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  • Mary Turner’s Blues
  • Julie Buckner Armstrong (bio)

What drove Ralph Kabnis into the cellar?

On thin emotional ground, Jean Toomer’s beleaguered schoolteacher visits the home of Fred Halsey, where Halsey’s friend Layman recalls local acts of racial violence. It is Sunday. The spirit-packed sounds of a church service punctuate Layman’s storytelling; a shouting sister’s “high-pitched and hysterical” voice grows “perfectly attuned to the nervous key of Kabnis.” The mood outside shifts when Layman reaches the story’s tragic denouement, the lynching of Mame Lamkins. As the choir begins an old spiritual, even the wind itself seems to hum the blues. Layman recalls, in a soft-spoken voice:

She was in th family-way, Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein th risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an th kid fell out. It was living; but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it an stuck it t a tree. An then they all went away.


When Layman is done, the sister gives out another, frantic shriek: “Jesus, Jesus, I’ve found Jesus. O Lord, glory t God, one mo sinner is acomin home.” Her cry echoes Kabnis’s own reaction (“Christ no!”) and accompanies the crash of rock breaking the window. Kabnis is certain that a note attached to the rock, warning “the northern nigger” to go home (92), is meant for him and that he will be the next lynching victim. He flees from the room, with the rest of “Kabnis” charting an existential and artistic breakdown in its title character so complete that his recovery remains uncertain, despite the tender ministrations of a different sister, Carrie K.

Questions of healing and closure remain particularly significant to “Kabnis,” the troubling but explosive final section of Cane (1923). Both the story and the book end on a note of hope, deploying images of rebirth to compensate for the horrific deaths of Mame Lamkins and her fetus: “Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. . . . Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town” (117). The musical accompaniment here is more Easter hymn than mournful blues, suggesting redemption for the tortured souls who populate Cane’s pages. That redemption gets undercut, however, by the book’s last view of Kabnis, stumbling over a bucket of dead coals that he jerks from the floor and carries, Sisyphus-like, up the stairs to Halsey’s workshop. Does Cane offer closure or even coherence? Many readers have asked this of Toomer’s hauntingly beautiful modernist experiment in style, form, and subject matter. Is it more hopeful or skeptical, as others have debated, more aesthetic or socially engaged?1 Cane continues to prompt such questions because of its stark juxtapositions: dead coals against sunrise, brutal violence against lyrical language, and different genres (poems, sketches, stories, and closet dramas) assembled in bold, new ways. Even the book’s graphics call attention to its fragmentary nature: visuals of arcs that never meet as complete circles divide its three sections. Rather than thinking in terms of resolutions, which Cane defies, literary scholars might approach the text by doing what we do best: minding the gaps, or paying more attention to the fragments, fractures, and other places that seem to demand it most. What can we learn from a bucket of dead coals tripping up the final story’s main character? From a rock crashing through a window? Or from the [End Page 207] piercing shriek that accompanies Mame Lamkins’s story? If the sister’s cry marks the spot where Kabnis the character (and perhaps “Kabnis” the text) begins to spiral downward, then readers should listen closely to what she wants us to hear. Although her voice is “almost perfectly attuned” to Kabnis’s nervous key, the narrative disruption she generates provides a counter-melody that harmonizes with a very different song.

One might call that song “Mary Turner...


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pp. 207-220
Launched on MUSE
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