- Figure of the Father
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
Wesleyan University Press
80 Pages; Print, $24.95
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’s fourth book of poetry solidifies her status as a narrative and lyric poet indebted to the post-Harlem Renaissance modern black women writer traditions inaugurated by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and others. Dedicated to one of those pioneers, Lucille Clifton, The Glory Gets is a stark, often raw, tribute to the tribulations and trials of black women and men. Befitting her selective heritage, Jeffers’s poetics steer close to the straight and narrow. As she announces in the very first poem, “Singing Counter,” she might well “desire the surprise of intellectual / fractured lyrics,” but, in truth, she is all about “refusing refusals.” The urgency implied by the foregoing is doubtless related to Jeffers’s sense that the stories that must be told, however having been told, demand the clarity of narrative and lyric forms. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, forms derived from traditional English prosody. Although the book jacket and press release identify Jeffers as a writer of “blues poetry,” these poems, though bluesy in tone, are more like gospel and spiritual shout-outs to the too-long line of lynched, shot, abused and otherwise murdered black women and men. Yet, were one to examine these poems from cover to cover, one would notice a common concern linking almost them: the figure of the father.
A woman of faith, Jeffers worries the line between faith and fed-up-ness, best represented by the five Magdalene poems that comprise the section titled “Blues.” Jeffers eschews the ambiguity associated with the relationship between Magdalene and Jesus (sisterly, motherly and/or womanly) until the last poem in the series: “Were you God? / Were you Son? / Were you my lover // with eyes turned away?” The implicit theme of the father as competitor and source of life can be found in her secular and religious poems, starting with the very first poem in the book. Based on a real-life lynching, “Singing Counter” paints a picture of a member in the crowd, a white Christian father with his white son who, “baby to heir” “will grow // remember his father’s / beauty, the godly meat in his chest.” This is juxtaposed to thwarted fatherhood: “A liquid-filled jar / of sex in a general store: before that day, its name was Hayes,” though it’s possible that Hayes, who committed the capital crime of “calling to her,” will live on in what will be his only child, for “Mary answered, her hand resting on her belly.” And in the two poems (“Apologia For Something” and “My Father As Walter Lee Younger”) about her father, the Black Arts Movement poet Lance Jeffers, Jeffers conflates her father with and as God the Father, ventriloquizing through several male figures from the Old Testament: “Here I am: my father, my master / who wears the long pants. / I am his little ant. / He is the giant—// please, do remember that.” And the figure of the father takes yet another twist as literary predecessor in the last poem in the book. In the best traditions of what used to be called “capping,” Jeffers, in “If Free, Then,” hits up Raymond Patterson who, in his “Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Blackman,” had doubled up Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Whereas Patterson jumpstarted the implicit, if repressed, racialism in Stevens’s original, Jeffers adds to Patterson’s version sex and gender:
Birdy decides to loveherself and talkabout it in public.Birdy is called angry.Birdy is called ungrateful.Birdy is called object.Birdy and Zorabecome best friends.
Birdy Blackis a woman.Now add to that,Birdy Black isa black woman.Now see her.What does that equal?
Although Jeffers endorses the implicit didacticism of the blues lyric from start to finish, she is a lover of rhyme, assonance and alliteration, those durable tools of the trade. I mean, it’s one thing to name a section of your book “fear” and name one...