrison and Walker is both remarkable and unprecedented. Although Walker has cited Morrison as a key influence on her artistic development and critics have begun to analyze intersections in their work, Five Poems is the first demonstration of collaboration between two of the most important living African American artists.3 To learn more about the origin of this project, I contacted the printer Peter Koch who explained that initially Morrison was invited by Wole Soyinka on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript.4 Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collection. Concerned that the seventy-eight lines of the poems would be too short, Koch suggested including illustrations to supplement the text. He independently recommended contacting Walker, an artist whose work he believed would complement that of Morrison. The publishers at Rainmaker agreed to this arrangement and Walker was sent the poems. As Koch explains, Morrison and Walker never actually met to discuss their collaboration and did not have any contact regarding this project. It is important to note that Walker’s images were produced in response to the poems, and Morrison did not revise or respond formally to the accompanying illustrations. This fact informs my approach to Five Poems as I focus primarily on the poems and refer to the silhouettes only as they elucidate Morrison’s images and ideas. This essay does not attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis of Morrison and Walker’s collaboration, but rather seeks to relate the poems to Morrison’s previous works and to initiate a critical dialogue on a stunning project. [End Page 899]

Five Poems was published three years after the completion of Morrison’s trilogy of novels—comprised of Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1999)—and demonstrates continued engagement with the themes and ideas at the forefront of those texts: love, mortality, transgression, memory, and the complex relationship between women and desire.5 The poems are all quite short; the longest contains twenty lines and the shortest only nine. Most are written in free verse and use rhyme idiosyncratically. They employ a variety of perspectives including the first, second, and third person singular, and often the context of each poem is vague, removing them from specific social and historical settings. The poems do not directly reference one another; instead they draw upon a network of images explored throughout Morrison’s trilogy, linking scenes and ideas from the three novels in unexpected and elucidating ways. Although Beloved is not specifically mentioned in the poems, they are productively read as a development of Morrison’s initial representation of this enigmatic figure. While critics continue to argue about who she is and what she represents (is she a ghost? an escaped slave unrelated to Sethe? a figure of the Middle Passage? a symbol of slavery’s horrors?), the rampant and varied allusions to Beloved in...